From community college to community leaders


A journalist, a judge and a police chief. Those are the job titles of the 2021 AACC Outstanding Alumni Award recipients. But dig deeper and you’ll find that career success is only one thing that makes these three people outstanding.

The American Association of Community Colleges will recognize this year’s selected alumni on May 13 during the AACC Digital conference. 

Finding her voice

Helen Ubiñas arrived at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in 1990 after failing out of one college and working a series of dead-end jobs. It was at NECC that she discovered her voice as editor of the student newspaper and found a sense of belonging.

Ubiñas says NECC “gave me the confidence to pursue dreams that I didn’t even know I had when I walked in here.”

She studied journalism at NECC, where she graduated in 1991, and then at Boston University and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. While at Trinity College, she began reporting at the Hartford Courant. In 1999, she was part of the team that received a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. And, in 2000, Ubiñas was named the Courant’s first Latina news columnist.

Now, at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, Ubiñas focuses on issues of race, politics and gun violence.

She has received many accolades awards for her work, including the Vernon Jarrett Medal for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on gun violence and its impact on Philadelphia teenagers. In 2020, she was the first recipient of the Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award, presented by the Pittsburgh Foundation, for work that demonstrates “fearlessness, fortitude, and excellence.”

In presenting the award, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author James Steele, who served on the Kalson Award committee, wrote, “No one writes about the tragedy of gun violence with more compassion and feeling than Helen Ubiñas. Her columns on the young, innocent victims of gunfire are heartbreaking and left us grieving with the families whose lives were forever shattered by these random, senseless acts of violence.”

But greater than the recognition is the impact she has had the individuals affected by the issues she covers. After reading Ubinas’ columns on gun violence, Maureen Boland, a 9th grade English teacher in Philadelphia, invited Ubinas to meet her freshman class. That classroom visit led to a series of columns on the students, many of whom had been directly affected by gun violence. It also inspired those students to become involved in gun violence advocacy, speaking at events and attending conferences.

Ubinas also helped create a support group for paralyzed gunshot victims. And recently, as a result of her campaigning, the Inquirer began collaborating with the Philadelphia Obituary Project, an online site that highlights the lives of city residents who have died by gunfire. The Inquirer is now printing obituaries of city residents killed by gun violence, ensuring that their stories and lives are not overlooked.

“She is brave and outspoken, and she has used her talents to bring attention to important issues and empower people,” said NECC President Lane Glenn.

Judge, benefactor and booster

Flint Junior College – now Charles Stewart Mott Community College – wasn’t Thomas Yeotis’ first choice. But his mother didn’t want him far from home, so he enrolled.

It was the start of big things for Yeotis, and the start of a long relationship with the college. He graduated in 1949 from the Michigan college and went on to Wayne State University Law School before beginning a legal career that spanned more than four decades. Yeotis was a practicing attorney and served as a municipal judge in Flint. He was then elected as a probate and juvenile court judge and a circuit court judge. Yeotis has also been admitted to practice law in the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States; the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit and the Michigan Supreme Court, to name a few.

He’s received numerous awards for his contributions to his profession, including the Distinguished Service/Lawyer of the Year Award from the Genesee County Bar Association and the Distinguished Service Award of the Hellenic-American Bar Association. He also was named a Top 10 Most Respected Judges of Michigan.

Yeotis, now retired, also has become one of Mott Community College’s most ardent boosters and benefactors. Over the years, he has personally directed upwards of $200,000 in contributions to the college’s foundation. He’s served in leadership roles on Mott’s foundation board and alumni association board.

With a love of athletics, Yeotis was a founding member and longtime officer of the Bruin Club of Genesee County, a booster organization for sports programming at Mott. And he’s raised more than $2 million in private contributions so that athletics at Mott could flourish.

“With decades of professional achievement, volunteer service and philanthropic efforts under his belt, Thomas C. Yeotis has demonstrated – over and over – that he is one of the most outstanding alumni ever produced by Mott Community College,” said Mott President Beverly Walker-Griffea.

Shattering glass ceilings

A mass shooting rocked Aurora, Illinois, in February 2019 and left six dead and six wounded, including five police officers. Police Chief Kristen Ziman’s professionalism, courage and compassion were on display during the press conferences, interviews and news coverage that followed the tragic incident.

But those traits had been developed and demonstrated long before.

Ziman earned an associate degree from Waubonsee Community College in 1993 and was sworn in as a police officer in her hometown of Aurora in 1994. Since then, she’s made a difference in her community and made history in the process.

Not long into her career, Ziman was selected to develop and implement a Domestic Violence Reduction Unit. She was a detective in that unit until 2001 and then served as a field training officer until 2003, when she was promoted to sergeant.

In 2008, she was the first woman in the department’s history promoted to the rank of lieutenant. When she became commander in 2010, she created the department’s burglary task force, which allowed her to inform and educate the community about police activities.

Ziman became the chief of police in Aurora in 2016 – the first woman to hold that position.

Along her career path, she has continued her education while she worked, earning a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. And she takes advantage of every professional development opportunity that comes her way, which has helped her stand out against her peers.

As the Waubonsee Community College commencement speaker in 2016, Ziman told the graduates and guests, “I caught that thirst for knowledge here.” She advised the graduates, “Without courage, you’ll stay in your comfort zone.”

“Her courage to push herself through education and training, to be the first in her department and city in many ways and to effectively lead men and women in the most difficult of circumstances demonstrates the kind of person that she is,” said Waubonsee President Christine Sobek.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.