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Meet Achieving the Dream's Trailblazer and Visionary Leader: Karen Stout

March 28, 2018

By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation

Karen Stout

Dr. Karen Stout runs Achieving the Dream (ATD), the largest national network of community colleges, which together work to transform community colleges and help students pursue their educational and career goals. Prior to serving as President and CEO of ATD, Dr. Stout was the president of Montgomery Community College for 14 years and vice president at Camden County College for seven years. She says working in the space began as an accident, which quickly became a passion that developed into a lifelong career.

We sat down with Dr. Stout to learn more about her and what's next on the horizon for Achieving the Dream, an ECMC Foundation grantee partner.

Q: How did you first become interested in working in higher education?
A: I stumbled into my career in higher education. Right out of college, I was working as a Director of Communications at a chamber of commerce near the University of Delaware. My mom sent me a classified job ad for an admissions advisor at a local community college in my hometown. I applied and was rejected...three times!

A few months later, a member of the search committee apologized for the rejections and asked if I would come in for an interview the next day. I said yes and was hired that afternoon. Two weeks later, my community college addiction started.

Q: What do you find compelling about the community college space?
A: Community colleges have so many attributes that make working and serving in this space compelling. There is incredible potential in the localness of the community college mission, which we often overlook. Good community colleges take the form of their communities, yet also are leaders in shaping the vibrancy of their communities. In many ways, they represent the aspirations of their communities. The comprehensive mission of our colleges is appealing. Our colleges are transfer institutions, career and technical postsecondary providers, and pre-associate degree and post bachelor's degree credential providers. Our "hybrid-ness" also makes us unique. We can bridge the student experience from K-12 to the university. We can also connect and bridge the adult student experience from an employer to college and back to the employer; or from a community-based organization to college and to the workforce. And, we are community destinations for culture, recreation and civic and civil discourse. Even with all of this, what is most compelling to me are our students.

Q: Is there a particular person who has inspired your career?
A: I have been fortunate to have had many visionary supporters in my career. I am inspired, still, by all of them. But there are two that stand out to me. The first is Dr. Al O'Connell, former president of Harford Community College. I was 25 years old when I presented to a strategic planning committee on a new high school recruitment plan. After the meeting, he pulled me aside to tell me that I could be a college president one day. He saw in me what I could not see in myself and became my mentor. Over the next seven years, Dr. O'Connell encouraged me to take steps that were strategic to my career growth.

The second is Dr. Phyllis Della Vecchia, whom I first met at Harford Community College. I served as her vice president when she was president at the college. She helped me see that good leaders are students first. She also asked me to lead the information technology area. I remember saying to her, "I don't know anything about technology." She replied, "That's OK. The challenge in that area is not a technology challenge. It is a planning and communications challenge."

Q: What does student success mean to you?
A: I see student success from many dimensions including from the perspective of the student, the college and the community. And, it is important that we find ways to measure and value all three dimensions. Students want to see economic, social mobility, and wellbeing gains from their postsecondary experience. Colleges are setting student success goals around certificate and degree completion that has labor market value. Colleges are also setting important goals around equity, ensuring that equity gaps around degree attainment, employment and transfer outcomes are reduced. Communities are looking at student success in a way that builds and fulfills a talent pipeline that leads to a strong workforce and an engaged citizenry.

Q: What do you think is/are the most critical element(s) necessary to help students enrolled at community college succeed?
A: I like using Achieving the Dream's Pathways Framework to answer this question. Colleges need to have clear academic maps for students from entry into the community college to completion and beyond if students' goals include transfer. Colleges also need strong intake systems that support students in building a strong academic, financial and career plan. Colleges also need to do this early in the process of entry, including helping students to select a field of interest or specific major as early as possible. Colleges must be very intentional about providing non-academic student supports. This includes opportunities for faculty engagement, access to child care, transportation, attention to food and housing insecurity, and financial coaching. Finally, we know that faculty engagement with students makes a difference. Colleges must focus more of their student success efforts on empowering faculty to lead forward the student success work.

Q: What wisdom do you want to pass on to aspiring and current community college presidents?
A: When leaders take on a presidency, they immediately own the past, present and future of their colleges. I see too many aspiring and new presidents distance themselves from the past, ignore the present situation of a campus, and look only to the future. While vision is important, it must be shaped and led in context. This does not mean new leaders cannot and should not be bold. In fact, I believe boldness can come from greater understanding of the past and present state.

Q: What excites you about the work that is going to be done by Achieving the Dream in the year ahead?
A: Achieving the Dream is moving our model of supports for our colleges to one that travels with the college as their student success work builds and matures. This is exciting as it requires us to develop a life cycle of supports, customized to where our colleges are in their student success journeys; and in new areas like evidence-based leadership, holistic student supports, pathways, teaching and learning, and equity. We're doing all of this while also helping our colleges build, stay strong, and sustain a student-focused culture. We are also looking to continue to innovate with our colleges. Over the next year, we are eager to explore with them, some new metrics that demonstrate success beyond completion. And, we will continue to expand our network welcoming new colleges to the class of 2018.

Q: If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead, who would you choose and why?
A: I have always been in search of strong female role models. As an undergraduate journalism major, I bought and read Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham's autobiography, Personal History. Now, with the movie, The Post, I am more intrigued than ever by her personal story, her business leadership, and the many fascinating political and journalistic leaders she met and worked with. I admire also that she was strong writer in her own right. She assumed the role as CEO of the Washington Post at a time in my life when Title IX was opening doors for women to go to college on athletic scholarships. Katherine was tough and talented and respected.

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