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What I Wish I’d Known

Original Story taken from: ccjournal

My path to the presidency began years before actually becoming a college president. I got a front-row seat observing one of the greatest college presidents in the history of college presidents, Dr. Vernon Crawley, the president emeritus at Moraine Valley Community College.

I consider Dr. Crawley to be one of my greatest mentors. His guidance has dramatically benefited me over the years as he has dropped several nuggets of wisdom like:

"We are in the people-building business," "Get out of the business if you do not care about people," or, "Every decision that we make impacts students. Therefore, ask yourself how is this going to impact students and student success when making every decision."

The exposure to leaders like Dr. Crawley has left an indelible impression that has set the course to my higher education career, because my leadership posture, moral compass and North Star are committed to serving others and living without any excuses. Another mentor of mine, Dr. Alex Johnson, president emeritus of Cuyahoga Community College, invested in me by sharing his book, "Changing the Lapel Pin." His book highlights that leaders must have the "experience, exposure, and education" to be effective.

What you can’t prepare for

I worked for more than 11 years preparing for the presidency and checked as many boxes as possible along my journey from my degree to my demonstrated professional acumen with proven results. I’ve made hundreds of connections through my professional network that I affectionally refer to as my "tribe" and I constantly connect with seasoned leaders. I also have attended countless college presidential trainings and have read hundreds of books on being a college president. I became president of Florence-Darlington Technical College in 2021 and learned that nothing prepares you 100% for the experience of serving as a college president like being a college president.

Nothing can prepare you when you speak with a mother whose son died a semester before graduation.

Nothing can prepare you for consoling a staff member whose home burned days after Christmas and they lost everything.

Nothing can prepare you after working a more than 12-hour day for a phone call telling you that one of your faculty members has suffered a stroke. Then having to turn your car around and head straight to the hospital, console them and encourage them all while holding back tears and trying to be strong yourself.

Nothing can prepare you for a student who has been locked out of her car and instead of leaving her there by herself, you cancel your meetings to be with this student until the tow truck arrives. Then when that truck arrives the student whispers to you that they don’t have any money to pay the locksmith. You then have to tell the driver quietly that you’ll take care of the invoice for them.

Nothing can prepare you for the number of students who genuinely want to better their lives and the lives of their families but have food, tuition, childcare and transportation insecurities due to the cost of living.

Nothing can truly prepare you for the role of the college president like being a college president. Still, you must prepare yourself as best you can before you take on this type of responsibility.

Like many first-generation college students, we first-generation college presidents are constantly learning new things, listening for nuggets of wisdom, and leading with care and compassion. I can hear other mentors of mine like Dr. Joy Gates Black, Dr. Alicia Harvey-Smith, and Dr. Katherine Johnson say, "Don’t act like you have arrived, because that has gotten countless presidents in trouble." I can also hear another mentor who helped me in my formative years, Dr. Marcus H. Morgan, say, "Don’t let your highs go to your head and your lows go to your heart."

This question, "What I wish I had known?" is riveting and very difficult to answer because, in truth, nothing can truly prepare you for any of the personal stories I have shared. Believe it or not, all of these stories happened in my first year as president. However, as the proverb states, "There is nothing new under the sun."

The one thing that was the most surprising to me upon taking over as president was the demand for your time. It would help if you purposefully blocked off time for self-care, family time and time to reflect and think to maintain yourself from the numerous demands of being a president. I’ve personally gleaned from the lives of every mentor that I’ve got to be better today than I was yesterday.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown of responsibility, accountability and dedicated service. Hence, nothing can truly prepare you for the role of the president like being in the position itself. Being president is one of the great opportunities to serve students, faculty, staff and the community.

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