Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Daria J. Willis // Keeping it 100 Every Day of the Week

Dr. Daria J. Willis became president of Everett Community College at the impressive age of 34. This episode follows her meteoric rise from first-generation college student and student-parent to campus executive and social media role model. She discusses the importance of family, faith, authenticity, social justice, and self-care. Additionally, she shares how she’s leading through a pandemic, advocating for Black Lives Matter, and helping others learn the secrets behind the presidency – as she reaches back to lift up those behind her.

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Notes from this Episode:

Daughter Lyric attending a virtual college session: 

Daria’s Blog: So You Want to Be a Community College President

Reflections On My First Year as a Community College President

Everett Community webpage for Black Lives Matters

Renegade dance with Daria and her family

@dariaj.willis

More ##renegade

♬ Lottery – K CAMP
More About Daria

Dr. Daria J. Willis was appointed the 17th president of Everett Community College on April 29, 2019, becoming its first African American president, a highlight in an impressive career in higher education. Her leadership has brought substantial educative change to community colleges, students, faculty, and staff.

Prior to her appointment, Dr. Willis served as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs at Onondaga Community College (OCC) in Syracuse, New York, within the State University of New York (SUNY) system. During her tenure as provost, she implemented programs targeted at increasing enrollment and providing access and equity to underserved and underrepresented populations, including the cohort-based Weekend College and Adopt-a-School, a partnership program with the Syracuse City School District. Additionally, Dr. Willis oversaw curriculum development, implemented a credential manual for faculty hires, streamlined academic programs into guided pathways, and encouraged faculty to develop four academic programs to OCC.

Dr. Willis began her educational career in 2007 teaching at Florida A&M University, a Historically Black College and University, before transitioning to Tallahassee Community College in Florida. As a first-generation student to college herself, she could relate to her students’ hopes and dreams, their struggles and fears. So, during her first semester teaching as an adjunct faculty member, she decided through education she would make a positive difference in the lives of students, and consequently, the world.

After relocating to Houston, TX in 2010, Dr. Willis worked for Lone Star College, and served as an Assistant Professor of History, department chair, faculty senate president, and Executive Dean of Centers. Additionally, she implemented the first Doctoral Support Group at Lone Star College for faculty and staff, offering scholarships to employees earning a graduate degree. She later served as Dean of Academic Studies at Lee College, a Hispanic Serving Institution in Baytown, Texas, where she started its first National Model United Nations program at Lee College.

She earned a Ph.D. in History from Florida State University with a focus on 19th and 20th Century African Americans, Women, and the South. Her dissertation topic was a biography on Adella Hunt Logan, an educator and a woman’s suffragist in Tuskegee, Alabama. She earned a BA and MA in History from Florida A&M University, and played trombone in the college’s “Incomparable Marching 100 Band.”

Dr. Willis is a 2018 recipient of the American Association for Women in Community Colleges’ “40 Under 40” Award. She is a 2017 Cohort Fellow for the Thomas Lakin Institute for Mentored Leadership, an organization dedicated to training African American community college administrators for the presidency. Dr. Willis is also featured in the December 2017 issue of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education as a member of the Lakin Cohort, and she is a 2017 Cohort Fellow for the League for Innovation’s Executive Leadership Institute.

Through her family, Dr. Willis finds strength and motivation. Her amazing husband, Dr. Isiah Brown, and their incipient three children, Lyric, Izzy, and Imani, provide the solid ground upon which she walks. They keep her focused as she strives to ensure success for all students.

Josie:

Hello, and welcome to Josie and The Podcast. This is Josie and I am excited that you are joining me today. This podcast features leaders who share everything from their latest tweet to their leadership philosophy. My goal is to connect tech and leadership with heart, soul, and lots of substance. Josie and The Podcast is brought to you by my friends at Campus Sonar. Are you a believer in social listening, or maybe you don’t know what social listening is? Regardless where you’re at, you can stay on the pulse of the latest in social listening in higher ed with Campus Sonar’s Brain Waves newsletter. Campus Sonar is a higher education social listening agency on a mission to help campuses find online conversations that give higher ed professionals the insights they need to support their institution’s goals. And with their newsletter, you’ll get insights on current events from founder and CEO, Liz Gross, access to questions and answers from Campus Sonar’s team experts and awareness of what the team is paying attention to, to stay current themselves. Subscribe today at info.campussonar.com\subscribe.

Josie:

And now let me introduce today’s amazing featured guest, Dr. Daria J. Willis serves as the 17th President of Everett Community College. An institution with over 19,000 students in the Seattle metropolitan area. She was named a 2018 recipient of the American Association for Women in Community Colleges, 40 under 40 award. She is the school’s first African-American president and fourth woman in this role in 79 year history. As a first generation college student and a student parent, Daria could relate to her students’ hopes and dreams or struggles and fears. And during her first semester teaching as an adjunct faculty member, she decided she would make a positive difference in the lives of students through education and consequently, the world. Of her journey to community college president, Daria says, “If I can do it, anyone can.” That alone gives you a warning what you are in store for in this episode, a whole lot of good warning.

