A conversation with the 2018 EDUCAUSE Leadership Award winner.
GB: What I'd like to start out with is to ask you, can you talk about what makes the community college model so special to you, and why you think it's important?
CS: So from my standpoint, obviously you know that I have grown up in this system, right, the community-college system. And it's important to me ... it was initially important to me because it opened doors. So the open-access model is very attractive. I'm a community college graduate. I don't know if I'd be here today if it wasn't for the community college. I think it continues to be an important component of higher education, from the standpoint, there's still an access component, but there's a tremendous opportunity for retraining. And in the world that we live in today, it is so important that there are opportunities for people to explore new careers as older careers sort of start to shrink. So I really do think that that whole mission continues to be a value, nationally. I also find that at times, we are a first choice, and at other times, we may be what I'll term, and then I'll define, as a last choice. So, perhaps folks have gone away to college and never completed a degree. Coming back to the community college later in life, for a lot of people, seems like a safe new reentry point. And what we find is a lot of our older students appreciate the community nature of a community college.
GB: Can you talk about the expanded opportunities for women in today's higher ed IT environments, and what are the challenges still ahead?
CS: As our field, the field of technology, relates to women, there's an equal opportunity out there, I firmly believe. When we talk about what challenges still exist, I remember, and I think we've talked about this before, my challenges in my early years of my career, I think that in some cases, we still have challenges around, depending on the environment, the culture of an organization, women really having opportunities to get to those leadership positions. I think we're making great inroads. I think, on the other hand, I have to say that I see this in my own experience with my own team, and my team of IT professionals is split just about 50-50, but there is much more energy and confidence with men in wanting to accelerate into leadership positions, and with women, a little bit less, what I would say is less confident—not less capable, by any means, but less confident, or feeling more obliged or obligated to sort of juggle a lot of balls around, you know, family, children, aging parents, spouse, right?—cooking, cleaning, all those things. I think it's harder for some women to sort of say, "I have a responsibility here, but how do I also follow what my passion is?"
GB: So could you address those starting out in our field, aspiring to become a leader, much like yourself, what sort of advice would you give someone starting out? And, maybe weaving into that, talk about some of the skills needed now, versus 15 years ago when we were building everything ourselves. I mean, what are some of the skills needed, and what is some of the advice you would have for a younger generation?
CS: Regarding what skills are needed for the IT professions of today, I mean the obvious ones are technical, right? But that doesn't get us anywhere anymore. I mean, technical is not enough. There probably are still jobs out there where you can sort of sit in your own cube, or in a corner, or in your home office, and speak to no one. But I think they're few and far between. I think, when I started in the field, you know, it was sort of, "Okay, fine, build a registration system, great." Okay, so I went through a manual registration system as a student, so I'm gonna build that registration system based on my personal experience. I think that's sort of how we developed, you know, 30, 40 years ago. I think today, it's all about, first, who's your customer, right? So it's the student, so there's number one. What is their expectation? What are the current technologies that they are very comfortable with, and what are their expectations as far as how services are going to be delivered? So first you need input from the folks who are gonna use it, and secondly, you really need to also take the lead from the experts in the field, which certainly are not the technologists any longer, but they are the end-user departments and the experts in those departments. So, skill set? I already said technical. Probably equally as important, and maybe more so, is really the ability to build relationships with the end-user community, to be a strong collaborator, to be a good listener. I mean, I probably have dozens of these things that I don't think you worried about, like I said, 30 years ago. So, it really is about delivering what people are asking for instead of dictating, or telling, or putting on someone's desk: "Here's the tool, change your processes, and use it." Now it's more about, first, what does the student want? What do they expect from a good, quality technology delivery or implementation? And secondly, how does the end user help to define what that student is asking for, and how is it gonna work from a process standpoint in their environment? And from a technology standpoint, I am a firm believer that we are a support organization, and it's more than just delivering technology, it's really about delivering technology, and really working hard to understand the end-user department and the needs in the department and the needs of the folks that you're serving.
GB: One of the things we're hearing about more and more these days is the idea of student success, working towards student success. I know you were involved in a grant with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that correct?
CS: So we had back-to-back grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and our second grant ended August 2018—so, recent.
GB: Right. So, we've talked about student success for 15 years. What's new? What's this about now? When we talk about student success now, and these grants, and what people are working toward and talking about student success, what does it mean now versus 10 years ago?
