April 28, 2022

Kindling a ‘Go Before You Know’ Mentality Across Northeast Iowa

group of people in a lecture
By: Sarah Williamson


When Northeast Iowa Community College offered its first Ice House courses in 2020, it ignited what one faculty member described as a “virtuous brush fire.”

People would hear about the Ice House program and want to get involved, explained Seth Gilbert, NICC Director of Organizational Development. That’s especially impressive considering that the college has 12 campuses and centers across eight counties covering 5,000 square miles of rural northeastern Iowa.

The college implemented the Ice House model because its leadership believed that having an entrepreneurial mindset could prepare students for all facets of today’s world, helping them overcome barriers and improve their lives in the process. 

Seth Gilbert was among the first NICC staff to attend facilitation training. He still remembers hearing Gary Schoeniger, CEO of the Entrepreneurial Learning Initiative, contrasting traditional entrepreneurship with its focus on business plans and financial backing and a “know before you go” mentality. The Ice House’s “redefinition” as the self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others also stood out to him. Gilbert recognized the benefits that NICC students would accrue. They have to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and started living out its “go before you know” approach. 

The Rising Tide

For Business Instructor Melissa Stewart, who has worked in the fields of mental health and criminology as well as business and human resources, the psychological theories within the Ice House model immediately caught her attention. “I loved that it talked about evolution, change, and progression,” she said. “We’re not in a static environment; you could actually say we are in a technology revolution. The lessons from Ice House allow students to conceptualize what change looks like and how to prepare for it.”

Students come to NICC for many reasons. Some students have faced challenges throughout their lives that they have overcome or are still overcoming. The Ice House curriculum has helped support their continued success as a student. Other students attend NICC as they identify the many resources the College is able to offer. These assist those with constraints of money, time, tools, people, etc. Students enrolled in Ice House courses are able to build on the lesson of identifying resources. They then use these resources effectively to overcome challenges and achieve success. 

Soon the “virtuous brush fire” caught the attention of the faculty. These faculty teach dual credit courses to high school students within the College’s substantial geographic footprint. Katie Gilbert, Dean of High School Partnerships, saw the curriculum kindle flames in those students as well. “During class visits, I have witnessed students who have not been engaged in course content suddenly become engaged when they find a project or business idea that aligns with something they are excited or passionate about,” she said. “The biggest benefit, simply, is that students are exposed to the mindset concept.”

Benefits Beyond Campus

“We’ve always presented the Ice House approach as a community-strengthening opportunity,” Seth Gilbert said. “If you can create more entrepreneurial-minded individuals, that rising tide lifts all boats.” The content is story-based and easily accessible to people from all walks of life. It resonates with students, faculty, and community business people who are racially and ethnically similar. However, they come from very different socioeconomic settings and have a variety of life experiences. “When we are able to share believable stories about what people have accomplished, that makes all the difference in the world,” he said. 

Melissa Stewart agreed. “Students relate to these stories about real-life people because these are their experiences, too,” she said. “I reinforce that, yes, it is real life, not just something from a textbook. And I know students talk about it in their network of family and friends.”

Thus the “virtuous brush fire” shows signs of continuing to spread. As NICC transitions to new leadership over the summer of 2022, this is one fire that no one’s in any rush to put out.