Josie:

We talk about her first year on the job as she started last summer in 2019, the first half business as usual and of course this back half of the pandemic as she is maintaining the safety and security of the educational experience, along with the navigations with her own family. But her faith is what guides her path this whole entire time. We also get to talk about how she is keeping it 100 every day of the week. We get to see this live out on her blog as she demystifies what it takes and means and could be for you as a community college president.

Josie:

She is serving up Soul and Sass with her authentic posts on Instagram and TikTok and every day, especially when it really counts like it did in the spring of 2020. She uses her position for advocacy for social justice. Now you can follow both of us, of course, on all the socials, which is found in the show notes. The podcast Twitter account is josieATPodcast. I’m @josieahlquist and Daria is found @EvccPrez. Everything we talk about from resources people post is all on my website, josieahlquistcom\thepodcast. Enjoy.

Josie:

Well, Daria, I’m so excited to get you on the podcast. What listeners did not hear was quite an adventure of technology troubleshooting, which is just the byline of 2020, along with many other bylines. So I’d love to learn a little bit more about you. I love to start talking about guests’ bios. And on Instagram you have listed wife, mother, daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin, friend, and president of Everett Community College. I am worthy. That last one really got me, but also impressive all the other roles that you have in your life. Again, welcome to the podcast and from that bio, let us know just a little bit more about you or why you chose what you did on your bio.

Daria:

Well, thank you, Josie. And we did have quite the adventure getting me all hooked up today, but I’m here, yay.

Josie:

Yay.

Daria:

But for my introduction and who I am, I purposely listed everything before president. I learned a long time ago that you can’t be a good executive in the community college if you’re not a good mother, wife, granddaughter. And if you don’t look out for your interest and the needs of your family first, and I have really held on to that motto family first or anything else, and with everything that comes with that, plus being a president, yes, I absolutely am worthy to be here. And I think it’s okay for us to say that especially women. When we get into these positions, sometimes we don’t think we’re worthy. Sometimes we think that we’re not the smartest one in the room and we don’t have to be the smartest one in the room, but you have the credentials necessarily to just be there and have a seat at the table.

Daria:

So I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. Grew up, born and raised there. Left high school in 11th grade and went on to Florida A&M University, where I studied African-American history and Florida A&M as a historically black college and university in Tallahassee. So I literally moved four hours away. So it’s not like I did a cross country journey or anything. Had my BA and MA there, also had a baby at 19 after my first year at FAMU, finished up my high school curriculum at FAMU and then started on a bachelor’s degree. So did all that good stuff, partied a little bit, GPA dropped, came back up, had my kid, then graduated. Then I decided, “Well, what am I going to do next?” So I got my doctorate at Florida State University studying African-American women and 19th century US history under the tutelage of Dr. Maxine Jones. She is my shero. One of my sheroes and Florida State is right across the street from FAMU as you know.

Daria:

Following that, I moved to Houston, Texas during the recession in 2010. I started as an assistant professor of history at Lone Star College in Tomball, Texas, rather. Lone Star College is a system of six or seven colleges. So I worked at three colleges in the system during a span of five years. I was an assistant professor of history, then I moved to Lone Star College-University Park, and then I went to Lone Star College – Greenspoint Centers, eventually ascending to the role as a Dean of Academic Studies. Then I left there and went to Lee College and became a Dean of Academic Affairs. Did that for a year. Lee College is in Baytown, HSI institution, and then went to the very cold Syracuse, New York and gosh-

Josie:

That’s a big deal.

Daria:

… yeah, for a girl who had been in the South all her life. It was my first time really seeing snow. So we can talk about that later, but it was a big jump. But I did that because it was a great opportunity to be provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Onondaga Community College. And I was fortunate enough to serve in that position for three years. And here I am now as president at Everett Community College in Everett, Washington with three kids, a husband, and we’re just having fun.

Josie:

Full life and full family. Absolutely. I’ve really enjoyed, I think I found you somehow on social and even the way that you share about yourself and your story is integrated into your posts from LinkedIn, to Twitter, to your blog, which we’re going to talk about. So as another way of getting to know you and you can cheat if you need, because you post a lot. What was your most recent post on any platform and tell us why you shared it.

Daria:

Oh, so I’m cheating. I did a post a couple of hours ago actually. I shared a picture of my oldest daughter sitting at a table on her Chromebook attending a virtual informational session for college and she’s 16 years old and I am just super duper proud of her. She wants to leave high school early. She’s not into the high school scene and I shared that because that’s my baby. Out of the three of my kids, she’s the one who has literally seen me from struggling in college to now being in this position. And she literally grew up in colleges. I would take her to class with me. When I was teaching as a part time instructor Lyric was this little bitty girl who would walk around with an attitude, handing out papers or picking up homework assignments and just to see her now at 16 and wanting to actually attend college and get a degree herself just made my heart full and I had to share it with the world.

Josie:

That’s fun and exciting for her to start looking already. Well thinking about yourself at 16 or even earlier, what was your first memory of using tech?

Daria:

Ooh, my very first memory was the really big Apple computers. The really huge ones that were cream colored. Looked like a box and we played The Oregon Trail.

Josie:

Oh yeah.

Daria:

I can’t even tell you what grade I was in, but I remember that’s how they taught us how to do the keyboard thing. They would put the white cloth over us and we’d have to play The Oregon Trail not looking at the keyboard. And then I remember my mom taking me to the Verizon store in ninth grade to get my first cell phone. And from there it’s been history. Like I can’t put my phone down.

Josie:

It was phone to hand at first sight. Do you remember what phone you got?

Daria:

Oh, yes. I think it was like the Motorola. Was big like a Razr phone or something, and I had the flip that was hot pink and you couldn’t tell Daria nothing because she had it all together and I still have the same phone number from high school. I haven’t changed my number all these years later.

Josie:

Wow that is a long time to hold onto a number. It’s very, very impressive.

Daria:

I get The Guinness Book of World Record phone number.

Josie:

Yes, you heard it here. Well, thank you for sharing so much about you. I mean, starting from getting your degrees and when your family started. You also shared with me how you’re a first generation college student, former single parent, and now impressively turned college president. And you said though, if I can do it, anyone can, which just like in your bio of stating I am worthy, always gives me like goosebumps, right? Because just that burst of inspiration. So what drew you into serving as a community college president and what can we learn from your path as you still got plenty of time to take over this world and change higher ed?

Daria:

Yeah, well I didn’t set out to be a community college president. I remember being, I was a graduate research assistant for the Dean of graduate studies at FAMU and she had me do research on black women president. And at the time I was working on my master’s degree and I was like, “Why has she got me doing this because I’m doing her work for her next book.” But now when I look back at it, I think she saw something in me at that time that I had not seen in myself. So I was able to see all of these phenomenal black women that were leading some really outstanding institutions. And I’ve always kept that in my memory, but I had a quick rise to the top, I will say that. I was determined still am, but what fueled my passion was any time somebody told me no, and every time someone said what I couldn’t do, I set out to prove them wrong. And it may have seemed very petty and I was at that point in my life. I [inaudible 00:14:08].

Daria:

I remember I sat for an interview for a Dean position and someone looked at me in the face and said, “Oh, you need to bake in the oven a little bit longer.” And they always did that because I was young and I still am young. But there was this thing in higher ed at the time, and in some respects, it still is where you have to be 50 before you decide you want to be a vice president or you’ve got to be 60 before you decide you want to be a president. And I didn’t feel like I needed to wait that long, and when you told me no, then Daria said, “Okay, I’m going to get it.” So that’s like the very selfish part, but the other piece of it for me is that while I was a student parent and a first generation student at college, I didn’t have that support at home or the knowledge base rather at home for my mom to tell me how to navigate the college process.

Daria:

She was always there for me, but she couldn’t give me the other piece of the pie. And so I got that from several different administrators along the way and when I started to think about my rise in higher education and where I eventually wanted to end up, I’ve always wanted to have a broad impact on students. So when I first started teaching, okay, I taught like five classes per semester with 30 students in each class and I would add that up and go, Oh, okay, well that’s 150 students. Well then I decided to be department chair, “Okay, now I have a broader stroke or impact over an entire department.” But what I always remembered was that I wanted to be the person who could change somebody’s life for the better, just merely with the stroke of a pen.

Daria:

And as I continue to move up in administration and eventually deciding that, “Yep, the presidency is where I want to be,” I see it as an opportunity to not only change a population of students for the better and help them reach their goals, but to also have an enormous impact in the community that that college serves. So on the one hand a very petty reason for wanting to be in this seat, but on the other hand, I’ve always wanted my impact to be helping other people. And I just saw that the presidency was the perfect opportunity to make that happen.

Josie:

Note to self, if I ever really want to get you riled up, tell you know and make sure it’s going to be a macro impact.

Daria:

Right.

Josie:

That’s awesome. Well, you recently celebrated your first year as president. Congratulations.

Daria:

Thank you.

Josie:

In addition to learning a new campus halfway, you also got to navigate leading through a pandemic. No big deal. Can you give us a little peek behind the scenes of what folks like yourself, presidents and your cabinets are facing right now. But also on the flip side of it, which I do think you already bring out through what you share on social, how you’re navigating your own wellness and safety, including that of your family.

Daria:

Yeah. Thanks for that. Have you ever seen the movie, The NeverEnding Story?

Josie:

Oh yeah. Part of my identity as a child.

Daria:

That’s what I watched as a child. So that’s how I feel. This is the never ending story and I think presidents and VPs and just leadership teams, there’s always a question that needs to be answered or a decision that needs to be made in this pandemic. I remember when the pandemic first hit, I literally had just come back from South Africa on a recruitment trip. And before I came back, I was on the phone in airports with my team, trying to figure out what’s happening because the first confirmed case of the virus in the United States happened, merely blocks away from my campus, at the hospital that I sit on the board for. So it was a huge impact in our community in Everett, Washington.

Daria:

But some of the things that we are having to contend with is what’s going to happen with college sports? What’s going to happen with our dining hall facilities? What’s going to happen with our classes? And I sat back and watched, it seemed like pure comedy to me. I probably shouldn’t say that, but Daria likes to keep real. To me, it was pure comedy to watch some of the four year partners decide that yeah, “We’re going to be fully face-to-face in the fall.” And I thought to myself back in April and May, “That’s probably the biggest mistake that they’re making.” And now we’re seeing a lot of those institutions roll back. Some of those policies because coronavirus is still here and we’re making decisions as early as next week. What’s going to happen in winter quarter because we can see that we’re going to be with this for the long haul.

