Staying in touch with students; the early bus to Montgomery County Community College

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Karen Stout

Many of the CEOs I've interviewed work hard to push through the layers of yes-saying bureaucracy and connect directly with their customers or frontline employees and Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, is no exception. "I get my energy from being with our students," she told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I do these things called Raps with the President," she said. "At lunchtime, I go to the campuses and any student who wants to come in and share anything they like or don't like about the college  -- well, they have me for an hour and 15 minutes. Those conversations are really interesting. 

Question:  When you speak with students is there anything that you learn that surprises you?

Answer: Always. This is a simple surprise. The buses get to [the Blue Bell] campus with the first drop off at 6:45 a.m -- that's when the first bus comes, the 96, from Norristown. I didn't know that. The students asked me a very simple question: `Is there a way the cafeteria can open and be in synch with the timing of the bus?' The students get here and the library's not open and the cafeteria's not open. So that's a really important point of information for me as the president. I am far removed from that in a lot of respects. That's been happening for years here probably and it is so obvious. It's not obvious how we solve that in a time of strained resources. The cafeteria opens at 7:30 But we've made the buildings open and we have the big TV screens and we've tried to make the campus more welcoming. That would be one surprise.

Q: How would you have even known that?

A: That's why I find my time with my students renewing for me personally. I'm driven by a deep sense of purpose to preserving affordable access to higher education from people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get access. We are the pathway to the middle class for so many. The survival of America's community colleges is essential to preserving the fabric of community and getting at that economic divide that keeps growing. When I meet with students, they remind me every day of the little things that matter. There is one story of a student, taking a bus, who had to work to find child care. She mapped her pathway to the college and where she could stop and get child care and then get back on the bus. Every day, she went about an hour and 45 minutes. She lives 10 minutes from here if you had your own transportation. It took her one hour and 45 minutes each way and she was working on her nursing degree. Those stories are humbling. It's a story of grit and perseverance and entrepreneurship and reality. 

Q: The stories probably come in handy when you are trying to advocate for your college.

A: It's interesting, because I think for a long time, community colleges were kind of hidden -- we often are referred to as these hidden gems.  In talking to the employer community, more employers are aware, that when a student is a community college graduate, it says something about their character. 

Q:What does it say. 

A: It says they have probably beaten a lot of odds. It says they are practical. It says they are creative. It says they have a lot of persistence and resilience. It says they chose [to succeed]. It's not the easiest path for them and I think it says when they come in [to the workplace], they are going to have a certain discipline and work ethic because failure is not an option. There is something driving them.