Last week, President Barack Obama called community college teachers “the unsung heroes of American education,” training students for 21st century jobs. Christine Johnson, the new chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, appreciated the national shout-out.
Johnson, 57, and her husband, Carl Griffin, a retired IBM executive and avid outdoorsman, moved here this summer from the University of Colorado in Denver, where Johnson was special assistant to the provost.
In a recent interview, Johnson talked about the role community colleges will play in the future, and how she’s adjusting to Spokane.
Q. How did you feel when you heard what the president said?
A. Tremendous pride. Sometimes community colleges are in the shadows because of the students we serve, and the lack of big endowments. Just as universities take great pride in their selectivity, community colleges take great pride in their openness.
Q. What’s been your biggest surprise about the community?
A. I’ll tell you a little story. I went on a walk with my dog. I stopped at a Starbucks on my way back. I had with me a coin purse with my driver’s license, a couple of credit cards and a little money. Somehow in the ordering of my latte, I walked out, leaving it.
This was a Saturday, and I didn’t need my wallet again until Sunday. I couldn’t find it. I remembered the Starbucks. It was there. I tried to tip the young woman who helped me. She wouldn’t accept. I don’t know that this would happen in most communities.
Q. What’s the biggest challenge facing the Community Colleges of Spokane?
A. Increased demand with declining resources. These are enormous challenges, but we have talented people, a supportive community and students who need us, so we will step up to rethinking, reorganizing and redefining our roles.
Q. How many students do you have now?
A. We have close to 38,000 students across the six counties. It’s everything from students who were top students in their (high school) classes to the students who were first in their family to get a GED. That’s the beauty of community colleges.
Q. What training will go on at the community colleges for future jobs?
A. In the area of health, for instance, every scientist needs 15 technicians. We’ll be preparing those technicians.
Q. Where and how did you grow up?
A. New Mexico on a cattle ranch. I went to a two-room schoolhouse. I graduated from a high school of 300 students.
I come from a wonderful family. My mom and dad expected a lot of us in the old-fashioned way of family honor. I have five brothers, and (they) didn’t cut me any slack. I competed and had to make my own way.
We learned independence as a family because we lived on a ranch. And interdependence within the family unit. I have a dozen nieces and nephews. I was very Catholic in my upbringing, and it’s a big part of my life.
I bring a perspective (of) a rural kid who didn’t have higher education in her neighborhood. It’s important to me to provide access to students who are rural kids and need that opportunity.