As a child, Chris Hochstetler found an outlet in his creativity.
“I remember my mom used to take us to — especially in the winter when we didn’t have a place to live — to the Edith Abbott Memorial Library in Grand Island, and that was the first place I really encountered the power of art in different forms,” Hochstetler said.
Today, Hochstetler is well into his second month as dean of innovation and creativity at Hastings College, a new position added to the college as part of its major overall and new direction.
The new direction includes a restructured semester schedule, reformulated majors, a required exploratory area for students to complete, and the addition of travel for all students in their sophomore year.
“I feel part of my position as the dean of innovation and creativity is to continue to ask in a non-offensive way the question ‘why’,” Hochstetler said.
And that’s a question he’s been asking much of his life since his days as a child when he first discovered Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” at the Grand Island library.
“I discovered ‘Treasure Island’ at a young age because a librarian there said, ‘You should read this.’ I went over in a corner, and I read ‘Treasure Island.’ It’s something that profoundly changed me.”
In some ways, creativity has been a mental escape for Hochstetler throughout his life in those moments when he needed it.
As children, he and his two siblings were shuffled between more than a dozen school districts with their mother who was part of the rural poor in central Nebraska.
“I had a difficult childhood,” Hochstetler said. “I was born to a woman who had a home at times, didn’t have a home at times.”
When he was about 10 years old, the state of Nebraska took Hochstetler and his two siblings away from their mother for being what they called “impoverished and eccentric.”
They stayed in a foster home in western Nebraska for the next four years, with Hochstetler’s older sister aging out in foster care.
When Hochstetler was 14, he and his younger brother were returned to their mother. Hochstetler graduated from Grand Island Senior High in 1986.
“My junior and senior year I worked 40 hours a week to help my mother,” Hochstetler said. “All along she encouraged me to get an education. She always said, ‘If you’re going to get your way out of poverty you need to find a way to get educated.’ She was a very intelligent woman, just had life’s challenges.”
While he had the support of counselors at Grand Island Senior High, Hochstetler didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship, so he decided to join the military, a decision his mother supported.
“Three days after I graduated from high school, I went off to the Army and I had a 21-year Army career, almost 21 years,” he said. “(I was) stationed all over the world, multiple combat zones and deployments.”
While in the Army, Hochstetler earned an undergraduate degree in legal studies with a minor in history from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in public administration with a specialization in nonprofit management from Walden University in Minneapolis.
After leaving the Army, Hochstetler served as the senior vice president for resource development with the American Lung Association, leading fundraising for the central United States.
After five years there, he wanted a smaller, more personal setting, so he went to work for the Missionary Society of St. Columban in Bellevue where he worked for three years before pursuing his creativity.
For his entire career, Hochstetler had spent much of his time on the road, leaving his wife, Kelly, to basically raise their children alone. They both decided it was time for him to stay home.
“It was fair to her that I find a place, and creativity has always been key and focal in my life,” he said.
That’s when Hochstetler was hired as the chief executive officer of the Kaneko in Omaha, a cultural organization founded with the mission of exploring creativity across the whole spectrum of human activity.
“Creativity is that part that makes us human,” Hochstetler said.
He said the thing that spoils it is the person who says, “I can’t paint or sculpt” or “I’m not a creative person.”
“I feel very strongly that when that statement is made, it distances us from what makes us human,” Hochstetler said. “Humans are the only creators on the planet that make things for a higher purpose, create and innovate.”
Hochstetler spent three years in his position with the Kaneko, during which time he made his first real connections with Hastings College through the Open Space program, a collaboration between the two institutions for gifted students.
Hochstetler left the Kaneko during a period of change for the organization, at which time he emailed all of the partners and donors to thank them and ask them to continue to partner with the Kaneko in his absence.
“Almost immediately I got a response back from Hastings College. They said, ‘We would like to talk to you. We’ve got this vision, and we would love your support in it.’ And the rest, as they say, is history,” Hochstetler said.
Now settling in to Hastings, Hochstetler said it’s definitely interesting being the first of anything, especially a new position like this.
“There is no template. The first dean of innovation and creativity, I find that intriguing in itself,” he said. “The way I see my role here, especially with the wonderful vision the board of trustees and (HC President) Travis (Feezell) has for Hastings College, that whole vision is really wondrous if you consider what it really means.”
The goal of a liberal arts education has always been to produce a graduate who is caring and discerning and is able to go out and faces the challenges of the world, Hochstetler said. With the world changing so rapidly today, many of the jobs today’s college freshman will have in their lives have yet to be created. So how do you tackle that?
Part of the answer, he said, is by flipping from the focus on lecture, which has a 10 percent retention rate, to the experiential learning, which has a 90 percent retention rate.
Hochstetler said part of his job is first off to ask why can’t Hastings College change its semester schedule and course offerings, and add iPads and experiential learning to produce graduates instead of the traditional method.
“I believe Hastings College will lead the state and the country in this effort by being bold in our steps to say, ‘We’re going to form graduates who are ready for that,’ ” he said.
And it is going to take the community — not just Hastings College, Hastings or Nebraska, but the greater community and world — to build these future graduates. That’s where Hochstetler said his connections with people and organizations will be helpful.
Hochstetler goes back to his first discovering “Treasure Island.”
“I rapidly discovered that type of activity — reading and activating the imagination — could take away the circumstance of not having a home and being hungry and all of those things, and suddenly I was a boy chasing pirates and it was amazing to me,” he said. “Since that time I’ve probably read ‘Treasure Island’ 30 times in my life. I took it when I deployed to war and all these things because it’s something that’s been almost a safe place for me.”
While he learned that the world and life aren’t as romantic as Robert Louis Stevenson made it out to be, Hochstetler said he still looks for the art and creativity in everything.
“Along the way, people have given me opportunities and I’ve maintained the relationships with those people,” he said. “Humans are just wonderful, wonderful creatures.
“I hope to bring some of those caring spirits who truly are interested in what creativity can do not only for this college but innovation and the state and for the world. I truly hope we can draw their interest here just to take a look at us.”