The power of passion

By Patricia Hsieh

A community college president details her journey to fearless leadership.

As an immigrant with English as my second language and a stay-at-home mother raising two children, I had never thought about pursuing a career as a community college president. The journey has been long and challenging, yet very rewarding. I am very grateful to the many wonderful mentors who encouraged, supported and guided me as a re-entry woman traveling through my career path to pursue my passion for education.

In 1978, after resigning from my job as a program coordinator at a national broadcasting corporation in Taiwan, I came to the United States and landed at Detroit Metropolitan International Airport. That same year, an opportunity presented itself for me to go to Wayne State University to start my master’s degree. I was interested in obtaining a degree in bilingual education (English and Spanish), but I was discouraged by a graduate school advisor, because according to him, I was not a native speaker of either English or Spanish, even though my major during my undergraduate study was English with a minor in Spanish.

The advisor’s loud laugh made me feel embarrassed; I apologized to the advisor for being so “ignorant” and agreed that I would again research the university’s catalog to find a different major. This “discouragement” was how I ended up with a master’s degree in guidance and counseling. As a young immigrant, I did not realize what I encountered then was a form of discrimination because I am a foreigner and a female.

Passion with a purpose

Fast forward to 1987, due to growing financial needs and after being a full-time mother for six years, I returned to school with the hope to learn how to use computers and find a career for myself. I have always had a passion for education and was fortunate enough to meet my first mentor in the United States, Dr. Ervin Harlacher, who later became my doctoral dissertation chair. Dr. Harlacher encouraged me to choose a career in the community college system and guided me through my doctoral study program. With his support, working two part-time jobs and a full-time job as a community college counselor, taking care of two little ones, and commuting one and half hours each way from home to work daily, I finished my doctoral degree within two years and ten months. However, even with a major in institutional management in higher education focusing on community college administration and a doctorate in education, without any administrative experience in higher education, I was not qualified for an entry-level administrator’s position at any community college.

Two months after obtaining my doctoral degree, I noticed there was a transfer center director, an administrative position, opening at a private four-year university. I applied and was hired. However, I did not plan to stay at the position long because I wanted to return to the community college system to apply what I had learned from my doctoral program. A year later, I successfully returned to community colleges to be a transfer center director, but I had to commute four hours each way from the worksite to my home weekly. Due to family reasons, I had to quit that job after one year.

I applied for a transfer center director and articulation officer position at another community college that was closer to my home. The commute was only a 70-minute drive each way and allowed me to go home each day to take care of my family. I remember, at the end of my interview, the search committee chair said to me, “Dr. Hsieh, you had a good interview, but we are concerned that you could not stay at this job for long. It seems that you jumped from one job to another.”

I was glad the chair shared this concern aloud. I said, “I was a stay-at-home mother and I was behind my classmates and peers by six years in terms of pursuing my career. My goal is to take care of my family and simultaneously learn as fast as I can professionally to reach my career goal as a dean.” The female chair nodded her head and said, “Thank you.”

One day later I received and accepted the job offer.

Three years later, I got my first deanship. Up to that point, to be a dean was my career goal. It was when I was a dean, that I was frequently told by my supervisor and my professional associates that I was “presidential material.” Actually, when Dr. Harlacher put my doctoral hood on me, he said, “Dr. Hsieh, when are you going to be a college president?” I did not take it seriously then because I had never thought about it. Slowly and gradually, doors started opening for me, and I took advantage of those opportunities. Within three years, I went through the career ladder, moved from the dean’s position to a vice presidency. After serving as a vice president at two different community colleges for a total of six years, I obtained my first college presidency in 2005. This was 15 years after I left my full-time mother role to pursue my professional career. I remained in this role of college cresident in a multi-college district for 14 years, after which I was appointed as the superintendent/president of a single college community college district, and this is the position in which I currently serve.

Learning and living: Making a difference

Even though being a full-time mother for six years created a gap in my career path, my trajectory moving from one college to another allowed me to learn a lot. The learning ranged from how to take my caring nature in my role as dedicated mother focused on my children and expand that caring perspective to those on my staff, striving to be a role model for both. I believe I have been able to do this by always sticking to my principles, which are based on integrity and professional ethics. As a leader, I also learned to value honesty and teamwork and to treat others with respect. I enjoy working with individuals from different backgrounds and truly believe diversity is a powerful catalyst in bringing talents together to contribute to a team’s success.

Throughout the years, I was very blessed to have learned from so many female leaders and mentors who were very generous in sharing their experiences. To give back, I have served as an ACE Spectrum Leadership Program Presidential Advisor and volunteered on many leadership panels which enabled me to share my experience and trajectory with those individuals aspiring to be leaders. From these experiences, I have learned that as a leader, in particular a female leader, it is important to understand the value and support the need to build a leadership pipeline, in particular a pipeline for female leaders in higher education because proportionally, female administrators are still the minority in higher education.

I also learned that as a female leader, it is important to be fearless when it comes to carrying out an institution’s mission, even though it might mean there is a high price to pay. In other words, I have never compromised my principles and integrity, even when the authority above threatened me. Giving up was the easy way out but I have never believed in the easy way.

This article originally appeared in the American Association of University Administrators’ Journal of Higher Education Management. Read the full article here.

Patricia Hsieh

is superintendent and president of Hartnell Community College District in Salinas, California. She also served on the AACC Board of Directors.