Daria:

It’s a lot of different questions, comments, concerns and on top of those practical ones that I just mentioned and the operational ones, we also have to deal with budget reductions and our state appropriations and what’s going to happen with the budget on campuses. And having to deliver the bad news to your colleagues and your employees, that some of them may not be with us because we have to release them due to our budget concerns. So it is a very trying time, I would say for a lot of higher ed leaders. We are thinking about how to maintain safety and security while also giving the best optimal experience for our students during the pandemic.

Daria:

But then the third piece that at least on my campus that we’re talking about is what’s the future going to hold and we need to be shaping that future now. It’s not time to wait until the pandemic ends, but you never want to waste a good crisis. So what part of this can we hold onto that we can do in the future? But for me personally, towards your second question, I am in love with the Peloton bike.

Josie:

I was waiting to see if you were going to bring it up. I love it.

Daria:

Oh, my Gd. I love my Peloton. I feel like they should be paying me because every time I turn around, I’m posting something about this doggone bike, but free advertising. You asked how I’m keeping myself up. I mean, it’s been just trying mentally for anyone and I’m willing to admit that it’s been hard, but thankfully I bought this bike last year, even before I jumped into the presidential search process. So I’ve had it for a little bit now, but I’ve become so close to it most recently during the pandemic. And I talk about it like it’s a human, but I don’t know what I would do without it, because there’s a community on the Peloton bike. I don’t have to go to the gym and sweat next to anybody and smell their breath or anything else, but I can ride on this bike and I can let out my fears.

Daria:

I remember when that information came through about George Floyd, I rode in one of the sessions and I cried the entire ride. And when I got off, I felt just a little bit better about myself and that I could do something for my campus. So it’s been more than just an exercise machine for me. It’s helped me get through this mentally and to stay on top of my personal wellness and wellbeing. And even the Peloton app has some families series. So I get my kids involved and you should see the little one who’s almost two years old attempt to do a pushup. It’s the most hilarious thing ever. But the whole family is working out and we’re having fun.

Daria:

And just recently we’ve started to visit some of the Washington state parks, socially distancing of course, and wearing our mask. But I have to get the kids out of the house. And it was interesting that before we got on this call, my son said, “Okay, mom it’s time to go back to school. Will coronavirus be over because I’m ready to get back and face-to-face.” And I had to deliver the bad news and say, “No, sweetheart, you’ll be online.” So it’s also recognition that they are also dealing with having to grapple with the world has changed and what do I do with this.

Josie:

Well, thank you for sharing so much of that behind the scenes. And I remember one post, you like posted a selfie going through that hard budget meeting to getting feedback. Even I think you were asking for places that you could go in the local area and using your community that way. And I get my Peloton next week, Daria. It’s been on backorder for two months and I can’t wait and I’m going to find you and we’ll race.

Daria:

Okay. Madam pres 2019.

Josie:

That’s amazing. Yeah, that’s great. The other way, in addition to your spinning and your family time, I’ve noticed how faith has showed up in your leadership practices. And again, we’re going to dig into the blog in a minute, but your most recent blog posts called reflections on my first year as a community college president. I found that you were very raw and honest and acknowledged your faith and spiritual beliefs. I’m going to read a little, even though we’ll link to all of this so folks can quickly find and take in the whole post. You wrote, when you get on your knees to pray at night, you thank God for lighting your path in the midst of the storm, because you know that the sun will come up one day soon. When it comes, you will be ready to continue leading your college into the future because you earned your battle scars.

Josie:

And if you can survive a pandemic, you know you can survive anything that comes because you were created for this moment. And then you ended the posts with Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” And again, from your bio Daria to your blog posts, I just like get shook. I just get stopped in my scrolling feed and I’m like, “That’s what we need to hear from leaders.” Or just from our friends and our family. And so connecting it back because this podcast is about technology, social media and leadership, which I call digital leadership, how has your faith informed your daily leadership practices that just might happen to also show up in higher ed?

Daria:

It’s interesting. I used to joke about attending Bedside Baptist. We attended a church in Houston called The Church Without Walls, fantastic church, but they were streaming their services a long time ago. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and my mom is a huge church goer and we could not miss church. You say you’re in Los Angeles, in Georgia, if you miss Sunday school, that was a problem. We went to church on Sunday, Wednesday night for Bible study, sometimes Thursday and don’t let it be revival week. That was Sunday to Saturday. Okay? So when I became an adult, I kind of pulled back a little bit and started attending church online because of course, as a executive, sometimes you had to work on Sundays and all of that.

Daria:

But I have really been in tune with my faith and I appreciate now as an adult what my mother did for my brother and I, when we were children. Because although as kids, we were like, “Oh my God, we’re in a church again.” Mom is there on Saturday and we’re at the church from 8:00 AM to like 1:00 PM. I’m sitting on the steps, looking like two orphan kids, waiting on her to come out of the usher board meeting or something. But the teachings and things that we got from that has really helped to inform my leadership and helped me to have a level of confidence.

