“No se termina nunca de nacer” ~ Nicanor Parra, Chile, 1914

By: Daisy Cocco De Filippis, Ph.D.

President, Naugatuck Valley Community College

It was a bright and sunny day, pregnant with possibilities.  1964 was on my mind.  Fifty years to mark groundbreaking civil rights legislation, affirmation that this is a country of opportunities, willing and capable of self-reflection and bold enough to transform itself and re-dress past short-comings.

In Denver, a city framed by mountains and high aspirations, the 2014 HERS Summit came together for the second time in two years, to gather women presidents and chancellors to discuss the status of women leadership in higher education.  HERS Board Members and women leaders from various national organizations joined us for what became a magnificent vehicle to consider the journey women have taken in higher education, and on a personal level, our very own experiences, in some ways different and in many other ways very familiar.

During the Summit’s opening panel, which introduced the theme of “Leading Transformation and Experiencing Transformation,” I began to reflect on my own leadership path.   Nicanor Parra’s verse, no se termina nunca de nacer, entered my thoughts for it speaks of our continuing ability to “give birth to ourselves” or to be always alive and on the verge of becoming.  And so it has been with my journey.  Change is my friend; it keeps me alive and curious; it accompanies me wherever I go, with my immigrant home on my back in the form of values, creativity and a sense of self.

Here, I want to share a few observations from that introductory panel, and the numerous discussions that marked the 2014 Summit, that I found to resonate with my own experience in navigating the academic path and beyond.

1. Leading transformation and experiencing transformation can come early in our careers

I believe that leadership is needed and is found at every level of the organization.  As a young faculty member, I remember being assigned to teach a course no one else looked forward to teaching:  Advanced Spanish Composition.  The dilemma I faced was how do I make this relevant to the students?  How do I create a vehicle to encourage and reward the kind of writing skills they needed for long-term success?  The answer:  The creation of a journal to publish the ten best essays written in the class.

This took me out of my own comfort zone as I had to learn to navigate securing a budget from the administration to support the printing of the journal, the awards of book vouchers from our bookstore and the scheduling with facilities for the celebration.  The result was a win-win for all of us.  For the students this was powerful affirmation of the beauty and importance of their own writings.  It gives me great joy to confirm that this tradition continues at the institution even now.

2. Senior leaders have to be ready to lead and experience transformation in very public ways, which can be very risky and potentially very rewarding

I often quote my experiences with over the years with General Education requirements as the testing ground of principles and negotiations to bring consensus.  In the end, collegiality, perseverance and fortitude win the day; but the outcomes are never certain.

When I arrived as the new Provost of a community college in NYC, the college had just undergone accreditation.  It was to be visited in one year for a follow up that would confirm progress had been made in strengthening the general education requirements.  After collecting past general education proposals from this faculty and from other community colleges, as well as drafting yet another proposal, my charge to the participating faculty was to work on a proposal they would all embrace.  It could be any of those presented, revision of any of those mentioned, or a new proposal.  I encouraged them to meet as often as necessary but that at the end of spring break, I would be attending the meeting when they would discuss their recommendations before going to the Faculty Senate for a vote.

I had no idea if this would work.  It was difficult for me to trust the process, but I felt I needed to do just that.  In the end, I was rewarded by the work of a faculty that felt so empowered and responsible that they delivered a strong proposal that was not the one I envisioned nor any of those that had been drafted by others.  I learned that getting to the first draft is important for a leader but it is equally important to know when it is time for others to take the lead.  Octavio Paz’ verse in “Libertad bajo palabra” came to mind:  “Aquí donde mi voz termina y la tuya comienza, nace el canto” (Here at the point where my voice quiets down and yours emerges, the song is born).

3. To take risks and survive and then to thrive in your transformations, you must seek and embrace kindred spirits, especially ones you might not have expected

Back in the 1990s, a group of Latina academics met in Colorado for two weeks to participate in an initiative that included the drafting of a book to be used by younger Latina academics coming after us.  To say that this was a transformational experience for me would be an understatement.  It gave me the opportunity to reflect on where I’ve been, to learn from other women and to impart on some of the younger ones in attendance some of the lessons I had learned through the years.

At that time, one of the more junior participants had defended her Ph.D. dissertation and was considering a number of positions.  Our advice to her, one that we had learned to apply to ourselves, was to research the publications and the work of faculty members in the departments where she would be employed.  We discussed the importance of finding connections in place and not having to try to change others or oneself because the road to tenure was tough enough as it was.

At the same time, I would also offer this advice:  Knowing oneself also means recognizing the presence of kindred spirits who may or may not look like us.  It is accepting guidance for a road paved by values shared.  It also means paying forward by ensuring that the generosity we receive can be reciprocated to those who will be coming after us.  In that regard, being a young immigrant, supported by so many faculty members and by more experienced classmates in college, guides the work that I do on behalf of our students and in support of more junior colleagues, both male and female.  My life has been changed by hard work but also by the support and kindness of so many.  It is my hope that one day others will say the same, and that my contribution would be included with that of those who have made a difference.