Community college was not only the place where I earned my first college degree, but it was also the place that opened my mind and heart to much more than I knew possible growing up. I was raised in a family where neither parent graduated college. I attended a high school where my guidance counselor labeled me as career, not college, bound. Moreover, in my secondary years, I did not believe in my academic skills. I earned a very mediocre ACT score and had general success in high school courses, but I had no teachers on my journey who encouraged me to go to college. It was by happenstance that the high school guidance office secretary pulled me aside one day to tell me about a two-year full-tuition scholarship at Waubonsee Community College. Her encouraging me to apply resulted in my becoming a Lucile Gustafson Scholar.
During my two years as a community college student, I flourished due to the relationships and connections with faculty and staff. In the classroom, I was challenged to think for myself rather than merely repeat what information was provided in text or class materials. The teachers truly cared about my contributions in classes and also encouraged me to explore subjects that would not have been part of my original plans. Ultimately, this fostered my love for history and psychology as I entered college without much vision or perspective for what I wanted to study. Outside of the classroom, I played on the basketball team and was involved in campus clubs and organizations. Through these experiences, I found my mentor, who took an interest in my life and my goals. Without these connections and encouragement, I do not believe that I would be working in a community college today.
Through those early experiences at community college, I found a place where I belonged. The personal relationships and opportunities to get involved on campus influenced my future career path in such a way that I began to consider how working in higher education may be the right place for me. After leaving Waubonsee, I attended North Central College, completing my degree in psychology and a minor in history. Also, I had the opportunity to work as an intern for the first-year experience office. Here, I learned about the many roles in student services/development and the many strategies that have been demonstrated to support youth’s successful transition through college.
My first professional role was at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I completed my master’s degree in instructional design and further solidified my commitment to returning to work in the community college setting that had given so much to me as a student. Several years later, I completed my doctorate in community college executive leadership. My work at community colleges began at Waubonsee Community College, leading recruitment and retention efforts that then led to Rock Valley College. I worked with several enrollment service departments and led the college’s institutional research office. In 2006, I began my journey at Elgin Community College, which included serving as the associate dean of enrollment management, director of student and academic effectiveness, associate dean of communications and behavioral sciences, and dean of college transitions and secondary partnerships. Starting June 1, 2022, I will make another transition to serve as the dean of liberal, visual, and performing arts.
Looking back, community college has been an integral part of my story and helped me become the professional I am today.
Mary Perkins, EdD, dean of college transitions and secondary partnerships