Advocating for community colleges nationwide

Editor’s note: This article concludes a two-part feature on community college CEOs who were recently elected to served on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) board of directors.

For Vicki Karolewics, president of Wallace State Community College in Alabama, serving on the AACC board of directors is about her passion for supporting the student success agenda and the opportunity to help shape the conversation on how to do that work nationally.

“The first board retreat was a wonderful experience, with so much information, it was almost like drinking from a fire hose,” Karolewics says. “It was very rewarding to be able to network with peers who have similar passions and similar experiences, to interact with AACC staff members, and to hear first-hand from Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta and other representatives from the federal government.”

“It’s a very affirming experience at this point in my career,” she said. “The onboarding process was extremely successful.”

Being on the AACC board is a great opportunity to be an advocate for the entire community college system nationwide, says Jim Henningsen, president of the College of Central Florida. Serving on the national level also provides an opportunity for college leaders to attain greater access to the federal government and to organizations that can help with funding.

Henningsen is especially passionate about promoting community colleges as open-access institutions.

“In elementary school, I was told I wasn’t good enough for college and now here I am with a doctorate degree,” he says. “Community colleges provide a great education to help people achieve the American dream.”

At the board retreat, “the energy among new and existing board members was extremely positive,” Henningsen says. With regard to Acosta’s discussion of workforce issues, he says, “Our perspective in Florida from our experience in workforce development can bring a lot of value to the group.”

Sunita Cooke, president of MiraCosta College in California, has been involved with AACC for more than a dozen years, serving on a commission, making presentations and attending AACC annual conferences, so, “I was honored to be nominated to represent my state and join the accomplished leaders that currently make up the AACC board,” she says.

“I’ve been impressed by the leadership, the sharing of best practices, the support and the opportunities for strong advocacy provided by AACC,” Cooke says. “It’s a terrific organization that’s well-respected and well-run. The staff are very impressive, as well.”

At the board retreat, Cooke found “It was a very interesting experience to engage in board development from the perspective of a board member rather than a president.”

She added that she was inspired by her colleagues as they discussed the future of community colleges as leaders in the fields of workforce and economic development. “We have long been the gateway to the middle class and socioeconomic mobility, and now providing access and success equitably to all those in our community is more important than ever.”

Strong and moving forward

Serving on the AACC board allows individual leaders to work together at the national level to help all community colleges, says Steve Johnson, president of Sinclair College in Ohio who has served in the community college field for three decades. “That is really exciting. The AACC board is the leader of the leaders of the community college movement.”

Johnson notes that Sinclair has been working on the completion agenda for a long time, so he’s looking forward to sharing his experiences with other colleges and examining ways to help foster success on a national level. He’s also pleased to again work with AACC President Walter Bumphus, as they have been colleagues for many years and both worked at Brookhaven College in Texas.

“Community colleges are strong and we’re moving forward,” Johnson says. “It’s a great time to be in community college education because of the work we’re doing to increase access and help people change their lives. America gets it.”

Roberto Zarate, a member of the board of trustees at Alamo Colleges in Texas and immediate past chair of the board of directors of the Association of Community College Trustees, says he was especially impressed with a session at the AACC board retreat on how presidents can ensure good leadership on their own boards.

“In terms of trusteeship and governance, AACC board members are well aware of the issues nationally and are prepared to respond,” Zarate says. He found it “very affirming that they are in tune and are willing to take policy positions on how best to support community colleges.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.