Jessica Howard in her office at Portland Community College (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Most college students start their academic careers with an associate’s degree before moving on to more advanced education.

But Jessica Howard isn’t most college students.

The college administrator, who will become Chemeketa Community College’s 11th president on July 8, decided while serving as a vice president at San Antonio Community College that she wanted to better understand the college she worked for, and be a model for students.

So she enrolled as a student to earn her associate’s degree, which she completed in 2010 -- 13 years after her doctorate.

It’s something that stuck out when the Chemeketa board interviewed her. Chair Neva Hutchinson said Howard’s dedication to students was clear across her career.

“She’s up front about that. She prioritizes that, which is the culture Chemeketa has,” Hutchinson said. “She just steps right into what we believe: access and completion.”

Howard has worked at Portland Community College since 2012, building the college’s southeast campus from an academic center into a full college serving a diverse group of students, many of them first-generation.

There, she’s pushed staff to go beyond “superficial friendliness and welcoming” to create a campus culture that makes students feel at home, colleague Jerry Annen said. He’s seen that firsthand as coordinator for the campus reading and writing center.

“She challenges us to look deeper at root causes of a lack of inclusion that people might feel,” Annen said.

That’s meant making free healthy snacks available around campus to help students who might be struggling to afford them, along with information about the college’s food pantry.

But it’s also reflected in her attitude, he said. It’s not unusual for Howard to stick her head in the reading center to talk to students and staff or bring by homemade jams or soap.

“She brings this positive spirit wherever she goes,” Annen said.

Chemeketa’s board selected Howard from five finalists to take over after President Julie Huckestein’s retirement. In March, the board approved a three-year contract paying Howard $210,000 a year.

Howard has an expressive face that lights up frequently when she talks about preparing to lead Chemeketa, the value of higher education in general, or Oregon, her adopted home state.

“It is profoundly inspiring to be in this business,” she said of community colleges. “I am absolutely passionate about education. It is the most transformative thing I know of.”

Howard’s academic background is in music and English, which she studied at Rice University.

As an undergraduate, she planned to major in music performance on the French horn. But she found she was too extroverted to spend four hours a day in a room by herself practicing, so she switched to music theory.

Her dissertation focused on the town of Branson, Missouri, a family tourist destination known for its vibrant entertainment scene. She lived there for two years and taught at the local college while writing about the performances there and what values they emphasized.

“I bet five people have read it since I wrote it,” she said with a laugh.

Howard began teaching music at San Antonio Community College in 2002. She’d always been interested in teaching and never wanted to be an administrator, but her colleagues had other plans.

“Before I showed up, the music department voted me in as department chair,” apparently because no one else wanted the job, she said. “I was the new hire and the rest was history.”

After six years there, she moved into a vice president role, overseeing academics and developing career and technical education programs.

Despite her Texas roots, Howard has developed a deep love for Oregon. Her husband and daughter live in south Portland with her. She’s taken up hiking and said she values how much relationships shape life in Oregon.

“To me Oregon feels like a great big, large small town,” she said.

The state also has a pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit, something Howard suspects is behind Oregon’s decentralized community college system.

Hutchinson said the uniqueness of Oregon’s system can be difficult to adapt to, and Howard’s experience with it was a plus. All other finalists for the Chemeketa job were from other states.

Howard has spent time in Salem for meetings of state community college groups and has experience advocating for funding and speaking on behalf of the system.

After her time in San Antonio, Howard said she’s eager to be back at what is termed a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a federal designation qualifying Chemeketa for grants to boost student retention.

Like most Oregon community colleges, enrollment at Chemeketa has declined steadily over the past decade. Positions have been cut and tuition raised to fill budget gaps.

Howard expects to spend her first months on the job growing familiar with Chemeketa’s programs and how the college runs, so she said she doesn’t yet have a plan for approaching those challenges, she said.

Tight times can also be opportunities for institutions to look as how they’re performing and re-evaluate programs, she said.

“There are things to be learned and gained from tight times,” she said.

And she’s heartened by the college’s strengths.

“One of the great distinguishing features of Chemeketa is how well it’s been run,” she said.

Outside of work, Howard is an avid reader who seeks out a little bit of everything. She’s especially fond of biographies and history. Her reading pile currently include Nordic crime and bestsellers.

She’s a “crafter,” she said, a word which encompasses canning, knitting, papermaking, gardening and baking.

A particular point of pride is her amaretto cheesecake recipe, which won a prize in spite of her accidentally doubling the required amount of butter in the graham cracker crust. The cake caught fire in the oven and required her husband to intervene with a fire extinguisher, but it still came out on top of the contest.

“If it can survive a fire, it’s a winner,” she said. (She has since baked it successfully without causing a fire, she noted.)

Howard is learning Chemeketa operations and talking with the executive team about the transition. She wants faculty, students and staff to know she’s eager to get started.

“It’s heady work and I’m just all in,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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