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Legacy of Leadership

HCC's president -  Dr. Kathleen Hetherington

The tagline, “You Can Get There From Here,” is etched below the Howard Community College logo as a simple yet powerful declaration of the school’s role as a student launching pad for greatness. Outgoing HCC President Kathleen Hetherington has safeguarded that tagline in her 14 years at the helm, navigating the college through unprecedented growth, while maintaining its close-knit atmosphere.

Hetherington will retire from the school on October 1, having left a legacy that illustrates how “You Can Get There From Here,” can apply to college presidents, too.

For Hetherington, “there” means retiring at her own time and on her own terms, the fulfillment of a goal to leave after HCC completed its most recent Middle States reaccreditation process and celebrated its 50th anniversary. “There” means being showered with accolades while you’re still around, having firmly established a reputation as a successful leader. “There” means leaving a legacy that HCC will now uphold, a fitting tribute from a school that seemed somewhat uninviting during her first job interview.

“It was a strange interview, because nobody introduced themselves,” said Hetherington about when she applied for a position at HCC while still working at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), her alma mater. “They said, ‘We have three questions to ask you, and you have 20 minutes to answer these questions.’

“So, I answered them in less than 20 minutes, and I said, ‘Wait a minute — before you hang up the phone, can you tell me who I’ve been talking to? Give me your names and what areas of the college you represent?’ After that telephone interview, I said, ‘Wow, what kind of place is that? I’m glad I [already] have a job.’

“But when I visited for the first time, I was blown away by the people here; they were so welcoming,” Hetherington added. “They made eye contact. They said hello. That was not something I was used to seeing at a college; you could walk other places I worked and, if you didn’t know somebody, no one would say hello to you.”

Prior to HCC, Hetherington had never worked for a woman supervisor. Her first was Dr. Mary Ellen Duncan, former president and a two-time Merit Award winner from the American Association of Community Colleges. “She was a very dynamic leader, and I heard that if you have a chance to work for her, grab it,” said Hetherington of Duncan. “So, I said, ‘You know what? This seems like a place that I could enjoy.’”

HCC, which opened its doors in 1970, was already an accomplished community when Hetherington arrived and moved up the ranks from the school’s vice president of student services and capital campaign manager to the executive vice president. Upon becoming president, she employed a student-centered approach to leadership, revamped the college’s strategic planning process, added academic programs in high-demand fields, and focused on increasing degree completion and transfer to four-year colleges and universities.

Under her leadership, Howard Community College has grown to more than 26,000 credit and noncredit students. Supporting this enrollment has resulted in more than $282 million in college facilities construction and improvements, including building a health sciences building; a science, engineering, and technology building; parking garages; and a mathematics and athletics complex currently in design.

Said Board of Trustees Chair Chris Marasco of Hetherington: “She has four words — plan, do, check, act. Plan: You have a plan to do something, whatever it might be. Do: You follow your plan. Check: Did it achieve the results? If it didn’t, you act upon your findings and make adjustments so you can get the results you’re looking for. I use [those four words] now, and she is continually searching for areas of improvement in order to make the college a place of excellence.”

Well respected by her peers in higher education, the Association of Community College Trustees named Hetherington as its recipient of the 2014 Chief Executive Officer Award, which recognizes the outstanding contributions and leadership of a community college president. Dr. Hetherington is currently a board member for Community Colleges for International Development, the Chair Academy, and the Alliance for Innovation and Transformation.

She also serves as a commissioner representing Maryland on the Education Commission of the States and has been selected by Governor Larry Hogan to co-chair the Maryland Citizen Redistricting Commission. 

She is strategic in her planning and vision,” said Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “And most importantly, she has executed well, whether it’s about developing programs, building the physical infrastructure of the campus, developing strong partnerships with the public and private sector.”

Those feats are no a small task among two-year institutions of higher learning. The U.S. Department of Education counts 1,462 community colleges in the U.S., and each of those schools strives to uphold what Hetherington aptly defines as its true mission — to be “the community’s college.”

But community colleges are often the prodigal parents of higher learning: nurturing learning environments that welcome with open arms not only students who regard them as a first option, but those who initially scoff at the notion of attending, opting instead for the presumably greener pastures of fouryear schools, only to come in need of a second chance at higher learning when they face challenges elsewhere.

As HCC’s first president to graduate from a community college, Hetherington had a keen awareness of what brought students there. She strived to make it a place they wouldn’t want to leave until they had the tools and skills necessary to make it outside its doors.

