Pamela Gibson Senegal: Reflections from a First Year Community College President

We need diverse leaders from all backgrounds and experiences who are willing to leverage those understandings on behalf of increasingly diverse students. When we are willing to do this, we help create an environment that engenders student success. That environment is highlighted by structured educational pathways and college employees who consistently demonstrate an ethic of caring.

Diverse leaders work to eliminate structural inequity in higher education because we know that it is the only way to truly fulfill the underlying philosophy of North Carolina community colleges from our founder, Dr. Dallas Herring: “take people where they are and carry them as far as they can go.”

In time, I hope to become this kind of diverse leader. Here are some reflections on the first year along this journey.

My Path to a Presidency

Over 20 years ago, after having been laid off from my private industry position as the Director of Information Technology (IT) training for a global telecommunications company, I found my home in North Carolina (NC) community colleges doing similar work in continuing education.

I was brought in during the height of the IT credentialing craze. I was in an urban setting, and there were a dizzying number of students who all needed to have a credential to obtain employment.

I remember having uncomfortable conversations with curriculum peers whose enrollments were impacted by our success. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the insight at the time to advocate for an internal articulation agreement for those credentials. Creating clear, transparent pathways for prior learning credit became an area of research for me. It is an area where I am convinced we can do better. I’m energized by the work of the task force awarding credit to those with military service, and look forward to building on that work.

Fast forward to three other NC community colleges.  I continued to find positions of increasing responsibility. Even when I was Dean for Career and Technical programs (think HVAC, Machining, Welding, Automotive, and Information Technology), the highlight of that time was creating links to industry for our Associate of Applied Science (AAS) students.

On a personal note, during this same time, I went from being a married mother to a divorced mother. That experience helped me become more compassionate for the students we serve, especially those juggling children, aging parents, transportation challenges, multiple jobs, all while trying to navigate our byzantine structures and earn degrees that will ultimately transform lives.

Coming up through a blend of continuing education, curriculum, economic development, and administration taught me to be inventive, to keep an updated and strong network, and to never forget why students come to us: to improve their lives through education.

Senegal graduation picture

Featured: Lisa Cooley, Dr. Doris Carver, Reverend Dr. Jeanine Driscoll, Bayard Crumpton, Dr. Pamela G. Senegal, and in wheelchair, graduation speaker Donald Wilson (from left to right).

Building on those experiences, earning a doctorate in education, and being in the right place at the right time, I was blessed to begin work last summer as President of Piedmont Community College.

First Year Reflections

I thought that because of the special mix of experiences and education I’d been through, that I was well positioned to lead an institution.  That turned out to be true and not true all at once.

Year one of being a new president has been so many things:

  • Exhilarating
  • Daunting
  • Fantastic
  • Humbling
  • Frustrating
  • Amazing

The network of folks I’d carefully built over the years became a critical support system as I faced specific first year challenges.

After our CFO retired, and the five month journey to find the right person to fill that position, I depended on the Gibraltar like steadiness and encouragement of Kennon Briggs. He came to me through my former boss, the recently retired VP from Duke University, who spent more than 25 years as President of Durham Technical Community College, Dr. Phail Wynn.*

To benchmark and gain insights into our institution’s culture, I reached out to NC State University’s National Institute for Leadership and Institutional Effectiveness (NILIE) to assist with a PACE climate assessment survey. Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, a faculty member and dissertation committee member, was critical in helping me gain access to the survey.

For the personnel challenges, I called my mother, Dr. Carrie W. Gibson. As the former associate superintendent of human resources, her insights were invaluable and always given in a spirit of love. Dr. Bob Shackleford, President of Randolph Community College, served as a mentor and a friend. His stories about his turbulent first year helped me keep things in perspective.

Aspiring presidents, every person you meet has a purpose. Cultivate your network carefully and deliberately. The biggest lesson I learned during my first year is that many of the challenges that came my way could not be resolved within my span of control. Engaging brilliant experts in their respective fields is how we grow and evolve as professionals.

I’m honored at all the expertise leveraged for the college which enables us to now steer the institution in a more positive direction.

Get Ready to Connect

The first six to eight months were a whirlwind of meetings and introductions. I accepted every invitation to speak, be hosted, visit, or tour. Those became opportunities to learn about how the college was perceived and what more we could do to serve our communities.

All of this barnstorming in my service areas had an unintended effect: it helped me fall in love with the community I serve. Baseball fields in Bushy Fork. The mural in Milton. The Amish store in Yanceyville. The bakery in Roxboro. Farmers markets galore. Soup in the basement of the Ag building in Caswell. Visiting farms and Hyco and Mayo lakes. Time spent with a former board member with ALS who inspires me to do more.

I am grateful to Bayard Crumpton, Chair of the PCC Board of Trustees (BOT), and every BOT member who has allowed me to piggy back on their relationships and connections for the good of the college.

Future leaders, invest in whatever community you find yourself in. Find ways to connect, appreciate, and serve.

people preparing for far ride, Caswell county

At Baldwin Farms Foundation event (Caswell county).

Changing the Conversation

With a strong leadership team in place, financial stability, and confidence of one year under my belt, I look forward to our institution implementing what we will learn from being part of the NC Guided Pathways to Success Network.

Unlike other grants, this one requiresthat each college send a team, including the president, to help students succeed in a structured fashion. For instance, we will have the opportunity to redefine student success and set equity goals, work externally to change the student experience, and work internally to build urgency and commitment to equity goals.

I cannot wait to see just how far we can move the needle to better ensure student success. I’m grateful to be a college president at this time in our history, when so many of us are new. We will be at the vanguard of ushering in a transformation in how we do business that our students have long deserved.

I hope that you will join me one day in this important work.

Dr. Pamela Senegal is President of Piedmont Community College, and can be reached via email: Pamela.senegal@piedmontcc.edu.

* This blog post is dedicated to Dr. Phail Wynn, who passed awayon July 24, 2018. Rest in peace.

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