NBT Interview: School Days
with Mary Catherine Ball

Anne Arundel Community College President Martha Smith

The school bus rumbled past my corner this morning, gathering groggy kids and awakening school days' memories. From five to 85 and then some, Baysiders are returning to school this week. The crispness of early fall that's suddenly touched Chesapeake Country is a sure sign that it's school time once again.

But many students are not waiting at bus stops or climbing those looming black steps up into yellow buses. They are rolling out of bed, sliding into cars and speeding over the Severn River Bridge to early morning, noon or night classes at one of Maryland's 16 community colleges.

Of those, Anne Arundel Community College is one of the biggest - it's our state's largest single campus community college - and one of the most successful at matching education with real life.

Driving through the main entrance gate at the college, even sleepy, early morning students can't miss the billowing banners proclaiming 'Students First.'

I still remember those signs, five years later, as I remember the seemingly endless drive to Arnold during morning and evening rush hours.

Now, I'm looking ahead to my final semester at the University of Maryland at College Park. I'm driving farther and remembering, with some nostalgia, the good things at Anne Arundel Community College: small classrooms, caring teachers and fellow students who instantly became friends.

While I was settling into the college routine as a freshman, another new person was arriving at Anne Arundel Community College. In the fall of 1994, Martha Smith walked onto the Arnold campus and into her role as president. Smith was the first woman to be hired into the top job at any of Maryland's community colleges.

Acceptance for Anne Arundel Community College's first woman president wasn't immediate, explained a long-time college administrator. "In the old days, in the college administration, you had to be a man, be Italian and play golf."

But Smith's dedication and effectiveness, her friendliness and decency won out. "Marty" has become a popular first-name president and a familiar face on campus. She not only opens her door to students but also shows up at the darndest times and places.

I showed up at her office last week, as schools across Maryland and the nation were readying to receive students. Maybe I wanted to remind myself of the hopes and dreams I'd pinned on this five-year journey into my future as an educated, job-ready woman.

"Isn't it ever going to end?" I've asked myself more than a few times during those years. My mother's asked the same question.

I hope it's never going to end, Smith told me. Learning is a lifelong process. Somehow her words made me glad, even after all these years.



Q The first day of school is as exciting for a freshman as for a first grader. What's in store for freshmen heading to Anne Arundel Community College this fall?

A Quality, quality, quality.

In all their courses. they have excellent, caring faculty members to look forward to. Unlike other segments of higher education, our focus is teaching. Our faculty do scholarship and research, but their primary job is instruction. That's how they're promoted; that's how they're hired; that's how they're evaluated; that's what turns them on. They're highly credentialed and they're in the classroom.

We don't have graduate assistants, but we have Ph.D.s in the classroom who are here because they like it and want to interact with students. I can't tell you how many times a week I'll get a letter or phone call from a student who says that a professor turned his or her life around by showing a little extra special attention. That's what all our students have to look forward to: quality education and top-notch faculty.

We've always said we're a teaching institution, but more and more we're shifting that to learning institution.

Q Tell us about a professor who stands out in your mind as exemplifying the "Students First" policy you set at this college.

A There are so many here.

To name just one: Professor Tyrone Powers, a criminal justice teacher and former member of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is one of our newer faculty. His idea is that all students can succeed if you meet them where they are and help them reach success.

When I think about the letters I get about Tyrone, that's what they are about. The kind that come in with this history or complex of failure and then hear somebody say, 'Okay let's do it. You can make this happen.'

For many people that's a good experience. Someone with a prestigious title is really paying attention to you, saying you can do this.

I saw this sign outside of a church a year ago, and it stayed in my mind. 'Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.' All of these people are fighting a really hard battle - some in more than one area - so it's not easy to come here and be successful, especially those with kids, ill parents, ill spouses. Everyone is fighting a hard battle, but they are committed. Our students are phenomenal.

Q How 'phenomenal' are your students?

A We track the grade point averages of our students who transfer to four-year colleges and universities. On average, more Anne Arundel Community College students transfer than any other community college students in the state. Those students achieve on average higher than students who started at those four-year institutions as freshmen. We're sending them very prepared into their junior years.

People are shocked when they hear that. Why should they be? We have smaller classrooms and credentialed, qualified, committed teachers in the classroom. The outcome is that you are going to be ready for that transfer experience.

