Monday’s first day of classes at Clovis Community College came amidst a blustery winter storm that turned umbrellas inside out and drenched students and staff heading to classrooms.
But the day was brightened for many by the thousand-watt smile of the college’s new president, Dr. Kim Armstrong, who left her old job as vice chancellor for student, equity and community affairs at Arkansas State. University Three Rivers to take the top job at the northeast Fresno campus.
“At my other college, it was customary for us to be there on the first day at 7 o’clock in the morning to make sure we greeted the students as they came in. So I’ve had the opportunity to meet and greet the students. I’ve had an opportunity to welcome the tutors back. And later on today, I have another opportunity to do some orientation with some of the students and faculty and staff,” Armstrong told GV Wire on Monday.
“… So you will see me out and about. I do believe in being high touch and accessible at all points in time. And that’s just been my style throughout my whole career in education, to make sure I’m accessible to students.”
Also Accessible Off-Campus
You might run into Armstrong wearing her Louisiana State University gear, as another shopper did recently — her two daughters are LSU grads — while shopping at Walmart or playing with her dog Jade at the dog park. Back in Arkansas, Amstrong said she regularly ran into students at Walmart: “I’m not just accessible on campus. I’m accessible in the community,” she said.
She says she has a “hybrid” open door policy — Armstrong said students and staff are welcome to drop in, so long as she doesn’t already have someone in the room with her.
“If I’m in the room with a student or if I’m with you right now, my total focus is going to be on you. I’m not going to answer the phone. I’m not going to open the door.”
In an interview on Monday, Armstrong shared some of her philosophies and goals, which include building on Clovis College’s success. As in the past, equity will be on Armstrong’s front burner, and she’s excited that the college has led the state in total student transfers to four-year colleges as well as the numbers of African American and Latino students transferring.
Maintaining Clovis College’s work in diversity, equity, and inclusion are among her short-term goals. Amstrong said she also will focus on building upon the foundation laid by her predecessors, having outreach into the community and being in partnership with high schools, local government, and not-for-profits, and making sure that students have successful outcomes, whether they are on college or career tracks.
Parents Faced Racism, Inequality
Equity is an issue that is near and dear to her heart, in part because of her family’s experiences as African Americans in the Deep South. Armstrong earned degrees at Howard University, one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Both of her parents also attended HBCUs, which for their generation were the only higher education options open to Black students in the South.
To earn their doctorates, Armstrong said, her parents had to move the family to Norman, Oklahoma so they could attend the University of Oklahoma. “At that point in time, African-Americans could not pursue terminal degrees (doctorates) in the South,” she said.
Higher education clearly is important to the family: Armstrong and her sister are second-gen doctoral earners. Armstrong got her Ph.D. in physiological/neuropsychology and cognitive child development at Howard, while her sister has a medical degree and practices in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where their parents live.
Her daughters opted for a large state school instead of an HBCU. Amstrong said one of her daughters, now a film producer in Atlanta, helped with her recent move from Arkansas to Clovis. Her other daughter is an executive for Humana who lives in Baton Rouge.
Will that emphasis on equity extend to divergent political views, including ones that make some people uncomfortable? Armstrong said college is supposed to be a time of academic and intellectual challenges for students.
Several college officials, including former President Lori Bennett, were sued by conservative students who said their First Amendment rights were violated when officials blocked some of their posters from the college’s interior bulletin boards.
Armstrong said she could not say whether she too would have ordered the posters’ removal.
But, she said, “one of the beautiful things about college is that it allows you to be exposed to things that you’re not always comfortable with and that you’re not always in agreement with. I have a background in mediation. So again, I do enjoy bringing the different groups together and letting us have those kind of very difficult conversations, and coming out with an understanding. It doesn’t have to be that you agree, but at least an understanding. And that’s how we build civility and social responsibility in our culture, by having those difficult conversations.”