As an undergraduate, I was a mediocre student. I never aspired to be a college president. In fact, it took me three attempts to pass college algebra and six years to earn my bachelor’s degree. At the time, my only goal for the future was to earn a salary figure equivalent to my age.
Today, I’m the president of a community college in south metro Denver that serves approximately 12,000 students. I am most grateful for this opportunity. Now, as I begin the third year of my first presidency, I reflect upon how this journey has proved to be both rewarding and challenging.
Weight of responsibility — for my family
I’d spent the previous 25 years working my way up from counseling faculty to vice president, and I’ve attended numerous leadership programs in preparation for a presidential appointment. Still, though, there are many aspects of this role that have proved to be more challenging than expected.
Relocation over the age of 50 is hard. I anticipated that I’d likely have to relocate for my first presidency. However, I failed to recognize what a test it would be. I joke that my husband stays married to me because he doesn’t like change, and yet I moved him away from nearly everything he knew for the past 50 years. We left our home, our children, both of our families and our friends. We try to stay in touch with everyone, but it’s not the same. We’re working to create a new community for ourselves.
Also, moving to a new college and state, I arrived with little of the professional credibility I’d spent the previous 30 years amassing. Many at my new college had participated in the search process, but they didn’t know me. Building rapport, trust and relationships takes time and energy. I’m learning to be a more patient person.
Caring for the college
I’m an extrovert, and I’m energized by working with, and being around, others. However, the presidency requires a different kind of energy than I expected. It requires an extra level of always being “on.” This role entails serving as my institution’s senior public relations officer, both internally and externally, at ALL times.
Being pleasant, knowledgeable and amenable are important. I enjoy talking about the college and advocating for our students and programs. I continue working towards delegating some of this to others on my team who are talented and capable. At times, I need to lean out, so that my colleagues can lean in.
Leadership and relationships
I was hired with the expectation that as the college CEO, it was my responsibility to lead with the specific intention of improving outcomes for our students and communities. However, when I took office, I didn’t know anyone who worked there. My ability to lead is influenced and impacted by the relationships that I, alongside our other senior leaders, maintain with faculty and staff. As the new CEO, I failed to realize how important it was for the college’s employees to get to know me. I assumed my informal, casual, open-door policy—along with strolling through the hallways with my cookie cart—would be a good start. However, the college wanted—and needed—more from me.
I equate my arrival as the new president to that of an arranged marriage. We try to extend grace and trust as we familiarize ourselves with one another, but neither is 100% sure about it. We are, most certainly, united in our shared goal of student success, but may differ in how that is best facilitated. We all care greatly about the work, but as the college CEO, I might have done a better job expressing how much I care about my colleagues.
A.A. Milne, original author of Winnie the Pooh, wrote, “Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.” I have fallen head over heels for each of my institutions along this incredible journey. My love potion? Simple: It’s caring about people. Make no mistake—I am fully invested in all the good work we do at the college, but for me, connecting with our employees, students, and their families is an integral part of my role in leading our community college.
Stephanie J. Fujii, Ph.D., is president of Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado.