Sylvia Kelley walked into Portland Community College with a naïve outlook on what it would take to be the college's executive vice president.
She didn't lack for experience. She had previously served as vice president for development at Southern Oregon University and vice president for institutional advancement at Texas A&M University. Along with a loaded resume in education and community outreach, she assumed she already had a firm grasp of what it meant to be in higher education.
"I probably learned more at Portland Community College in the work that I did than all of my jobs put together," Kelley said.
Kelley, who lives in Beaverton, is retiring from her post as executive vice president after seven years with the college. Her last day is on Thursday, Oct. 28.
She leaves behind a passionate community she says she'll sorely miss.
"I'm going to miss the inspiration that people share with each other and with our students," Kelley said. "There's a passion for higher education here, a passion that we try our best to relay and put systems in place that deliver to people. I'll miss that engagement."
Kelley said she is most inspired by the students she watched overcome challenging and tragic situations in their lives while still attending classes.
"What sticks with me the most is that it's not only for them, it's for their kids. It's for their families," Kelley said. "Those are always the stories for me that are so moving."
Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui is also retiring next summer. The next president will conduct a national search to hire a permanent successor to Kelley, according to the college.
Kelley was initially hired in 2014 to fill the school's executive vice president role, but just months later, the PCC board of directors fired Jeremy Brown, then the college's president.
A spokesperson from PCC later characterized Brown's exit as a "mutually-agreed-to-separation."
In need of leadership, the board turned to Kelley — still acclimating to work at a community college. They asked her to take over as interim president, until a permanent replacement could be hired. She said yes.
Kelley has spent much of her time at PCC helping to implement strategic plans and bonds.
"A lot of my job has been to bring together the people who were needed to make a project actually become something that could be implemented," Kelley said.
While Kelley says she cultivated special relationships and memories at PCC, the job didn't come without its own set of unique challenges.
One that comes to mind is when PCC in 2016 implemented a "Whiteness History Month," to examine racism and white supremacy. The project was not meant to be celebratory, but rather to "challenge the master narrative of race and racism," according to the college.
The project — and Kelley herself, still serving as interim president before Mitsui came aboard in September 2016 — received a lot of backlash from media outlets and far-right groups.
"I was personally hit with threats and all kinds of things," Kelley said. "I didn't expect that."
Four years later, the college and the rest of the world were socked with the COVID-19 pandemic.
There's never a good time for a major public health crisis. But PCC was caught in the middle of a major reorganization. Kelley and the rest of the PCC leadership had to quickly move the entire college district — Oregon's largest — completely online.
Like the rest of the world, PCC is still picking up the pieces and figuring out a "new normal." That means there's unfinished business, as Kelley sees it — work that will now fall on the shoulders of Kelley's permanent successor.
"I don't think I ever expected to have to retire during a pandemic like this," she said. "That's really been the toughest thing."
As a community college graduate herself — she got her associate's degree from the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California — Kelley says she will always be an advocate for the opportunities community college can provide. Beyond educational and career opportunities, the caring culture she discovered at PCC is unlike any other institution she has worked with, she told Pamplin Media Group.
"We, in a very meaningful way, have this collaborative way of working with our students and among ourselves with what I would say as an equity and empowerment lens," she said. "It really helps move us toward making sure that all of our students are able to receive what they need to achieve what they want to."
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