College leadership from outside academia

By Heather Boerner

One person’s journey from hospitality to community college dean.

It’s one thing to come to college leadership from the administrative side. It’s quite another to do so after starting one’s career outside of colleges all together. It can be done, but it takes a different approach. And sometimes, it takes being willing to move.DeQuan Smith

Just ask DeQuan Smith. Today, Smith is dean of workforce development for Eastern Shore Community College in Virginia. But just a few years ago, Smith was working in hospitality. Smith was a first-generation college student and he didn’t start with training at a community college. He got there after doing everything from housekeeping to food and beverage operations at local hotels.

But then, he wanted more. He enrolled in what he called miscellaneous hospitality classes at Tide Water Community College in Norfolk, Virginia. And like many leaders before him, the bug bit: He wanted to stay. He began teaching hospitality courses at Northern Virginia Community College, and enrolled in more classes, eventually earning his masters degree.

But for Smith, it felt like there were many strikes against him. Not only had he come from outside academia, but he was also young—he’s 27 today—and African American.

“At the time, there was no one who looked like me,” he says. “There were very few minority leaders and then there were even fewer leaders under 50. I thought, ‘OK, I don’t fit in.’ Then I sort of said, ‘What the heck, why can’t I do that?’”

So he did. He kept working on his education, while teaching hospitality courses, eventually being named faculty of the year at Northern Virginia Community College. He traveled for positions, eventually landing at Eastern Shore Community College. And he’s building his network by attending leadership conferences and events, including AACC’s John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute.

The key, he says, is to listen, not take things personally, and, well, go with the jobs that push you.

“This is the greatest job I could have ever asked for,” he says of his current position. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone. Every day I’m constantly learning, growing and evolving. I’m really able to touch things I never dreamed of touching. My voice matters, and I’m able to lead from a place of service.”

Interested in attending AACC’s John E. Roueche Future Leaders Institute (FLI)? The next FLI will occur Oct. 10–13 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Get more information.

You’ll be able to read more about unusual paths to leadership in the October/November issue of the Community College Journal, coming soon!

Continue the conversation on our LinkedIn group.

Heather Boerner
Heather Boerner

is an education writer based in San Francisco.