Daria:

I don’t believe that anybody gets anywhere on their own. I believe that there’s a higher power that looks over us. I believe in the ancestors and the people that came before us and they’re guiding our path. And I believe in getting on my knees at night and praying and thanking God for this opportunity. I mean, think about it. I got my first presidency at 34 years old. That almost never happens. So I know that there is somebody somewhere out there praying for me and that God is listening. And to be truthful when you first step into a college presidency position, I think I said this in one of my blog posts, you are the outsider.

Daria:

You’re the new kid on the block and there is somebody somewhere that doesn’t like you. So I need God and the angels to be looking out for me. And I’ll tell you this real quick story. My father passed away when I was six years old from HIV. And his birthday was July 15th and he died on April 18th. My oldest daughter, her birthday, she was born on July 15th on the same day, and my son was due on the day he died. He just ended up coming two days later past his due date. So I don’t know what that is, but I do know that somebody is watching over me. And so I firmly believe in the higher power, I believe in the omnipresence of God and I know that I wouldn’t be here without him.

Daria:

So I often ask the Lord to guide my steps, to help me come up with the decisions that aren’t about me, but about somebody else and how to help those people and how to help our employees and our community and our students. I hold on to that and I’m not going to pretend that I read the Bible every day. You can ask my mom because she fusses at me about that all the time, but I certainly hold on to the truth and my faith and just what I believe. And it hasn’t led me wrong yet. Not to say that I haven’t dealt with any bad things in my past because this life isn’t meant to be easy. But I believe that you have to have faith, the size of a mustard seed. That’s why I know that we’ll come out of this coronavirus pandemic, but this is a test and we need to get through it so that we can get on the other side.

Josie:

Well, age aside, right? I could immediately tell how grounded you were. Maybe one would say you’re an old soul-

Daria:

I’ve heard that before.

Josie:

… but what I would definitely say is I feel like that grounding is definitely from this larger life grounding of your faith. And a lot of times we’ll see campus leaders who are at a faith based institution or another institution that has roots, maybe like HBCU in some kind of church affiliation. So again, I’m always noticing those little tips of differences when leaders are… Also their personhood that allows for that expression at different types of institutions and especially when it feels just so genuine, so refreshing, which definitely leads into this next section where we’re going to get a little geeky and techie, but not too, too techie about your use of social media as a leader.

Josie:

So we already started talking about your blog, but your blog was such an amazing find because it was also just in the nick of time to include it in my book to get to feature your series. So you want to be a community college president and you’ve wrote posts such as, getting to know your board, taking care of you and imposter syndrome. So what’s been some of the benefits of blogging for you through your process this first year as a president?

Daria:

Oh my goodness. I never knew that people cared about this information. When I first was announced as the president, people started writing to me saying, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been watching your career. Congratulations.” Dah, dah, dah and I didn’t even know who these folks were. And they kept asking me questions like, “How did you do it? Can I talk to you just a minute just to understand and learn from you?” And then I had to take a step back and go, “Well, Daria, you had these same questions and when you’d ask presidents, some of them were so wooden and stuck up that they wouldn’t tell you as if it was some secret nuclear trade stuff that is under FBI lock and key.” Or you have to go to a professional development conference and spend $3,000 of your institution’s money to get these different nuggets.

Daria:

So for me, the whole point of the blog is to share my experience with the hopes that it helps somebody else, whether you want to be a community college president or an executive leader, or if you’re just leading from your own space. I want to be able to give you just bits and pieces of my experience so that maybe it helps to inform you. And the upside to all of it has been… I’ve been able to expand my network of awesome leaders literally across the country. And to be honest, Josie, I did not know this would happen. It’s been very rewarding to see that people actually a, read it because I remember when I posted my first one, I was like, “Are people going to read this?” And it exploded. It was wonderful. And just the feedback from folks that just really gracious and kind words.

Daria:

And then now it’s even transitioned to me being part of folks research studies for their dissertations, because they’ve seen the blog and so forth and so on. So it’s really a tool or medium to help someone else, because I believe that our whole job, once you make it to that level, it’s your job to turn around and help somebody else get to that position as well. And especially for women and women of color, we need to support each other and if this blog is helping to make that happen, all the more reason why to keep writing.

Josie:

Absolutely. And just even landing on your blog, it’s got sparkle explosions in the background. You’re talking about the lock and key of secrecies of what it means to become a college president. It is not at all stuffy, it’s totally on brand for you. As you say, keeping it a 100% every day of the week. So authenticity is also really important to you. It’s also one of the blogs that you wrote about be yourself. You advocate even to presidents to be authentic. So what value and impact have you found by really sticking to that investing and prioritizing being authentic 100% of the time as a president?

Daria:

Oh yes. Well, the practical benefit or advantage to me is at least on my campus, I don’t have to pretend. When I was going through the interview and such, they knew what they were getting when they said yes to Daria J. Willis. And it’s been a really good way to connect with people. I don’t mean to offend anyone when I say this, so I hope that I don’t, but I just remember seeing presidents always in a suit and tie. Women always in three or four inch heels that they couldn’t walk in and then they got bunions and step on their feet and their feet were hurting and whatever. And why it looked really nice, it’s just impractical. How can you be a president and literally go from point A to point Z on a campus in heels. I just couldn’t see myself doing that.