HCC's president -  Dr. Kathleen Hetherington“When I first entered higher education, the whole idea was getting students in the door in college,” Hetherington said. “That mindset shifted over the years, and there is more of a focus on students getting their degrees, their certificates, actually completing.

“For me, that means everybody, so when I first became president at HCC, I told the team I was working with at the time, ‘This is probably for many of us, the last place we will work before we retire. We have a great board, so let’s do the really hard stuff. Let’s do the stuff that other schools aren’t touching right now.’”

That stuff included ensuring that the community college in the second richest county in Maryland reached out to those sometimes on the outskirts of opportunity — people of color, single parent families, and gifted students who needed wraparound services to succeed.

Under Hetherington, HCC launched Ambiciones, a program that builds community among Hispanic/ Latino students by providing networking opportunities, educational and recreational activities, and workshops.

It also launched Howard P.R.I.D.E. (Purpose. Respect. Initiative. Determination. Excellence), a mentorship and support initiative for Black male students that aims to increase math completion, retention, and graduation rates. Howard P.R.I.D.E. provides support through tutoring, academic monitoring and advising, and the development of academic plans.

“Coming from a relatively poor background, in order to get jobs, you have to present yourself in a certain way. Howard P.R.I.D.E. taught me those things,” said Herman Chenwi, a 2014 graduate from Cameroon who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a master’s degree from Brown University.

“The person who started the program used to say that when Black men come up to the community college level that they have a lot to catch up on,” Chenwi added, “and when I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Baltimore City and mentored kids there, I saw that first hand. One thing Howard P.R.I.D.E. did for us is that it helped us catch up.”

“We could come together as Black men and be honest about the fact that we had a lot to catch up on. It helped shape our presentation to the world, and it helped us understand where we came from and what we had to do to get to where we hoped to get to. Howard P.R.I.D.E. was fundamental for that.”

It also meant working with the nationally renowned Howard County Public School System to ensure more students reap the benefits of HCC — namely with a dual enrollment program that ensures students take credit college courses while still in high school.

Hetherington worked closely with Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano to grow student enrollment via a program called JumpStart, which allows high school students to take classes at their high schools or on the Howard Community College campus, with the option to attend HCC full time during their senior year.

Dr. Martirano said that when he first arrived at the school system, “one of the data points that got my attention was statistics on dual enrollment ... Howard County was in the lower quadrant of all the counties in the state of Maryland, and I thought that was a mistake. I fostered a relationship with Dr. Hetherington. We connected at the level of supporting students and having more students going to college and making that linkage from my shop to having a seamless transition to higher education.” 

The result: Howard County Public School System students are now among the top in the state for the number of students participating in dual enrollment at the community college. “Kids are winning,” Martirano said. “We’re providing more opportunities for students who may not see college as a possibility.” HCC’s successes under Hetherington have scarcely gone unnoticed. A 2021 Markets Insider report listed HCC among the top 50 community colleges in the U.S., and college ranking site Niche named HCC as the best community college in Maryland and the 60th best community college in the country.

But for Hetherington and the entire HCC community, the pièce de résistance comes from two accolades.

The first is the 2019 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, an honor bestowed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Focusing on such key areas as product and process outcomes, leadership and governance outcomes and financial outcomes, the Baldrige Award is considered the highest level of national recognition for performance excellence that a U.S. organization can receive. Other winners include Xerox Corporation, Baltimore’s GBMC HealthCare, and AARP.

Howard Community College won the award as one of only three community colleges to do so. NIST officials lauded HCC for milestones that included:

  • HCC’s growth rate for attainment of associate degrees and certificates, which consistently outperformed its local and national comparators by more than 200 percent.
  • HCC’s persistence rate — defined as the number of students who graduated, transferred, earned at least 30 credits with a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or above, or were still enrolled at HCC four years after entry. The school’s persistence rate increased from about 75 percent in FY2016 to more than 80 percent in FY2018, surpassing all Maryland community colleges. 
  • HCC’s partnership with more than 276 entities to provide clinical practice sites to successfully prepare students entering the health sciences fields for employment. As a result, HCC’s graduate placement rate for these students is 100 percent. 

“That puts us in a special category,” said Hetherington about the Malcom Baldrige Award. The second honor is HCC being recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the Great Colleges to Work For — earning the honor for 12 consecutive years.

Elizabeth Rendón-Sherman, former member of the HCC Educational Foundation Board of Directors, said that these honors underscore the leadership Hetherington shows every day on campus and in the community.

