* Age: 44
* Job: President of Chattanooga State Community College
* Hometown: Merritt Island, Florida
* Family: Husband, Richard; two daughters, ages 12 and 10
* Last job: Vice President of Student Affairs at Pellissippi State Community College
* Education: Doctor of Education in Education Leadership from the University of Central Florida
Rebecca Ashford, 44, a former Pellissippi State Community College administrator, takes the helm as president of Chattanooga State Community College this month.
Ashford, who was vice-president of student affairs on the Knoxville campus, has been climbing the education leadership ladder since she earned her first college administrative job at age 26. She became a dean at Brevard County Community College (now East Florida State College) at an age when some people are still in graduate school.
"I was perceived as too young," she remembers of those early days in coastal Florida. "People wondered, 'Who are you?' 'What do you know.'"
"That pushed me to prove myself on a daily basis," Ashford says. "To dress well. To get to work early and stay late. Some of the people who worked for me could have been my mother."
That work ethic is no doubt one of the reasons Ashford was chosen by the Tennessee Board of Regents in May to succeed Flora Tydings as the president of Chattanooga State. Ashford was among 63 candidates to apply for the position, which opened when Tydings was promoted to chancellor of the Board of Regents system late last year.
In a wide-ranging interview just weeks before she begins her duties at Chattanooga State on July 10, Dr. Ashford talked about her hopes for the Chattanooga school and the ascendancy of Tennessee's bold experiment in free community college tuition for most students.
(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q. Tennessee's commitment to free community college tuition for most students is being closely watched by other states. What is your view of the potential, and/or challenges, of this experiment?
Ashford: This has been an exciting program for me. Right about the time I came to Pellissippi State, (Knoxville businessman) Randy Boyd started Knoxville Achieves. It started as a way to send students from Knox County to community college for free. It started very small and locally, and I was in on it from the beginning.
Then it became Tennessee Achieves, and then, two or three years ago, Tennessee Promise. This is a program that's near and dear to me. I think it has been a game changer ... sending students to college who otherwise wouldn't have gotten to go. This has removed the financial barrier to attending college. I believe it's a way to change a person's life.
Q. What about older residents who need retraining?
Ashford: Now we have Tennessee Reconnect, which will be a last-dollar scholarship. ... Right now in Tennessee, there are about 900,000 people with some college credit but no degree. This is a way to get them back on campus.
Training and education is important for the work force. Many people get a bachelor's degree and then come back to a community college to get training in something else. While general degree is good to have, training for a particular skill is important, too.
Q. Tennessee is really taking the lead in these areas, right?
Ashford: It's a real source of pride to go to conferences in other states and they are asking those of us from Tennessee questions.
On the bigger level, as a community college professional, I have appreciated how this (effort) has helped people who thought that community college wasn't an option because they wanted to go to a university. (Community college) is now a first-choice option.
Q. For some, a two-year degree is a gateway to a bachelor's degree, to others it's a path to vocational skills certification. As a community college president, how will you balance those realities in terms of dividing resources and shaping academic focus?
Ashford: We need to be mindful this it is not "either/or." Our mission is to do both.
At Chattanooga State we are committed to serving both populations of students. ... I have learned there is a lot of external funding you can go for in the career-tech area. Some (comes from) businesses and some from federal and state grants. It will be important to me to seek funding.
Q. Chattanooga State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have always had a complex relationship; sometimes partners, sometimes competitors. What did you learn from your Knoxville-area experience that might pertain here?
Ashford: Just like partnering with businesses and industry, partnering with university counterparts is critical — to make sure our curriculum is aligned so student can transfer seamlessly (to four-year universities).
One of the programs I have been fortunate to participate in is the Volunteer Bridge program. Students on a wait list (for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) take their first year of classes at Pellissippi State. ... Many students have taken advantage of this to get their foot in the door at UT. That's been a great program.
Q. Does becoming a first-time college president satisfy any life goals?
Ashford: My life goal has always been challenging myself to do more and to grow. When I was graduating with a master's degree, I remember thinking: 'This will be it for me. I'm not going to continue (in school).' But I sat and watched doctoral graduates be hooded, and I thought, 'Oh, there's one more (degree). I'm not going to be happy if I don't have one more.'
My mentality has always been to do better. ... Each time you move up, you have greater ability to affect change. I've had family member say, 'Some day you can can work at a big university.' And I say, 'No, I won't. I won't ever leave community colleges.' I see the impact we have on people.
Q. Community colleges traditionally face big challenges with student retention. What have you learned as an administrator that can be brought to bear on this issue?
Ashford: I wish I could say I have the answers. This is huge issue in community colleges around the nation.
... Students don't always know why they are here. They don't have a goal. No. 1 is helping students establish a purpose. After they know what their purpose is, it's important to have a plan.
... Often students leave right at the beginning of a school year. They are confused by the process. ... We will help them navigate.
We have been leading the nation in Tennessee in completion. It's an exciting time to be at a community college in Tennessee.
Q. What's your style for interacting with students? Do you plan to seek a lot of feedback about their needs and desires?
Ashford: It's invigorating to interact with students. When I'm feeling down, all I have to do is to go have a conversation with a student down the hall to remember why we are here.
I just led a study-abroad trip to Normandy, France. We went to Omaha Beach and the the American Cemetery. ... Many of the students had never even been on an airplane before. There was an art student there who doesn't even have a car, who relies on his family to bring him to school. And here he was a the Louvre. Just watching him was so cool.
Q. Chattanooga State's job-training partnerships with Volkswagen in Hamilton County and Wacker Chemie AG in Charleston, Tennessee, seem to be sort of groundbreaking. Is cultivating other such partnerships on your agenda?
Ashford: Oh, yes. Whether it's sharing facilities or sharing programs, it's critical. I see that as critical.
Q. How involved will you be in K-12 education, such as the Chattanooga 2.0 reform push?
Ashford: I'm glad you mentioned Chattanooga 2.0. When I interviewed on campus I heard more about it. That is very exciting. I'm glad to see Chattanooga State is already involved.
Another area I've worked a lot (with K-12) schools is dual enrollment. More and more, I think you can see the value of these programs. I think Chattanooga State has been a leader in that. It's incredibly important to have.