This is the third in a three-part series, spotlighting the fellows in this year’s Thomas Lakin Institute for Mentored Leadership. The Institute is committed to preparing Black senior-level community college executives for positions as chief executive officers. For more information, click here.
Dr. Larry Rideaux
Vice President of Student Development
Tarrant County College
When Dr. Larry Rideaux graduated from college in 1993, he was not quite sure where his path would lead next. He took a job as an admissions officer at his alma mater, Lamar University in Texas, as an admissions representative. He soon discovered that higher education was his calling.
“From that point, I just knew that a career in education is what I wanted to do,” Rideaux says.
Since then, he has held a variety of administrative positions at two- and four-year schools in Texas. Rideaux has been a director for multicultural services, a registrar at a private law school and associate vice chancellor for student success and dean of enrollment management, among many other roles.
Today, he is vice president of student development at Tarrant County College, a school serving more than 51,000 students on multiple campuses in the Fort Worth, Texas, area. The “scarlet thread” that runs through his career history, Rideaux explains, is his interest in student development and student success.
At Tarrant, he has taken that focus and applied it to the college and beyond. Over the years, TCC has expanded its outreach to local community partners to better help students access the services they need. Sometimes the barriers that stand in students’ paths can be as simple as a lack of access to housing or food.
“I’ve worked quite a bit with our local community to help supplement some of the things that we do in the community college,” Rideaux says. “It’s not a new concept, but we’ve got to be more cognizant about reaching out to people in the local community that can help us fulfill our mission, because we can’t do it by ourselves.”
The college is working with local businesses to create more direct links to employment opportunities. Since some students struggle with food insecurity and may face financial issues while in school, the college formed a partnership with Goodwill Industries to ensure that the college food pantry is stocked and that students can find adequate clothing.
TCC’s new Family Empowerment Center is another resource for students facing a variety of challenges. If they are homeless, they can access resources through the center. Other students who might need to have a criminal record expunged so they can find employment are able to get a referral to lawyers through the center.
“When you look at the success rates of students in the community college over the years, they’ve been fairly stagnant,” Rideaux says. “I think now we’re at that point where we understand that in many cases those success rates have been stagnant because we haven’t provided the sort of wrap-around services that we feel are important to getting students over the hump, so to speak.”
Dr. Jacqueline Taylor
Executive Director of Retention and Student Success
Southwest Tennessee Community College
In high school, Dr. Jacqueline Taylor graduated close to the top of her class. Yet, even though she was an academic all-star, she did not realize that higher education was a possibility for her because no one in her family had gone to college.
Instead of enrolling in college, Taylor took a job at age 19 at the historically Black Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. There, Taylor worked with faculty and administrators. The experience quickly opened her eyes to the value of higher education.
“It’s really where I fell in love with higher education,” Taylor says.
Taylor subsequently enrolled in a community college, working her way up to a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate. “I just didn’t have a point reference for how to get started until I became an employee of a four-year university,” she explains.
Since then, she has worked at Jackson State Community College and Union University, a four-year school Jackson, Tennessee, investing her life work in improving the lives of students in Tennessee. Taylor returned to the community college sector in 2016 and is now executive director of retention and student success at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis.
Taylor says that her experience at Jackson State helped her see early on how important working with students outside the classroom can be. “I think that’s really where I developed a philosophy of holistic student success and understanding that students are in the classroom 10 percent of the time and outside of the classroom 90 percent of the time,” she explains.
She retains that focus in her current role. “A lot of my work is to retain students, but also to develop them holistically so that they can complete a degree and so that their lives are transformed, really,” Taylor says.
Taylor grew up in Western Tennessee and feels a deep sense of connection to the area, so when the opportunity arose at Southwest Tennessee Community College, she was enthusiastic about the possibilities. “I saw that Southwest was a great opportunity to return to the community college and be a part of leveling the playing field for students who start out in community college, just like I did,” she says.