Q I began college here in the summer of 1994. What's new that I missed?

A How about two beautiful new buildings, the Florestano Allied Health and Public Services building and Cade Center for Fine Arts? There are also a lot of computer labs, all networked.

You would also find our Student Success course, ACA100. It's provided to give you the scoop on what you need to know and what you need to do to prepare yourself to be successful: people, resources, time management skills, organizational skills, how to study and basic absolutely essential information and skills that you need to be successful. It's required of full time students. We piloted it last year, and it was very successful.

What I love about it is that everybody is teaching it: Administrators are teaching it; faculty are teaching it. Faculty are learning from each other. Administrators are learning from faculty. It's a wonderful experience.

Q Anything else?

A Also, there are two initiatives. One is the Maryland Community College Teleconsortium. The community colleges - there are 16 of them in the state - are adding courses to the pot. Students here or in other states or in the world will be able to enroll in Maryland community college courses and get a degree.

Another effort is Maryland Online, which is being spurred on by University of Maryland University College because they have tremendous online distance learning courses in the upper division. We're trying to figure out how we can connect so that students can utilize our college for lower division courses.

People will be able to have access to virtual degrees.

Q Let's go further back in time. How is the experience of today's freshman different from when you or even my mother started college?

A In 1966, I entered Slippery Rock College, in Pennsylvania, as a freshman. When I started out, the student population was 18 years old and had some diversity of racial and ethnic background, but everyone was focused on college. When I was there; I thought, 'This is college, this is what I'm about, this is what I'm going to worry about.'

There is much more diversity among the student body now, and not just racial or ethnic diversity, but diversity of life experience. Now students have jobs, family, kids, parents and community service. Their lives are very packed.

Life is moving so fast that students nowadays take a course and get ready to move on when they've got to come back and learn something that's been added on. You find people who are finding this lifelong learning thing and coming back for credentials.

Lots of people are coming back who have already kind of done it. Nationally, 25 percent of all community college students already have baccalaureates, 14 percent have masters and nine percent have doctorates.

Q The community college movement is over 50 years old now. Over that half century, what have our community colleges promised their students?

A We started community colleges as the people's college, so everyone in this country would have access to higher education. That leads to the open-door concept which is unique to community colleges. The larger community college movement has been driven by these mandates.

We must constantly be aware that what we're doing is because of our mission as a community college, which is to provide quality higher education that is accessible, affordable and responsive to the needs of our community. The mission drives everything we do.

I am proud of our board of trustees because they set the direction and the vision, and these are right in front of us all the time. They are always asking questions about initiatives we want to do and how we spend our resources. How does it advance our mission?

Approaching a new decade and century and the new millennium, we hear these types of words: the age of the knowledge-worker in a knowledge-based economy, the information age, the era of lifelong learning. Imagine how powerful that is for people in an institution whose mission involves just those values.

Q Anne Arundel Community College began in 1961. How many lives has the college touched in 38 years?

A Part of your question is easy to answer because we've just been looking at our records. We verified 18,000 records of graduation at the college. One of the really wonderful things we found is that 16,000 of those 18,000 students still live in the county. That is a very powerful point in terms of enriching this county, our return on the investment.

In any given year, there are between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals who come to the college for some kind of educational experience. We will have about 18,000 students registered in our credit courses and almost 30,000 individuals registered in the continuing education, lifelong learning and work force development courses.

It is estimated, as well, that we will have 8,000 to 10,000 other individuals on campus for athletic events, cultural events and community events.

Every year, over 10 percent of the county's population is getting touched by our college.

Q People attend community college for many different reasons. Is preparing for a job so hard a master that no one comes to college nowadays for the intellectual fun of learning?

A Truth be known, for decades people have pursued education - whether it is a Ph.D., M.D. or J.D. - for an occupational check. Even so, people have learned for fun, for their own self-actualization. Learning does just that.

The student experience at Anne Arundel Community College is not just technical learning; it's not a technical school; it's not just vocation oriented. Look at our general education: critical thinking, aesthetic development and the love of learning.

The most important thing we can do for our students is help them learn how to learn how to learn how to learn. That's what it's all about - and to really enjoy that because once you have a passion for it or know how to do it, you'll have fun with it.

Q If you get a student who's missed out on this love of learning, do you think Anne Arundel Community College can revive it?

A We do that everyday. Because people have experienced education in some other context and not liked it, not been successful.

Here, there is nothing like success. Once you're successful you say, 'This is cool, I'm hooked,' and you start having fun and loving learning.

Half - and I'm not being exact here - of those 18,000 people come into this and say 'I hate learning, I've not been successful at it, I'm scared to death of it.'

You know what? That attitude is changed by little steps of success. Our faculty knows how to do it. A little bit and a little bit more and they're hooked.

Q How are you reaching younger people who are at a crossroads after high school?

A For one thing, we make major efforts with intervention and tracking systems. All of our testing and admissions staff are into high schools now. We have increased the number of times and the amount of time that we actually go to the high schools. We talk with students, and if they're interested, we register them and even take their initial aid applications.

Our advisors move around from high school to high school. Being there in the high school and having someone look you in the eye and say, 'These are the programs we have,' works.

Q You've reported a four percent increase in "diversity" since you came to the college in 1994. How has that been achieved?

A We have lots of efforts now promoting access to higher education to under-served people. We've got minority advisors and counselors who go out and really try to network with younger Anne Arundel County students to show that we now have a critical mass here so you really can feel comfortable. We really do welcome diversity.

Even as I say that, I know we've looked at the programs and said we really need to do more.

We're trying really hard to increase the diversity of our work force, particularly our faculty. We're trying to create an environment, and I mean that on all levels, so our student programming reflects diversity, our performers and lecturers reflect diversity and when you walk around the halls you see diversity in the pictures.

Q What does diversity mean to you? Are you including gender differences, religious preferences and other factors?

A There is a diversity team that is charged with putting together a comprehensive view of how we really infuse diversity throughout our entire organization. They defined it in concrete terms but more expansive terms than race and ethnicity. They included ability, appearance, sexual orientation and more.

Q Anne Arundel County and Southern Maryland have a rich and very separate black culture all of their own. How does the college bridge the divide?

A In Anne Arundel County, about 18 and a half percent are a racial minority. Our racial breakdown is 17.6 percent minority, up from 13.8 percent five years ago.

Most colleges just try to reflect their community. We say, 'No, no, no.' Let's serve the typically underserved. Our minority recruiters and other minority faculty and staff serve as liaisons. We have a community advisory council on diversity that meets once a semester. We have representatives from the community. We try to get all of the different cultural and racial and ethnic groups represented.. They advise us. They say be in the churches, be at this festival, be at that celebration. Be sure that you have purchasing contracts with minority vendors. We make those connections.

Q When this year's freshmen graduate with their associate's degrees from Anne Arundel Community College, what next steps will they take?

A We have over 30 different articulation agreements with four-year colleges and universities. For a couple of those - University of Maryland University College and the College of Notre Dame - students who enroll with us are concurrently signing up with them.

People keep saying we should be a four-year college, but we're not going to give up our mission. If we're doing our job right, we should be able to provide you with access to a four-year degree.

Q What's the next step? Do you think their education is going to help all these students get jobs?

A We did a plan four years ago. We looked at what was happening in the world, in our country, in our state, in our county, in our community. We looked at what's going to be happening in the next 10 years. That's why we have a vision.

Anne Arundel Community College is a premier learning community where students and graduates are among the best prepared workers of the world. That is our aspiration.

Why? Because they have to be able to compete with the best prepared citizens and workers of the world. This whole global community and work place that we have is a new element. What we learned is that 95 percent of all new jobs in the new decade will require some post-secondary education.

If you think that you are not going to continue education after high school, let's talk about it, because you don't have that decision to make.

Q You seem so excited about all you have accomplished here. What brought you to education?

A I'll go back to my family and my upbringing. My mom instilled in us that we are all about caring for people and helping other people grow. That's what it's all about.

I started out as a chemistry major at Slippery Rock. I planned to be a rich and famous chemist. I actually graduated with a degree in chemistry. My first semester out, I was a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii. I thought, 'This is the most meaningless work I've ever done in my life. I really want to be around people.'

I had had such a great experience as an undergraduate. I said 'I would love to be a dean of students. That whole profession is about helping people discover who they are and who they can be.'

The community college environment is an extension of that philosophy.

I was a dean of students at a small private college in Minnesota for four years and at the University of Hawaii for four years.

I discovered community colleges in Hawaii, where I had the best job in the world. I worked for the College of Continuing Education. There are community colleges on the outer islands, Hawaii, Maui and the Big Island. The university got this idea to develop and offer upper division courses at the community colleges. I got put in charge of that program. It was called Hawaii Open Program. I got to go to the community college on a regular basis and work with their faculty. It was great. We had several hundred courses when I left.

I came to Maryland in 1982 as dean of students at Dundalk Community College up in Baltimore County.

Q You're the first president at Anne Arundel Community College to be a woman. Is this a success for you? Is it a success for all women?

A What I've really appreciated is that more and more women are in leadership roles, period: corporate, non-profit and government. Look around at our county now. I think it is very different than it was five years ago. Janet Owens is the county executive. Carol Parham is the superintendent of schools.

Our success is recognizing the tremendous resource we have in people, whether they're black or women. Let's maximize the wonderful rich diversity of leadership we have with everything that counts.

Q As an administrator, you spend your time in an office, away from the students. How do you keep in touch with them?

A That's probably one of my biggest challenges. I meet regularly with the student president. That student is on a number of committees. I have an advisory group and try to make it to each of their meetings. I have open office hours.

I guess I really kind of seek students out and make a little connection. Or someone will introduce me. Students are really free to come in to see me, and we have these cards about suggesting ideas. It's not just during open office hours.

Q With so much on your plate as president of the college, how did you find the time to work with United Way, especially becoming the county's campaign chair this year?

A I knew I'd do it sometime. I did it this year primarily because a colleague, Rick Morgan, former director of Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation, asked me to. The college works very closely with the corporation and Rick was a member of the Anne Arundel Community College Foundation.

I've met a whole different group of people - the United Way staff and some of the volunteers - who are fantastic. I really have thoroughly enjoyed meeting a whole new cast of players. It's good to be reminded of other aspects of our community. The people are needy and needing some kind of help. It's added another track in my life.

Q Do you have any time left over for play?

A Having just turned 50, I'm not quite the rigorous outdoors person that I used to be. But I love to hike, canoe and camp. The most I've been doing is canoeing in the Mayo Beach area. I haven't done half of what I've wanted to do.

I have dogs, all mutts. Never in my life have I had a pure bred.

I go antiquing. I do like to go to the ocean. I like to go to Cape Cod. I like to spend time in Maine whenever I get a chance.

Last year, three friends and I went to Las Vegas. We spent two days there and then we rented a car and drove west and ended up in San Francisco. This summer, I spent almost a week in Montreal and Quebec. The week before last, we had our annual family reunion. My sister and my brother and their families come to Maryland, and we play for a few days.

Q Students are constantly asked to rank the things in their life. How would you rank the things in your life?

A My job is close to the top. But it doesn't outpace my family: my brother and sister and their families and the commitment we make especially as we get older to try and connect. That's become increasingly important to me.

The job is right with family because of the energy I get out of it. There's nothing like work to add to a meaningful life.

Q Out of the office, where does your life find a home?

A I live in Glen Burnie. I was on my way to the south of the county and never made it. South County is more like where I used to live in Harford County. My first summer here, I spent a lot of time scoping out Anne Arundel County. I kept saying, 'I think I'm going to end up in South County.' Then my job started and I didn't have time to look. I found a nice place in Glen Burnie and have not moved from there.

Q When you fall asleep at night, what might cross your mind as the best thing that happened during the day?

A On Saturday I got to be part of the graduation ceremony for the physician assistants. This is our second graduating class: 12 students who worked their butts off.

One of the requirements is to have a baccalaureate degree. We are one of the few community colleges in the nation to offer this certification. It's a direct response to community needs. It's a feather in our cap, but mostly it's a feather in their cap.

Graduation ceremonies are wonderful. You see students first, students' successes. We're there; they're there; their families are there; their friends are there. They are bursting and so are we.

Graduations always are peak experiences.

Q You have the attention of New Bay Times readers everywhere. What do you want to tell them?

A I really would like to thank the community. An organization cannot do what we're doing without the community being there and supporting us. The support of the county government and the business community is, in my opinion, unparalleled in this state.

This is a wonderful community, and they deserve the very best. That is what we're trying to give for the 21st century and beyond.

| Issue 35 |

Volume VII Number 35
September 2-8, 1999
New Bay Times

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