Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 9, 2018

Chattanooga State president out to ‘change lives for the better’

Ashford’s path sets example for what can be accompliched via community college programs

Rebecca Ashford, Ed.D., will never forget what she witnessed on January 28, 1986 as a seventh-grader in Merritt Island, Florida.

The U.S. space program was ingrained in the local culture – Ashford’s father was a NASA technician at the nearby Kennedy Space Center, and most of her friends’ dads worked there, too – so taking a break for each shuttle liftoff from Cape Canaveral was standard procedure at school.

“It was so cold that there were icicles on the plants and on trees walking into school,” remembers Ashford, 44, who became the new president at Chattanooga State Community College in July.

“We all thought that it would be a canceled launch because it was cold,” she adds, referring to the Challenger space shuttle. “But because Christa McAuliffe was on it, and it was very high profile with a teacher on there, they really wanted it to go on time. We were in P.E. and we didn’t have to dress out because of the cold, so we all walked outside to watch it like we always did.”

Then, as Ashford and her classmates looked to the sky, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. “I saw it happen, she recalls. “That just had a big impact on my life.”

A “normal kid” who loved biking and swimming in high school, Ashford gravitated toward leadership roles. She served as a drum major in the band, a yearbook staff member and class president.

For a while, she wanted to be a dental hygienist – “I’m obsessed with dental care,” she notes – but decided to study English with the intention of moving home and teaching at the high school level.

Like many of the students she’s counseled over the years, Ashford earned a two-year associate in arts degree from her local community college, then known as Brevard Community College and now Eastern Florida State College.

While there, she worked as a student advisor, helping enrollees determine their majors and register for courses, and later became dean of educational services on two of the institution’s campuses before being promoted to dean of student services, then dean of enrollment management.

“I never would’ve dreamed that I would be a college president … or vice president,” acknowledges Ashford, who describes herself as a hard worker. “I would get to work an hour early every day and I would take on as much as I could. I don’t know, maybe I’m just crazy, but I like the feeling of accomplishment. Checking things off my list makes me very happy.”

Early on, back in the “old days of student services offices with a filing cabinet behind the counter,” she was putting folders away one day when a student walked in and asked for help. Ashford didn’t hesitate to switch gears.

“And she said to me, ‘You’re the only person who’s ever stopped what they’re doing to help me.’ That’s just always stuck in my mind. I just kind of always go back to that, that we need to put our students first.”

Transferring in 1993 to the University of Central Florida, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English education, and later her master’s and doctorate degrees, while working there in various capacities and continuing to follow her budding career path in higher education.

In early 2005, Ashford moved to Binghamton, New York, where she was hired as vice president of student affairs at Broome Community College. Two and a-half years later, she assumed the same position at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville. One of her last projects there was teaching a leadership course that culminated in a study abroad trip to Cherbourg, France.

“The biggest thing that I got out of that is there were several students on the trip who had never been on an airplane before, who’d never even left their county, and now for them to get on an airplane and travel to another country, that was exciting to me,” she recalls. “[I enjoyed] being part of a very significant and positive experience in someone’s life.”

Working hands-on with students, encouraging them to reach their potential, even handling their crises suited her, Ashford says.

“I try not to get rattled. I’m pretty even-keeled,” she adds. “I remember one time when, in my first year at Pellissippi, my secretary said to me, ‘Everyone thinks your job is easy because you smile all the time and you project friendliness. But I know the truth.’ I really appreciated that.”

After nearly a decade at Pellissippi, Ashford was tapped last summer as Chattanooga State president. She is only the second woman to fill the position, after Dr. Flora Tydings, who is now chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

“It’s been non-stop, go, go, go, since the day I started,” Ashford points out, going on to explain some of her current priority projects.

Already underway at the college when she arrived, the Achieving the Dream program helps low-income and minority students achieve academic success.

This fall, Chattanooga State will participate in the kickoff of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Reconnect initiative, which establishes “last-dollar” scholarships for adults to attend community colleges tuition-free, making it possible for many to finish degrees they started years ago but never finished due to economic hardship or family commitments.

In addition to learning her way around the college and its achievement programs, Ashford has also been busy meeting with local business leaders in an effort to expand the college’s growing role in workforce development.

“It’s exciting to me that when companies are looking to locate to our area, Chattanooga State is at the table to help recruit that company, to say, ‘This is the training that we could provide for your future employees.’”

In some ways, her new role as president is similar to her previous ones, she points out. “It’s still problem-solving. It’s still establishing relationships with people. The arena might be different, the issues might be different, but a lot of what I did as vice president for student affairs was problem solving and planning and partnership-building. And that’s a lot of what I do as president.

“I think that I’m a good relationship builder, and I feel like my strengths are in communication and collaboration,” she adds. “Honestly, I feel like that’s probably why I was hired. I think they were looking for someone here at Chattanooga State who is very transparent and very into open communication and collaboration within the college.”

Longtime president Jim Catanzaro resigned in late 2014 amid allegations of improper hiring practices and plummeting morale at the school.

Although Ashford’s responsibilities don’t allow her to interact with students as much as she once did, she makes time to talk to them as often as her hectic schedule permits.

She recently attended an honors program dinner for a world politics class so she could hear the students tell their stories about how the course had impacted them. “To me, those things are so important because it reminds you why we’re here and why we got into education in the first place,” she says. “So, I try to be as visible on campus as possible.”

By the end of the upcoming spring semester, Ashford plans to move her office from its current location in the former Olan Mills headquarters, which is separate from the college, into a space in the heart of the main campus.

Her daily checklist may be what drives her, she says.

“But the ‘why’ behind the list is that the business we’re in changes lives for the better. You take a student who didn’t think they could go to college because they couldn’t afford it, or whose family dialogue just didn’t include college, or an adult coming back to school after realizing they need a college credential to have a better-paying job to support their family, or they’ve made a lot of mistakes in their earlier days and now are coming back to school to fulfill a dream. That’s powerful, knowing that a student enrolling at Chattanooga State will have a different life because of it, and so will their families.”

A morning person, Ashford gets up at 4 a.m. each day to walk on the treadmill, lift weights, mix it up with extreme full-body workouts like P90X or Insanity, or build strength and flexibility with PiYo, a blend of Pilates and yoga. “That is my most cherished time of day because I’m alone,” she admits. “I’m an introvert by nature. I play an extrovert all day long at work, so that alone time in the morning is very important to me. That charges me up.”

When the workday is done, she enjoys spending time with her daughters, age 10 and 12 – reading or photographing nature scenes.

“I feel so humbled that I’m here,” Ashford says of her job. “I never set out saying, ‘I’m going to be a college president one day.’ Things just kept falling into place. Every morning I pray that I’ll be the leader that Chattanooga State needs.”