Daria:

So I’m the type of person I will not wear heels anymore. I will put on a pair of flats and some really nice flats, by the way, I don’t wear Payless Shoes although they’re not anymore. But you get my point. I’ll put on a pair of nice tennis shoes with an outfit or a suit, but it makes you approachable and your students get to see you as a human. And that’s been the most important piece of this for me. Sometimes we as presidents get too stuffy and we get too into our own selves, and we think that we’re just too good to be true, but yet you are alienating an entire population that you say you’re serving. So I work hard to just be myself and it’s not that difficult of a job to do. But I remember one day I was on campus and one student looked at me and said, “Aren’t you the new president?”

Daria:

I said, “Yeah, how are you doing?” And we exchanged information and talked then she said, “I would have never guessed unless I saw your picture in the paper.” They were just so enthralled by the idea that this young woman who looks like me and doesn’t come here with a three piece suit on, is running this college, if she can do it, so can I. So for me being yourself means that you don’t put on airs. You are connecting more with the everyday person at the college, and you have an opportunity to build trust, build relationships, and to just be downright approachable. I mean, I was in a meeting earlier and I said, “Brain fart.” And I thought, “Oh my God, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” But [inaudible 00:36:18] because I couldn’t think of what I was trying to say. But that’s who I am and as you said all my blog, I love glitter. I love sparkles. I love bright colors. I can’t stand the dark suit.

Daria:

So when you walk into my office on campus, I have this big hot pink sofa. I swear it’s a Balder hot pink sofa that I brought with me from New York and my predecessor’s office, I remember that office was terrible. Not saying that about the predecessor, but the office was like something from the mafia. It was like brown and dark colors. It was just really dark and scary. And so I noticed that people didn’t want to come to the president’s office. I said, “Okay, I’m going to have to change this up.” So I went home and I got my hot pink sofa from our living room and I put it in a U-Haul and brought it to the campus.

Daria:

I repainted the office and brought my sparkly pillows and my sparkly lamps, and when I would leave and go to conferences, I’d get pictures from employees sitting on my hot pink sofas. Because the word had spread across the college. The president has a pink sofa. So my assistant would say, “Are you okay with people coming into your office while you’re not here?” I was like, “Absolutely.” So I’d get little pictures, what is it? Selfies of people sitting on the sofa, holding one of the glitter or sequin pillows and it’s been a delight. I can’t imagine being stuffy and just not being able to appeal to the people. That’s what I’m all about.

Josie:

Is so freaking awesome. You really do have style to be able to incorporate it as part of just who you are, your presidency, your persona. That is a little bit a part of leadership too, to have what that flare is. It’s just redefining completely, especially in higher ed, where you talked about there’s a lot of stuffiness out there and what we think we have to kind of fit in these boxes. It’s making a whole different shape of your own, which I just love. Talking about other platforms, I think you’ve got your toes in just about all of them, at least awareness if not consistently putting engaging content out there. You’ve even put some TikToks together, I think, with the help of your kids. So what is your process or do you have a plan for what you post from LinkedIn to Instagram to Twitter?

Daria:

I would say that my only plan for social media is for people to see me as a person, as a human being that loves that hurts, that is exciting, that has fun, that has challenges, that is a human. And I think that’s important as a president because oftentimes people think that you don’t experience what I experienced because I don’t have what you have. But I don’t have anything more than the average bear I would say. And I try my best to just be as relatable as possible. So, like you asked about earlier the most recent post that I made of my daughter, because I’m a mother and I’m so happy that she’s going to college. I did a TikTok post actually with her. We were doing that Renegade dance and she and I practiced for three days that day and I still couldn’t get it.

Daria:

So I was the person in the background. The Kirk Franklin of the hype man of video. I also did a TikTok our first spirit Thursday because we were all at home and we needed something to pick our spirits up. For LinkedIn, my most recent post there was about voting. All the talk that’s been happening about voting rights and John Lewis, may he rest in power and the supposed fraudulent ballot box things. I made a post about, I’m doing this, I’m voting here in Washington and there’s nothing fraudulent about it. Just to encourage other people to do that. And I think as a leader, you need to do that. So more than just presenting me as a human, but also me as a leader, and these are the things that I’m doing to help and benefit not only my college, my family, but also the community.

Daria:

So it’s been a joy to be on a variety of different platforms. But I have to say this, that when I started at Everett last summer, my marketing team, they were so shocked that I was on social media. They said, “So you don’t want us to manage your social media?” I said, “No.” “No, but seriously, we can manage your social media.” I said, “But then you’re not saying what I want you to say. It’s mine. Let me do that.” And we had an almost a battle about this. And I was like wait, “We shouldn’t even be fighting about this because I’m the president and I said, this is what I’m going to do.” And then when it came down to my cards, I said, I want my social media handles on my cards and what is it, the QR code or whatever? I want that on the card, I want the icons, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else that I’m on, I want it on there.

Daria:

And they were like, “Well, I don’t know if we can put that on there. Is that allowed?” I mean, it was this really interesting thing and then finally people were like, “Oh my God, this is so exciting. This is our first president on social media.” So it’s been an eye-opening experience, at least for the college, a great way to connect with people, but also a great way for me to connect with the community and show folks that, “Hey, I’m a person, I’m a human, I put my pants leg on one leg at a time, just like you do. Let’s get in and do this thing together.” It’s been so amazing, so fun and I’m just honored to be in this position.

