By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Rachel Solemsaas’s late grandmother went to college, she was the first person in her family to do so.
Since then, higher education has become an expectation. And when it was her turn, Solemsaas not only met those expectations but surpassed them.
Solemsaas earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from De La Salle University in Manila. She moved to the Seattle area in 1986 at age 20 and went on to get her master’s in public administration from the University of Washington. She is currently working toward a doctorate in higher education, community college leadership, from Washington State University.
“I am the byproduct of a grandmother who was a first-generation college student,” Solemsaas said. “It has an impact.”
Now, as one of six finalists for Edmonds Community College president, the 44-year-old hopes to use her background to help others realize the importance of higher education, especially those living at the poverty level.
Eradicating poverty is one of Solemsaas’ passions. This likely stems from her great-grandmother’s willingness to support her daughter’s choice to go to college instead of helping to take care of her four siblings, whom Solemsaas’ great-grandmother was raising alone. Her great-grandmother knew the value of getting a higher education and had passed on this mentality to the younger generations.
“[Higher education is] just a pathway for many people, especially those in poverty,” she said. “The opportunity it provides is tremendous.”
This is one of the reasons Solemsaas is vying for the president position. She truly believes in the community college system and how it provides an opportunity for post-secondary education for all, no matter what their background is. Solemsaas sees the president position as an opportunity to work the system and help as many people as she can.
“You want to be a part of it,” she said. “I want to make a difference through this system.”
Solemsaas, who is currently the vice president for administrative services at Bellevue College, did not always work in education.
She began working in finance in public health and human services for King and Snohomish counties before landing a position as vice president for finance and operations at ECC. Once she arrived at the college, she was hooked.
“That’s a big part of [my running for president],” Solemsaas said. “Edmonds Community College gave me a lasting impression.”
Returning to ECC would also be meaningful for Solemsaas because she lives in Snohomish County and the college is in her community — one in which she has always been active.
“She has always been a passionate community volunteer, particularly regarding issues pertaining to children and youth,” said Janice Ellis, who met Solemsaas when they both worked for the Snohomish County finance department.
Ellis has known Solemsaas for years and is currently a prosecutor for the court services division of the Office of the Reservation Attorney for the Tulalip tribe. She said Solemsaas’ demonstrated commitment to youth would be an asset if she were selected as president.
“While more and more community colleges educate older students, community colleges must continue to appeal to and be responsive to the needs of high school students and high school graduates,” Ellis said.
In addition to fueling her passion for helping young people, if selected as president, Solemsaas hopes to help deal with ECC’s budget and aid in making it financially sustainable by utilizing her background in finance.
Dan Clements met Solemsaas in the late 1990s when he was chief financial officer for Snohomish County and recruited her from King County to be the acting finance director for Snohomish County.
“What struck me was not only her technical competence but her compassion and caring for staff and customers, especially children and young adults,” Clements said. “She is an outstanding role model for anyone, regardless of gender, race, or nationality. She would do an outstanding job of filling Jack Oharah’s shoes.”
Oharah is ECC’s current president and has been for 14 years.
Fifty-five people in 26 states applied to be his replacement. According to the ECC website, a committee of 11 students and employees and seven community members helped screen the applicants and narrow it down to the final six.
This is Solemsaas’ first time applying for a president position. She is up against five candidates who come from around the state as well as the country. They are Kimberly Perry, Marty Cavalluzzi, Jean Hernandez, Don Doucette, and Joe Dunlap.
Solemsaas said she feels very fortunate to have been selected as a finalist and has received so much excellent advice from so many people, both in education and the community.
“I already feel like a winner whether I get the job or not,” she said. “I have gained so much growth from the process. I had this opportunity to talk to these people, and that is just the best experience ever.” ♦
Samantha Pak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.