According to Taylor, community colleges must have diversity in their leadership ranks to better reflect the experiences of the students who attend these institutions. Just as community college students might be students of color, first-generation to college, or low-income, it is crucial that school leaders be able to empathize with the lived experience of students.
“My ultimate goal, passion and purpose is to transform lives by leveling the playing field for all through quality, affordable, holistic higher education,” Taylor says.
Dr. Daria J. Willis
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs
Onondaga Community College
Dr. Daria J. Willis initially thought she wanted to be a high school music teacher but turned her attention to higher education instead, earning both a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and master’s degree in applied social science from Florida A&M University, before pursuing a Ph.D. in history at Florida State University.
“It wasn’t part of the plan,” Willis says with a chuckle.
But after a stint teaching at Tallahassee Community College as an adjunct, the Atlanta native was convinced that higher education was the place for her.
Having risen through the academic ranks as an assistant professor and a dean, at institutions in Florida and Texas, Willis is now the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Onondaga Community College.
After serving as the Faculty Senate president at Lone Star College, Willis says that she acquired an understanding of what it means to be a leader.
“We talked about big ticket items,” she says of her time in that role. “From there, administration was for me. I believed I could do more and wanted to actually sit in the administrator seat and sign the paper that would have a direct impact on students’ lives.”
Since arriving at the institution in July 2016, Willis has implemented a number of changes aimed at benefiting the more than 12,000 students who are enrolled at the college. Under her leadership, the college has secured a grant to begin the implementation of a Weekend College, offering classes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a cohort model, allowing students who stick with the program to earn their degrees in 18 months.
She has implemented a new first-year experience, providing students with an opportunity to schedule out all of their classes for the entire year.
“We are losing a lot of students who can’t see the future,” says Willis, adding that retaining students and helping them graduate is a major priority for the institution.
“I’m all about success,” says Willis, who has made partnerships with the surrounding community a major focus of her work. The college currently works with three local elementary schools in Syracuse, New York. Faculty and staff read to the students and assist with arts and crafts.
“It’s never a quiet moment,” says Willis, who wants to increase the number of minority faculty at the community college.
At this juncture in her career, Willis is not bashful about discussing her ultimate goals.
“I love what I am doing, but I want more,” she says of her interest in one day becoming a college president or chancellor. “I don’t shy away from that. Everything I do is to get to the next goal. I am very strategic.”
Vice President of Student Services
San Diego City College
Last year, Denise Whisenhunt, vice president of student services for San Diego City College, got her first taste of what it meant to be a college president.
Whisenhunt was appointed interim president of San Diego’s oldest community college, which has more than 18,000 students. Having first served as acting president, she was selected by San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance Carroll to be the interim president until a permanent president was selected.
“Denise Whisenhunt is the perfect person to serve as interim president of City College,” Carroll said at the time. “She knows the college well and enjoys widespread respect throughout the district for her leadership, hard work and talent.
“She also has extensive professional experience, connections with the community and a strong commitment to advocacy for students,” Carroll said. “I am truly looking forward to working with her in this new role during a critical period of transition for the college.”
A seasoned administrator, Whisenhunt has held a variety of leadership positions in the San Diego district for more than 16 years. A graduate of University of California, San Diego, she earned her law degree from the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America.
Whisenhunt has been praised for her efforts to promote civic engagement among students. She has been involved in grappling with San Diego’s homeless problem and was instrumental in ensuring that the school’s food pantry extend its resources from three to five days a week to provide food for hungry students.
Dr. Ricky Shabazz, who succeeded Whisenhunt as president of San Diego City College, praises her leadership skills and says that her selection as a Lakin fellow is a testament to her hard work and tenacity.
“Denise is a natural leader and I am happy to see that she is being recognized nationally for her great work on improving student success,” says Shabazz. “Lakin is an amazing opportunity for Denise to network with other leaders who have social justice at the core of their efforts.”