Josie:

Well, you can absolutely tell that it is definitely coming from you. So I’m glad you won that battle.

Daria:

Thank you.

Josie:

I do know some executives do need some support, but the ones that I find myself so engaged with there’s definitely a heavy component that is coming directly from that leader’s fingertips to the screen. You can just really tell. So in addition to authenticity, what I’ve definitely picked up, well and faith and many other themes is that you are an advocate. You were just talking about role modeling voting, and that voting by mail is legit. It’s safe. You should vote. Okay, but in addition to the pandemic, this spring had so many heartbreaks from, you talked about being on the bike and finding out about George Floyd, and we saw lots of announcements and press releases and tweets and statements as well as many other actions that campuses and leaders did some well and not so well.

Josie:

But what I saw from you was showing up to protest to speak to your entire campus website was transformed into a landing page with huge letters that bannered Black Lives Matter. An injustice to one is an injustice to all Everett Community College stands in solidarity with the black community. This was one of the most epic statements. I wasn’t the only one praising this, but in higher ed or I don’t even know any other, there were some brands that were doing it, right? So I would love to hear a little bit of insight about your process using your position overall and advocacy, but especially if there’s anything from what your process was this spring and into June and even into today. But I’d also love to hear that backstory of your website landing page transformation.

Daria:

Absolutely. Yeah. I remember getting an email from a student and it was students that coordinated the June peaceful protest in downtown Everett. And they asked me to speak and I really had to think about it and I talked to my oldest daughter and she was like, “Oh my God, mom, let’s go.” So I put my big girl panties on and we went out there and I was so glad that I did. But before I did that, I had a college wide meeting. This is when Ahmaud Arbery was… news of him being murdered just from merely jogging and existing came out. And at the end of my presentation, I just put a picture of him up on the screen for the college to see, because our college, we say that we’re all about equality and social justice. Okay, now let’s live it. And that’s been my whole point from the beginning.

Daria:

I said, “This is what we say we’re going to do, all right. So let’s practice what we preach.” And after I posted that, I got several emails from employees and students alike just saying, “Oh my gosh, thank you. We’d never had a president make a stance like this before.” And you have to kind of understand where I am. I’m not in Seattle. Our college is 24 miles north of Seattle, and it’s a very old white and male town. Not to say that we don’t have people who are about equality, but just like in other places across the country, systemic racism definitely still exists. So of course it’s a gamble, but it’s who I am as an individual to make sure that we stand up for equal rights. But as far as the process for our webpage, that was an interesting one where I had seen another college do something similar and they only had it up for a very short amount of time. I really just called my marketing person, and I said, “This is what I want you to do. I want you to make this all about EVCC, I want it to say Black Lives Matter and injustice to one is an injustice to all.

Daria:

I took that of course from Dr. Martin Luther King, but it was after I had sent a very raw email to the college about how I had cried as a black woman seeing this and what I was just experiencing in that moment. And what I had to get the college to understand is because some people were saying, “Well, you didn’t speak immediately.” Sometimes you need to wait. I need to get my emotions in check and then at a certain point, I said, “No, they need to feel how I’m feeling so they can understand this. And so after I sent that notice out to the college, I called the marketing person and said, “I want our whole front page blacked out.” I don’t want a scrolling screen on the front page. I want somebody if they type in everettcc.edu, they’ll see that page and then they can click down at the bottom when they want to get to the business of the college.

Daria:

But I want them to understand who we are. I didn’t realize how strong of a statement it would be, but I have to give kudos to my IT team because they jumped all over it and they had it up. I think I called them around 11 o’clock that morning. They had about before close of business that day we kept it scrolling for an entire week. We got some hate though from a couple of students. But we had one conservative radio talk show host who had a really big problem with that. And I sent it to my board and I said, “I just don’t even think this is worth responding to is who we are as a college and we’re not standing for this type of crap happening right before our eyes.”

Daria:

So it wasn’t a long process. It’s one of those where if you have the power to make that happen, it was one of those decisions where you don’t have to consult anybody and that’s the way I felt. I felt so strongly about that statement that I wanted it posted and thankfully my team complied without… they didn’t hesitate. They were actually quite excited that we were taking that stance as an institution. And I’m thankful for that and I’m just thankful to be able to use my position and whatever authority or power, if you want to say that comes with it to make such a strong and bold statement and it’s certainly not the last time that we will do that. And as I say to the college, we are social justice advocates. We are going to make sure that we are in the middle of these conversations because we have students that have to deal with this.

Daria:

We’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve been dealing with the pandemic of systemic racism their entire lives. So we need to be there to take some of that off of their shoulders. And I remember also saying that higher ed, we are not immune to some of these policies that really hurt our students and particularly our students of color, also our LGBTQ students. So we need to look at ourselves. I talked about that earlier. It’s all about practicing what you preach and we are going through that process as a college. So I was proud to be able to use my platform for the Black Lives Matter movement, because it’s something that I truly, truly, truly believe in. And I did the same thing when we had the issue of last summer, where ICE was supposedly going to raid colleges and universities. I put a statement out and I think that was like my first or second week at the institution. So anytime we see an injustice happening in society, you can bet your bottom dollar, that Everett Community College is not going to be silent.

