With two campuses, more than 20,000 students and about 1,100 employees, Pierce College is an educational powerhouse in the South Sound. Since 1967, Pierce has done nothing but grow and strive each and every year to serve its mission, which states: Pierce College creates quality educational opportunities for a diverse community of learners to thrive in an evolving world. At the helm is Michele L. Johnson, Ph.D., the school’s chancellor and CEO, who has dedicated the last 39 years of her life to growing and changing with the college.
But she didn’t start out as chancellor and CEO. After growing up right here in Tacoma and attending Lincoln High School, she began as a teacher at Pierce.
“I’ve done all kinds of things,” she said. “I started as a part-time faculty member teaching criminal justice at our military site at McChord and Fort Lewis. I did that for a year and then I became a full-time tenured faculty member in criminal justice and sociology. I also coached fast pitch and basketball for five years during those early years.”
She was actually inducted into the Pierce College Athletics Hall of Fame for her work in coaching before going on to later become president of the Pierce College Fort Steilacoom campus when the college became two campuses in 1999. In 2005, when the previous president retired, the board approached her for a new position—chancellor over both campuses. She accepted and is currently in her 12th year as chancellor.
“The college has continued to evolve since I’ve been here, so it’s not the same place as I joined 39 years ago,” she said. “But the commitment is the same—an incredible commitment to being a place where people are empowered and can grow.”
During Johnson’s 39 years with the school, Pierce College has made great leaps in bolstering students and helping them succeed—always hearkening back to the mission of the school. The most important goal of the school overall is to bolster student success, but while community colleges aim to have an open door to all, Johnson notes that the data showed not all students were getting back out. Namely, many students weren’t achieving their goals, whether those were getting a transfer degree, a certificate or an associate’s degree.
“We realized we had to do better,” she said. “We had to find new ways to get students to the finish line.”
Pierce College set a bold goal to close the achievement gaps by 2020. The path to getting all students toward their goals zeroed in on individualized resources, from a stronger first- year experience to ground incoming students, to increased tutoring opportunities, to realizing not all students need the same resources.
“I think what I love about being at Pierce College is being part of an institution that’s really part of the community,” she said. “We’re about access, that’s what community colleges do. They create access for all students.”
For her skill in leadership and the great strides Pierce College has made at getting more students to the finish line, Johnson recently received the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) 2016 Pacific Region CEO Award. Each year, the ACCT recognizes only one CEO for each of the five regions of the U.S.
“For me, it really pays tribute to the incredible work that Pierce College is doing,” she said of receiving the award. “We have an exceptional executive team who works with me. All of our faculty is committed to innovation and looking at ways to help students, and our entire staff cares about what happens to the students.”
While Johnson has come a long way in her 39 years, she still sees herself as an educator at heart. Even if she’s doing policy work or in a meeting, she’s always there with the intention of learning more for herself or looking at what knowledge or skills can be imparted to others, which is really that same spirit she speaks of that permeates the school from the leadership to the staff down to the students. After all, Pierce College is a school. It’s really all about learning and teaching.
“For me having the ability to work at an institution that’s mission driven and it’s really clear what we’re doing—how lucky is that? How many people get to say that they get to go to work every day and what they do touches so many people? It’s really been pretty incredible. It hasn’t been without its challenges and its heartache along the way, but we’ve stayed focused on the mission. It’s really empowering to know how important this work is to other people’s lives. We have people depending on us. They have time and money invested in us that they can’t waste. That’s what keeps me going.”
Pierce College has two campuses: Pierce College Fort Steilacoom is located at 9401 Farwest Drive, Lakewood, WA 98498. Pierce College Puyallup is located at 1601 39th Avenue SE, Puyallup, WA. For more information, visit Pierce College’s website or call 253-964-6500 (Fort Steilacoom) or 253-840-8400 (Puyallup).