Never confuse easy with success
When doesn’t the education system feel like a steep mountain that students and faculty have to hike up? A good team helps, though. A good leader helps even more. Rachel Pokrandt, UCC’s president, shares what her educational hike has looked like.
Pokrandt doesn’t want students to confuse easy with success. “I think one of the things that people are currently struggling with is that easy doesn’t always make us better. The struggle sometimes is what makes us better. In fact, oftentimes!” Pokrandt says.
“First of all, nobody is just a leader or a follower. Everybody is both. There are some days, in some moments, I have to lead and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do’, and a lot of times I need to listen to everybody else’s expertise and be a follower.”
One of the groups that Pokrandt follows is the Aspen Institute.
The Aspen Institute is a “nonpartisan forum from values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas.” It has several programs with the mission of “(driving) change through dialogue, leadership and action to help solve the greatest challenges of our time,” according to the Aspen Institute.
The Aspen Institute sponsors the Aspen New Presidents Fellowship, which is a training that community college presidents can get nominated for. The program supports community college presidents in transformational changes.
Pokrandt was one of the 25 selected presidents for the 2021 to 2022 fellowship after she transitioned from being a vice president at Colorado Mountain College to a new president at UCC.
The fellowship helped Pokrandt begin to build a community of people with different backgrounds who came from a vast number of locations across the country, with one big similarity: being a new community college president.
“The most important part of that experience for me was that I was with 23 other new presidents of colleges all over the country, learning from them, from their experience and the fact that I now have this group that I can turn to and say, ‘Wow, I wonder how another college is doing this’ or ‘I wonder how somebody solved this problem,’” Pokrandt says. “I have this wealth of knowledge throughout the country that I can just pick up the phone and access.”
Pokrandt gained more than community. “The Aspen Institute gives people a toolbox of initiatives, (showcasing the) best practices nationally so that you can apply those learnings to our situations here that help solve problems for people,” Pokrandt says.
The problems a community college president must manage is extensive.
“I think it’s a big job that is 365 days of the year and 24 hours a day. You’re never not the president. I’m the president when I go to the grocery store and when I’m out on a hike,” Pokrandt says. “It can be a lot of pressure, but I do think when you have both that toolbox that they give you, the training toolbox, and then also that cohort of colleges you can be more resilient.”
Resilience is more important than ever right now for community college presidents. According to a 2020 article by Aspen Institute, “Nearly 80 percent of community college presidents nationwide plan to retire in the next decade.” Being a part of the 2021 to 2022 program, Pokrandt believes that the tools and the small community that she gained through the Aspen New Presidents Fellowship program will help her beat this statistic.
For example, Pokrandt expresses how the training from the Aspen program had influenced her recent three-year strategic “doing” plan. “One of the big goals of the Aspen Institute is leveling the playing field for everyone in America so that everybody can get a quality education and reach their highest potential. It’s really focused on traditionally underserved communities, communities of property and racial inequity. That has had a big impact on my work,” Pokrandt says.
Another transformational change goal Pokrandt dreams about beyond the three-year strategic “doing” plan is lifting the community. “I would say beyond our new strategic doing plan, I think the role of the community college is always to lift the entire community. It’s to be involved in everything that’s going on, to push the community into the future and the future for me would look like everybody that lives in Douglas County has a family wage supporting job,” Pokrandt says. “It’s our job to be at the table for all of those conversations and find out where we can help.”
“The thing I hate most is when I see potential gone to waste. Every young person should get the opportunity to realize their potential in whatever that is,” Pokrandt says.
Pokrandt reminds students that UCC has resources to help support students just like the support she gets from Aspen. “Because I have this cohort of people, it helps me to be better at my job and helps me have resources. Everybody needs a support network, right?” Pokrandt says.
While she is working on her goal to lift the community, Pokrandt mentions some of the transformational changes she has already seen. “One of them is our relationships with our K12 partners. I think it’s really important that we turn towards our school districts and make sure that our local kids know that we’re here for them, and that they have a clear illuminated pathway to the next stage of their educational journey,” Pokrandt says. “I’m really proud that we’ve built stronger connections where local kids have more opportunities right here, at home, in Douglas County. That’s been a shift for us. I think we were a little more internal looking and now we’re a little bit more external facing.”
Pokrandt is also proud to see is the growth of the faculty and staff. “I think we have a higher morale and excitement about the future than we’ve had in quite some time; that turnaround, of making people excited about the future, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Pokrandt explains she doesn’t have some cheat code to life. She has just followed what made her happy and where she believed she could make a difference. “I’ll be really honest, I’ve followed the job that I’ve loved, and I’ve been very quick to self-select if the job I was in didn’t make me want to get up in the morning,” Pokrandt says. “My advice to people is to do something you love, if you’re not loving it, don’t just quit, get your next job first. You aren’t going to be good at anything you don’t love doing.”
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