Coffee with Corey: Dedication to the Demonland

By Corey Poole

Northwestern State University has been a major part of Dr. Marcus Jones’ life since he was 17 years old. Named as its 20th president in 2021, Jones has maintained his loyalty for an institution that has given him so much.

“The university has been an integral part of my formation as a young adult, a man, and a professional administrator,” Jones shared. “I’ve gained so much information and grown so much because of this institution that I really can’t separate myself from it.”

Of course he’s held a few jobs outside the university between undergrad and coming back to teach, such as delivering beer kegs and preparing taxes. He graduated from law school in 1999 and came right back to Northwestern and he’s taught continuously at the university since then. The first classes Jones taught were economics and CIS 1800. It’s a small world in Natchitoches and Jones recalls Senator Louie Bernard’s son was one of his first students. Now he teaches business law, international research, public school law, and international business.

He’s currently teaching real estate this semester with seven students and he recently returned from a trip to Parish with students in the Presidential Leadership Program, a capstone leadership course at NSU.

It gets students to engage in meaningful international exchange in a short period of time in the hopes they’ll decide to do it longer. These trips have been made once per semester since 2014.

“My favorite part is reliving the places I’ve been through the eyes of students who have never been abroad,” Jones shared. “It’s totally different looking at the Eiffel Tower through the eyes of a student who never thought they’d leave Red River Parish.”

The question remains: How did Jones know he wanted to become a teacher? A high functioning introvert, Jones always found it easy to grasp concepts and so he ended up breaking problems down to his classmates.

“I’ve never stopped teaching,” said Jones. “I’ve always wanted to maintain that connection. Watching the light come on for students is heartwarming.”

Rewind to March of 2020 and Jones, serving as COO of the University of Louisiana System, would have said he didn’t want to go back to Natchitoches. He was happy in the system office where he thought he could do more with his systemic view of the education system.

“I never wanted to be president because I enjoy being the one doing the work behind the scenes,” Jones explained. “I’ve never looked for recognition. After returning to NSU in 2020, after working at the system office and understanding the challenges the university was facing and the ones that lay ahead, I felt it was my obligation to help navigate the process on an interim basis. But once I got on campus, I realized how much I was missing the student body.”

It’s at Northwestern where Jones found his love for international culture and languages. As a student at the university, his first roommate was from El Salvador. Then, around the summer of ’89 Jones befriended a group of French forgein exchange students.

Becoming an exchange student himself was part of Jones’ natural outgrowth of these experiences at NSU. He was soon off to the University of Plymouth (Polytechnics Southwest at the time) where he studied international economics.

“As an international student, living it, you come to understand the challenges these students face,” said Jones, who was tasked by former NSU President Dr. Randall Webb to expand the university’s international outreach after he joined the administrative team in 2007.

But Jones didn’t learn the French and Spanish he knows now by staying in the classroom. He spent his summers and school breaks taking photos and translating for an editor from the Callaloo Journal. They traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Cartagena, Columbbia. Jones learned the language before they travelled to Havana on multiple occasions.

Through the years, Jones has always continued to look out for his alma mater.

Jones made a commitment to himself when he became NSU’s President, and that means there’s not much of a work/life balance to speak of. However, he does try not to do anything on Sundays. And when he does have some down time around the holidays, he tries to travel out of the country so he’s not tempted to fall back on his work.

He recently finished building a home in Mexico, but his favorite place to go is to visit his family back home in Winnfield, Louisiana.

“It keeps me grounded,” said Jones, who’s fortunate to have been afforded so many opportunities in his life. “I’ll always stay connected to my roots.”

In his free time, Jones serves on the Ben D. Johnson Foundation and cooks (gumbo is a favorite). He also enjoys refinishing old furniture because he loves working with his hands. This comes from countless Saturday morning projects with his father. His sister would bring DIY books home from the library and Jones and his father would fix things around the house.

Now Jones watches DIY YouTube videos and tries his hand at it. During Covid he started learning how to redo the cane on cane-backed/bottomed chairs.

Fall is his favorite time of year as it reminds Jones of time spent with his father, bonding in nature as they hunted, fished, and gardened.

Growing up, Jones’ father, who was born and raised in Natchitoches, would bring his son to the City of Lights on many occasions. As a kid, Dixie Street and upper Cane River were magical places for Jones. His favorite location is Melrose Plantation because there’s something magical about its history and the community of the Creole culture that surrounds it.

Getting back to Jones’ presidency at Northwestern, he feels better about the direction of the university now, then he did when he first got into office in 2021. Covid left the education system in a tenuous position because so many students were left in a position where they started to question the value of higher ed.

“I came into this job with a tremendous amount of uncertainty as I see students who want to know what universities will do to make them more marketable in the workforce once they graduate,” said Jones. “I didn’t even know if the university would have a balanced budget because of all the uncertainties surrounding us as we exited the Covid fog.”

The upcoming generations of students have heard the student loan debt horror stories. Incoming classes have also lost the understanding of what the student experience really means.

However, students are realizing there is value in a four-year degree. They’re realizing that the gains of going straight into the job market are short lived.

“They’re [students currently enrolled at NSU] getting that “value” piece of the education puzzle,” said Jones. “They get it now, and I think my generation automatically understood it. We’ll still have to drive it home to the next generation graduating from high school.”

The biggest challenge for Jones so far has been enrollment and balancing the number of virtual learners vs. the number of students physically attending classes on campus.

“Covid has really shown us all that you can do it virtually,” said Jones. “The question remaining is how do we get more students back to campus.”

The main three things Jones is excited about is the future of the athletics department, the institution as a whole because of its massive potential that hasn’t been realized yet, and the level of support the university has from state legislators and government. Jones said 2022 has been the best capital outlay year in the history of the university. This doesn’t mean NSU is waiting on the state to provide its funding, as Jones said they continue to expand programming, which translates to higher enrollment.

Jones’ best advice is to never sell yourself short. His high school English teacher told him that just because you’re from Winnfield (or whatever small town you call home) doesn’t mean you can’t compete with the best of them.