Nelson Mandela once said: “A leader…is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
Community college leaders would likely agree with this, with the caveat that individual campuses and districts need their own tailored strategies and solutions. To become campus leaders in the first place, they have followed in the footsteps of others by learning from them, both informally through mentoring and networking, and more intentionally at gatherings like the John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute (FLI) and the Future Presidents Institute (FPI) sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
Deanna Yameen, provost at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Massachusetts, began her career at Massachusetts Bay Community College at age 24, and she has worked on a community college campus for all but a handful of the 32 years since then, holding roles as an instructional staff member, English tenure-track faculty, executive director, associate dean, dean, vice provost and now provost.
“It’s really helped me now that I’m sitting in this seat. I have a view of this place that most people don’t,” she says.
Yameen spent nine years at MassBay, rising to associate dean and leaving with a master’s degree. She worked for the statewide Massachusetts Community Colleges organization for a couple of years, as well as a nonprofit focused on educational access issues for four years, during which time she earned a Ph.D. She then joined Massasoit 13 years ago as dean for the humanities and fine arts, rose to vice provost in 2017 and provost in 2019.
Returning to community college
Chio Flores, vice president of student services and enrollment management at Wenatchee Valley College in Washington, began her career at Big Bend Community College, which she also attended as a student, then spent six years at Eastern Washington University and 20 years at Washington State University before returning to the two-year system.
As a “single, working mom getting by day-by-day,” Flores received her associate degree from Big Bend, where she worked in admissions and registration, then a bachelor’s and MBA from Eastern Washington before landing at Washington State. There, she moved up the ladder from assistant director of admissions, to director of financial aid, to assistant dean of students while picking up her doctorate.
“Leadership starts with supervising someone and then, before you know it, teams,” she says.
As a first-generation migrant and a Latina, Flores always had envisioned returning to the community college system.
“I was missing certain priorities I had, in terms of serving the community,” she says. “It was always very important for me to serve a similar community. When I applied [to Wenatchee], I knew I hadn’t been in the community college system for a long time, but I knew I had attributes that would help WVC advance the work we do.”
Motivated to lead
An AACC Future Presidents Institute (FPI) participant, Yameen hopes to eventually become a community college president, although that wasn’t always a goal.
“I have never planned my career. I’ve always gone to work, worked hard, moved up, moved left, moved right,” she says. “This is the first time in my career that I have been purposeful about it.”
The catalysts for that have been a fellowship with the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) aimed at developing women leaders in higher education as well as her participation in FPI, Yameen says. “I walked out of [the fellowship] confident that I could do it. When the chance to go to the Future Presidents Institute popped up, I did not hesitate. At one time in my career, I would have wondered.”
The FPI experience
The FPI experience influenced her in many ways, Yameen says, providing first and foremost a granular sense of what would await her on day one as a community college president. She learned things like, “You’re always going to be overwhelmed. There’s no one right answer. To have a safe place to think through those things, was just huge. I have a series of people I can call now. … The higher up you move, the lonelier it gets. Faculty members, there’s hundreds of you. Deans, maybe half a dozen. President, there’s one.”
Another FPI participant, Flores has the same aspiration. She’s been thinking about next steps and says her president “sees in me someone who can continue to give.”
In addition to FPI, she attended a Harvard executive management program and believes those experiences helped her solidify her credentials. She’s hoping to find a president position in Washington.
“I’m being somewhat particular, but I also want to make sure it’s a good fit for the institution,” Flores says.
What drew Yameen out of the classroom and up the leadership ladder, more than anything, was the opportunity to impact students — to ensure they are able to enroll, their pathways are clear and that they complete school.
“Students are food insecure, housing insecure, they have kids, they have families. They’re working two and three jobs,” she says. “It’s a privilege to smooth out their path.”
Yameen worries the most about those same students.
“They are just dealing with so much,” she says. “What our students are dealing with, most people would be curling up in a fetal position. What makes me nervous is, $100 might mean a student will drop out of school. If one thing goes wrong, all the dominoes will tumble.”
Flores was drawn to leadership in part due to being the eldest of six children in her family, which made it a role she was thrust into from an early age. She did not intentionally seek it out at first in the workplace, although she would not describe herself as reluctant, either.
“I’ve worked on skills to help build consensus, to garner enthusiasm from the team,” she says. “You use different strategies with, for example, a faculty group, as opposed to a student group. What drew me was the opportunity to become part of a group that can help advance change.”
What keeps Flores up at night is the fear that decisions she makes or contributes to could end up having a negative impact.
“We have legislation that isn’t always written well at the state or federal level, and the aftermath means we have students who aren’t able to continue with us. That makes me nervous,” she says. “When we have budget cuts, as an institution, we put thought and care into it, but I always worry that we will miss something, particularly if it means cutting programs.”
Recent changes at Massasoit have included a new president for the first time in 18 years, a revamped one-stop shop center for student services, the switch to a “provost model” of administration, and a focus on becoming more student-centric, Yameen says.
Community colleges in Massachusetts generally have been doing a better job of communicating their value, she believes, as well as becoming more flexible about serving their communities.
“We are dealing with more social issues and have more supports on campus, like food pantries and mental health counseling, because of the need,” she says.