CS: So, I think 10 years ago, the focus was really on … I think the end focus was always the same: retention and completion. Always the same. And for community colleges 10 years ago, our strongest focus was really around our mission, which was access. I think all of those things are still in play. I think what has changed is the center part of that. The how-to. I mean, what changes have we made in the way that we support students and their success? So, over the last six years at our institution, we started with, in this work, basically identifying what technologies we had that would support student improvements, expansions in student support services, and what technologies were missing. So through the grant period, we sort of filled in the blocks, right? We filled in all the missing technologies. So that's one piece of the puzzle. So that piece is in a fairly decent place. Not as seamless as I think that that particular grant [is]. The Gates Foundation grant was really based around this really seamless experience, with I think what people had hoped would be a single tool. We're still not there. But some of us are still hoping that we can get there some day, that there's gonna be this singular product. But, there's very good, I think ... I think the folks, the schools that participated, the universities and colleges that participated in that grant have done a very good job interfacing a variety of different tools. I think the other piece that we've learned, and where the future is going with student success is, so we now have a lot of decent tools in place. We also have a lot of new processes of how we engage with students. We're also using, which I have to say, six to eight years ago we weren't doing, we're doing a lot around data analytics. We're really digging deep into the data. Instead of just looking at "Here's the number of students who have this kind of demographic, and here's how they do," we're really digging deep and trying to get…to get very specific data points around potential situations that may occur where students need a little nudge, or a push, or a piece of encouragement, not knowing that every student who falls sort of in that analytics category may need all that, but just thinking that as long as they're positive, and not like, "Hey, you know, we think you're gonna be struggling." Everything we write and say to our students is very intentional to be supportive and encouraging. So, I think that we're seeing more.... So, I think I'm answering part of the question by saying we're seeing more communication between the college and the student that's much more personalized. So, where do I think we're going from a Montgomery standpoint? Even though the grant is over, our group is still working. So, we have new areas that we're working in. We're really looking at things around financial. Before it was financial planning. We're really looking around financial need … food—we have a food cupboard that we're hoping to increase. We've done some things around tools that help students to understand sort of their mental wellness. I think we would like to do more in that space. So, homelessness. So, more of the … I wanna say, more invisible, or quiet kinds of challenges that students face, that so often they don't share. We wanna get more into providing student support services in that space. The other thing that we've done very recently is, we have done a lot of research around the importance of tutoring. And, a community college being a commuter college, we also have a virtual campus. It's not always easy when you have a tutoring center, and we have a very good face-to-face tutoring center. A lot of our folks work. Some of our folks literally run in, take their classes—they have to be home for a school bus or to go to work. So, they don't necessarily have that time, when the tutors are available, to participate in a tutoring session. So we've just moved to ... we still have our face-to-face tutoring, but we've just introduced online tutoring across the college. We piloted it last year. It is turning out to be very appreciated by our students, especially those students who have time constraints, and can't stay on the campus longer than their classes are. So, another area where we're doing some heavy-duty focus on.
GB: It's so holistic, everything sounds very holistic, the way you're doing it.
CS: Yep, absolutely.
GB: It's not about like, just analytics and academics, it's also about, How do you take care of your life?
CS: That's right.
GB: That's interesting. Last question, and this is kind of just a ... maybe a silly question, but I'd like to hear your answer. What's your favorite thing about coming to work every day, and what's your least-favorite thing about coming to work every day?
It's not a silly question, and it's an easy one for me. One, I have had a very fortunate career. And I would be not telling the truth if I said everything was always rosy. Every career, I think, has some ups and downs, just like you would ... I do an analogy around a roller coaster. You know, roller coasters have ups and downs, but when you get to the end, if you love roller coasters, it was a great ride. So, I've had a great ride. And I think why. I stated earlier to you that community colleges are absolutely my passion. I love the students. While some might say, "Oh, students were different 40 years ago or 50 years ago than what they are today." Yeah, but I think that's some of the excitement. And I think students are only different because the world is different, right? But truly, I come to work every day and I've stayed here as long because I've had because I've always had an opportunity to make a difference. And when I say make a difference, it's not about the college: it's really making a difference all the way down to an individual student's life. And that may sound crazy for a VP for technology to really be that specific about touching a student, but I truly believe, and I have a great team that works with me—we all put our students first. I mean, they are our top priority. Now, the best question is, "What maybe don't I like to do?" And, I'd have to say, probably my least-favorite thing to do is attend so many meetings. Lotta meetings once you get up to the leadership level, and if there was some way to sort of ... I'd love it if we could have like 15-minute meetings, and then the meeting would be over, and what you didn't cover in 15 minutes, oh well, didn't get covered and you would move on. I think it's the meetings.
GB: I understand, I understand. I'm not at your level, but I have a little bit of that. I get it. Well, Celeste, congratulations on the award, and thank you so much for talking with me.
CS: You know, I have to tell you, and this is with the most sincerity. When I found out? I don't even know if I could express it, I was so, so touched and overwhelmed. And when I realized the people throughout my life who came forward and sent letters, it was overwhelming.