By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
While she’s the president of Seattle Central College (SCC), Sheila Edwards Lange thinks of herself as an activist. She’s in an ideal role because her true passion is education.
As president of SCC, no day is the same for Edwards Lange. A current challenge that she faces is trying to respond to multiple demands from various communities and having limited resources to accomplish everything.
Edwards Lange said the leadership team at SCC has identified five strategic directions to work on for the next few years: increasing enrollment and retention, increasing students’ graduation/completion rate, eliminating institutional racism and increasing equity and diversity for the campus, building a shared sense of community on and off campus, and to advance the college’s long-term financial health.
“All are connected, the heart of what we want to do is increase student success and completion. In addition, equity and inclusion is more important than diversity — providing equitable access and resources to students so that they can be successful,” she said.
Student completion is near and dear to her heart. In order to impact student completion, she has to work on equity and the financial health of the campus.
Edwards Lange got her start in education during her first year at the University of California at Irvine, in a work-study position in the Office of Housing and Food Services. She paid her way through school and was exposed to how educational institutions work, and she enjoyed it. She’s mostly been in administration, but she later taught at the University of Washington (UW)’s Evan School of Public Affairs.
Edwards Lange has had the great fortune of working in leadership offices. She soon realized that she loved teaching after starting at the Evan School, but also learned that it was impossible to be both a teacher and a president.
INTERNATIONAL IMPACT ON SCC
In recent news, Edwards Lange said that SCC’s international enrollment is down 20 percent due to the Saudi Arabian government’s decision to fund only students who attend top 10 colleges — a policy change unrelated to the Trump administration.
However, current U.S. foreign policy hasn’t been sending the message to the rest of the world that they’re welcomed and supported here — which has impacted enrollment. Edwards Lange explained that four-year colleges have gotten more aggressive about international student recruitment, even using recruiting agents overseas and creating more competition for SCC.
“It’s important to meet students where they are and to make sure the campus and classrooms are welcoming. No matter what their racial/socioeconomic background, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or gender identity, people should feel welcomed and supported here like this is their place — that’s what inclusion is,” she added.
On the other hand, she’s observed a lot more activism around religious freedom, DACA, Black Lives Matter, and social justice issues. SCC hired a navigator to work specifically with undocumented students last year, as they are trying to make resources and support more visible.
“2017 has been surreal in terms of the amount of organizing and activism that is happening in response to national policy on campus,” she said.
Edwards Lange saw mostly full-time students traditionally aged 18-24 while working at the UW, but when she came to a place like SCC, where students are older and working professionals, she finds it incredible that they still find time to be engaged in their studies and social justice issues.
“The students at community colleges in general are some of the most motivated and engaged students I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENTS AND INSPIRATIONS
One of Edwards Lange’s proudest achievements was the construction of the longhouse at the UW. She said the faculty, tribes, and community members pulled together to make it happen.
“When the building opened, there was something spiritual and magical about the facility. It wasn’t just a building, it’s part of the legacy of native people in Seattle… it’s a very special place, when you walk in, you feel something different about it,” she said.
Rebuilding the UW’s Ethnic Cultural Center was one of the biggest challenges of her professional career. The team had to figure out how to honor the past and embrace a new future to include different groups and where the building would be located. Her job was to negotiate strong, differing opinions and deliver a product that would fit more programs and respond to student needs.
Constance Rice has been one of her greatest mentors and someone Edwards Lange looks up to for advice and counsel.
Other trailblazing Black college presidents, such as Ruth Simmons and Johnnetta Cole, have been incredible role models as well.
Simmons was the first Black woman to head a major college, Smith College. She was also Brown University’s first female president.
Cole was the first Black female president of historically Black school, Spelman College, and served from 1987 to 1997. She’s now the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
Edwards Lange said that she had been following Cole’s career for over 20 years and was able to meet her last year at the UW graduation, where Cole was the commencement speaker.
“Education is a pathway for everyone to get access to stability, jobs, housing, and I like to think of my work as civil rights and activism. If I can kick the door open for other folks to follow behind me, for them to get access to education, their families will be better off,” she said.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.