Josie:

Well, Bravo to that and that it’s been a consistent through line, even being brand new into your presidency from social media, to statements and websites. We definitely need leaders not to hide behind boardrooms and cabinets and executive retreats. So I just really appreciate you sharing that insight and just putting yourself out there day after day. As we round the corner, I feel like we could probably be talking for many, many more questions to come, but I’ve just really appreciated chatting today and learning more about you. Again, I don’t want to seem like I’m a big fan girl, but I just want as many people to follow and be inspired by you and use your leadership as one potential path to connect social media and leadership in a really, really authentic way. How can people connect with you from socials to email or whatever you’re willing to share? Where can we connect with you?

Daria:

Yeah, absolutely. My blog is dariajwillis.com. So very easy to follow and you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as well EvccPrez is my handle for each of those. So I’d love to connect with as many people as possible. On LinkedIn, just as Daria Willis. And you can also email me at dwillis@everettcc.edu.

Josie:

So a couple of questions that I always end all the interviews with on this podcast is thinking about what’s the impact in the long term? Why are we going to these platforms day after day? So if you knew your next post on whatever platform you want it to be on was going to be your last, what would you want it to be about?

Daria:

I want it to be about the impact that I’ve had on the community. And it could be a story of another student parent that has experienced something great at the college during my tenure, or it could be just messages from the college, but I just really get geeky and get all warm and fuzzy when people let me know that in some way, shape or form during my tenure there, that I’ve made a positive difference.

Josie:

Awesome. So for now, the difference that you are making, as you think about using social media, you talked about your blog, you were really surprised how big the reach and the connections that it brought in. How would you describe your why for leading online, your purpose behind these platforms you’re choosing to spend your leadership on?

Daria:

Yeah, I don’t know, I guess I had to be authentically me to show people that you can be yourself and be an awesome person, be a vulnerable person, and still be a respected leader at the same time. That you don’t have to sacrifice who you are to achieve your dreams. And I think that social media and these different platforms that we talked about, give you that opportunity to tell your story the way you want it to be told and not someone else.

Josie:

Well, Daria, thank you so much for keeping it 100% every day of the week and on this podcast. I so much appreciate your time. And just being able to again, get your story out there, it’s just such a treat and so thank you so much for taking the time.

Daria:

Thank you Josie. I really appreciate it and it’s an honor to be here. I appreciate you. Thank you.

Josie:

I hope you enjoyed hearing from Daria as much as I enjoyed our conversation. She truly is keeping it 100 every day of the week. And I love how willing she is to share her process and her purpose with us today. Reflecting back on our conversation as she shared about her quick rise to the top, Daria says nothing motivates her more than someone telling her what she can’t do and she sets them out to prove them wrong, which makes me feel like we are cut from the same cloth a little bit there Daria. She sees her role as a community college president to help change students’ lives for the better while also having a positive impact on the community. So it isn’t just going out and doing the things and getting the awards and the titles, but it’s backed up with that purpose behind it. I also got goosebumps when she said, “Never waste a good crisis.”

Josie:

As she talked about as a community college president, how she’s been navigating COVID-19. And then of course, we talked about faith that guides her, that you find in her social media feed to how she’s approaching her presidency. Daria says, “I don’t believe that anyone gets anywhere on their own.” She also believes in turning around to help others get where she is, hence from the blog to just her lens of advocacy. There were so, so many takeaways and tweetables that I hope I see out there on the internet. Things that you can take away from Daria in this quote especially is this, “My only plan for social media is for people to see me as a person, as a human being that loves, that hurts, that is exciting, that is fun, that has challenges. That is human. I think that’s important as a president.” As she says, social media is the opportunity to tell our story in our own words.

Josie:

Daria, thank you so, so very much for that and that is what makes you a digital leader. Now for you listening, I ask you, how are you telling your story, even in this roller coaster of COVID-19? How is your purpose guiding your process in your position, how you show up online and I realize this doesn’t always come naturally, and that’s why I’m here. Find resources and more on my website, josieahlquist.com about how I’m serving and supporting campus leaders to college students. Many thanks to Daria for paying it forward and sharing the behind the scenes insight into what it takes to be an authentic community college president. It was so inspiring to hear how your faith and your family have guided your journey and how your social media strategy, well, that is also keeping it 100% every day of the week.

Josie:

Thank you so much for checking out this episode, I hope you enjoyed it. Make sure to give us a little review or a share on those podcast platforms. Subscribing always helps too, to make sure that you get every latest episode. You can join the conversation online tweeting at me @josieahlquist or the podcast josieATPodcast. Remember those show notes and additional resources can be found at josieahlquist.com\thepodcast. If you are interested in learning more about my speaking and consulting work on digital engagement and leadership or about my forthcoming book, check me out at josieahlquist.com. Thank you again to our podcast sponsor Campus Sonar, learn more about them at campussonar.com. Sending digital hugs, loves and waves to whatever corner of the world you’re listening in from, this has been Josie and The Podcast.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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