As a first-generation college student in Northern California, Kimberlee Messina changed her major three times before completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in Spanish.
So it’s fitting that Messina, who started as president of Spokane Falls Community College in June, is focused on helping students choose academic paths that suit their interests and career goals.
As president, one of her top priorities is establishing a “guided pathways” program to provide SFCC students with improved counseling and information about job options, such as salary data. The program, which SFCC began adopting before other schools in Washington, is one example of SFCC’s “willingness to embrace innovation,” she said.
“We are known as the transfer institution,” Messina said. “What I think people don’t know is that we also have great associate degrees that lead directly to employment.”
Messina, a native of Sacramento, also holds a doctorate of education from the University of California, Davis. She has 27 years of experience leading and teaching at schools in Northern California, starting as a Spanish instructor at UC Davis and Santa Rosa Junior College.
“I think languages are second only to math in terms of high anxiety for students,” said Messina, who also speaks Portuguese. “So it was really a pleasure for me to work with students, and really help students to feel comfortable and to progress in language, and to lose a lot of that anxiety.”
Messina said it was a last-minute phone call that sparked her passion for teaching at community colleges. There was an urgent need to fill a position at Santa Rosa, and a colleague asked her to take the job.
If it weren’t for that phone call, “I would have probably completed my doctorate and gone on to be a university professor,” she said. “I don’t know that I would have been as happy.”
She was later asked to fill another opening as dean of science, technology, engineering and math at Santa Rosa. She said she took the job reluctantly but ended up enjoying it.
“I realized that I could help students in a different way,” she said. “In my classroom, I could help students directly, and I only could help my students. But as the dean, I was able to help faculty to help a much larger group of students.”
After Santa Rosa, Messina held administrative posts at schools in the Silicon Valley area. She was a vice chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District and served as interim president for one year at Foothill College.
Most recently, she was the interim vice president of instruction at Clovis Community College in Fresno, California, working on a six-month contract.
Messina moved to Spokane with her husband, a retired art dealer, and their cat, which they named Dr. Picasso.
In addition to the breadth of programs the school offers, Messina praised SFCC’s student government, which has taken up causes including environmental sustainability and food insecurity among students.
Messina took the helm of SFCC after two years of turnover in the school’s leadership.
Former President Janet Gullickson stepped down in June 2017 to lead a school in Virginia. A vice president, Darren Pitcher, was tapped to serve as acting president but resigned eight months later amid allegations of sexual harassment.
Provost Nancy Fair-Szofran served as acting president while the Community Colleges of Spokane conducted two nationwide searches for a permanent successor after a panel of administrators and faculty members couldn’t settle on any finalist from the first recruitment process.
“I’ve come in after two years of acting or interim leadership, and that’s really hard on a college,” Messina said.
However, she is optimistic about working with faculty and administrators.
“I think the college is in a great place right now. There’s a lot of positive energy, they’re excited to have some stability at the leadership level,” she said.
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