“I would describe her as passionate because she’s passionate about anything she does, but mostly the college and the students,” said Rendón-Sherman, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of LG-TEK. “Her passion for the students and wanting to succeed probably surpasses everything. She works tirelessly to ensure as many students can attend the college. If they can’t or don’t have the wherewithal, she will work and push to get them scholarships.”

“Whenever she calls, it’s like, ‘What can I [Elizabeth] do to help?’ It’s not just from me, but from so many other people in the community,” she explained. “You just want to do as much as you can.”

Hetherington’s leadership was most evident to many in the HCC community during 2020. While some colleges struggled making the transition to online learning due to COVID-19, HCC made the changeover in about two weeks. Later, the college partnered with the Howard County Health Department to open the gymnasium as a mass vaccination site. Hetherington also wrote letters to the college community amid the polarizing tensions of the 2020 General Election and during the summer protests following the murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.

In a letter, Hetherington wrote: “It seems like just days ago that I watched ‘Kill Move Paradise,’ a moving production by the college’s professional theatre-in-residence, Rep Stage. The play powerfully addressed the growing list of Black men and women killed by law enforcement. Like the play, the number of Black deaths continues to rise one by one. George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. And so many other Black lives lost.

HCC's president -  Dr. Kathleen Hetherington“As we confront the racism in our communities, I find hope in the countless people of all ages who have come together in peaceful protests in our country and abroad. I have hope when law enforcement officers stand up to brutality and stand in solidarity with the protesters. I see hope in the families who are working side-by-side to help in their neighborhoods. We must continue to work together, now and in the future, if we want to change the world for ourselves and the children who will be our next leaders.”

As she reflected on that time and the messages she sent, Hetherington said, “I would say that for the most part, it was well received by the college community. There are always some who have a difference of opinion, and I feel that it’s important that all voices of the colleges are heard. So, I’m willing to take that pushback from people.”

Being open to varying views and opinions has created an college that openly embraces people of all backgrounds, and even during trying times, remains a welcoming environment.

Said Dr. Georgene Butler, dean of health sciences, “Everyone is always kind and courteous and understands that’s the way the institution should be run.”

Hetherington has relied on her own upbringing to help foster a collegial environment. She grew up in working class Southwest Philadelphia, a predominantly Irish American community. Her high school in West Philadelphia was around the corner from where the television show American Bandstand originated. She prepared for college at a time when her city grappled with its own racial and social unrest, from anti-Vietnam war demonstrations to nationwide race riots.

Hetherington attended a Catholic girls’ school with her sights set on attending a four-year college; her parents had long stressed the importance of higher education. But when it was time to enroll, they told her they didn’t have the funds to pay for it. Someone suggested Community College of Philadelphia — inexpensive, local, and well regarded — yet not everyone was sold on that idea.

“I went to my high school guidance counselor, who was a nun, and I said, ‘Sister, I heard of Community College of Philadelphia, and I think I’d like to go there,’” Hetherington said. “She looked at me and she said, ‘Honey, you don’t want to go there, it’s all hippies and communists.’ But I signed up, and that was the beginning of a beautiful journey for me.”

While at the college, she went on to meet the man she would marry, John Hetherington, in their college Spanish 101 class. The professor paired the two together to share John’s textbook. At CCP, Hetherington went on to work there for 23 years, serving in roles that included dean of student services.

“When you go to college, especially if you start out in liberal arts, you have the opportunity to see whether other fields of interests might be something you’d want to pursue,” said Hetherington, who went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Penn State, a master’s degree from Villanova, and a doctorate from Widener. “I was attracted to social studies, thinking that I might go into counseling. But when I did my practicum at the Community College of Philadelphia at night, I thought, ‘You know, I feel like I can help more people doing what I do during my day job — as an administrator in the Financial Aid Office.’

“Back then for women, it was very limited for what you could be,” said Hetherington. “You were a mother, a secretary, a teacher, a nurse — and sometimes you had combinations — but most of the time, there really weren’t a lot of opportunities for women. So the fact that my parents said, ‘You will go to college’ really instilled in me the value of education. They saw that. They didn’t have the financial means, but they saw how lifechanging having an education could be.”

Now, HCC is tasked with replacing the leader who had tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff flourish under her leadership. Now, as the next president is selected, the HCC community wants to ensure that the progress, passion, and dedication continues.

“I know when many presidents come in that they feel they need to make their mark and do their own thing,” said Butler, “but I would hope that the new person would do what is necessary to carry on the legacy that Kate is leaving behind. ... They need to recognize what they have in their hands.”

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