2022 NEA Women in Business: Debra West

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 544 views 

Debra West
Chancellor
Arkansas State University Mid-South
Residence West Memphis
Education Associate’s degree in general studies, East Arkansas Community College; bachelor’s degree in physical science, University of Memphis; master’s degree in geography, University of Memphis; doctorate in community college leadership, Mississippi State University

What was your dream job and why?

My dream job is the one I’m currently in, which has been true at every point throughout my 30-year career as a community college educator in two different states. As a first-generation college student, there is no greater reward than helping students — many of whom do not have confidence in their own abilities — become successful in college and in life. I know first-hand the positive impact community colleges have on individuals, on families, and on our communities, and to be a part of that story — whether at the institution or state system level — is truly rewarding.

What has been the most fulfilling moment of your career so far?

My career has been filled with so many fulfilling moments, it’s impossible to choose just one. Nothing is more fulfilling than watching students go from wide-eyed, first-time entering advisees to excited and tearful graduates to confident, successful professionals. Those personal experiences with students have truly been and continue to be the highlight of my career.

However, I am also proud to have helped implement more far-reaching change and innovation during my time working for the Mississippi Community College System. For example, I developed and implemented a successful civil rights compliance review and training process for the Mississippi Community Colleges, still in use today, which helps to ensure colleges understand and meet their responsibility to serve all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability status.

I am also proud to have spearheaded the development of Mi-BEST, the Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training program, in which basic skills instruction is contextualized into career/technical content, allowing GED students at Mississippi’s community colleges to simultaneously earn college credits, workforce credentials, and their high school equivalency diplomas, thereby enabling them to achieve their education and employment goals much faster.

What character traits do you feel have benefited you in your success?

I think many of my beneficial character traits come from being raised on a farm in the Arkansas Delta. First and foremost, I’m a fairly good judge of character. That has enabled me to hire well and to surround myself with smart, talented, hardworking, servant leaders throughout my career. The people you surround yourself with — your team — truly have the power to make you or break you.

Second, I have a very strong work ethic. I’ve always said that I might not be the smartest person in every room, but there’s a good chance I may be the hardest worker. I am resourceful, I am a problem solver, and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty or working long hours to see a project through to completion. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I place a high value on honesty and integrity, both for myself and for the members of my team. That means doing the right thing, in addition to doing things right, and it translates into trustworthiness, reliability, accountability, honest communication, and respect for others.

What advice would you give young women who are at the beginning of their careers?

Find yourself a good mentor, be coachable, work harder than you’re expected to, and most importantly, never, ever sacrifice your personal integrity for a job, a raise, or a promotion.

Can you share how COVID impacted your business or organization?

COVID-19 expedited our shift to providing more flexible learning options for students, something that had been a priority for us since before the pandemic. That flexibility will continue to serve us well into the future, as many of today’s students don’t have the luxury or the desire to be enrolled in traditional, on-ground classes. Whether it’s due to competing responsibilities, such as family and work, or just a change in preferred learning styles, the flexibility afforded by online and hybrid educational delivery is here to stay.

What’s the last good book you read?

“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse,” by Charlie Mackesy.

Who have been mentors who’ve influenced your professional career?

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful mentors over the course of my career, but two stand out. First, the late Dr. Lamar Bridges, who was the vice president of Academic Affairs and my first boss when I began my community college career at East Arkansas Community College in 1991. From his example, I learned what it means to be a humble and honorable servant leader, infinitely inquisitive and respecting of all people. He was a true teacher, and because we shared so many common interests, we developed a long-standing relationship that continued until his death this past year.

My second was the late Dr. Barbara Baxter, executive vice president at Mid-South Community College (now ASU Mid-South) and my boss when I came to work at this institution the first time in 1997. From her example, I learned what it meant to be a strong female leader, with an eye toward professionalism, hard work, attention to detail, accountability, and an unwavering dedication to the community college mission. It was she who encouraged me to pursue my Ph.D., thereby forever changing the trajectory of my life and career.

These two individuals, though quite different, were similar in the ways that matter most — they were dedicated to their students and their institutions, they led with honesty, integrity, and oftentimes humor, and they recognized something in me that made me believe in myself. I will be forever grateful to each of them, and I continually strive to pay them back through my mentorship of others.

How do you spend your time away from work? What are your hobbies?

My hobbies are fairly mundane. I love to cook, and I enjoy reading, gardening, and the arts (music, art, and theater). I also enjoy spending time with dear friends, most of whom share similar interests.