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She's been in their shoes

At Tuesday’s New Student Welcome Day, new Rogue Community College President Cathy Kemper-Pelle greeted the nearly 200 students who visited the school’s Riverside Campus in Medford.

There were handshakes, high-fives and selfies as Kemper-Pelle encouraged them to be “Rogue Ready!” when classes begin Monday.

The welcoming committee was the first in an effort to prevent a disconnect that often occurs in first-time students.

“There is a high risk of students dropping out when there is no connection to staff or their peers,” says Kemper-Pelle.

A first-term connection produces a higher rate of success, she adds.

In her role as advocate, Kemper-Pelle says she likes to tell first-time college students, “I know where you are coming from, and I, too, was a community college student.”

Kemper-Pelle has been on the job since July 1. As RCC’s sixth president, she follows in the footsteps of Peter Angstadt, who retired last spring.

Her relationship with community colleges began at Central Illinois College as a 17-year-old aspiring forestry student. The youngest of four, she and her older siblings had to pay their own way.

“My parents thought college and a career in forestry was a silly pursuit,” she recalls. “They didn’t understand and thought I should opt for a more traditional path … that of marriage and children.

“The more I was told, ‘You can’t do,’ the more determined I was to do,” she says.

A scholarship from the American Business Women’s Association and a job in the university’s residency halls afforded her the opportunity “to do” at Illinois State University.

Graduating with a degree in marine biology, she thought she would become a researcher ala Jacques Cousteau. She soon discovered that life aboard “Calypso” and similar seafaring vessels was only two days a month — “maybe.”

Bored with the mundane business of data entry and writing technical reports, she wanted more contact with people and opted to teach instead.

“I discovered I really loved teaching,” she says.

Her first teaching job as an adjunct faculty member in the biology department at a community college launched her career in education. She spent the last 30 years as teacher and administrator at various institutions — primarily community colleges — in Texas. She completed her doctorate in community college leadership at the University of Texas.

Before accepting the RCC presidency, Kemper-Pell was a vice president at Lee College near Houston and a cohort student success mentor at the National American University Roueche Graduate Center in Austin. Both institutions are well respected nationwide.

Although she and her husband, Robert, left their hearts, children and grandchildren behind in Texas, the move to the Pacific Northwest is a dream come true for the couple who love the outdoors.

The lure of mountains and pine trees was at the top of their list when she began her search for vacant community college presidencies.

“I only looked at Washington and Oregon,” she says.

Southern Oregon fit the bill for the outdoorsy duo who love to hike, cycle, raft and kayak.

And RCC was at the head of the class among the community colleges Kemper-Pelle researched.

“I did my homework,” she says.

When she reached out to colleagues, “I got fantastic feedback. RCC has a great reputation.

“I was looking for a college that had a good reputation, that was working with the community and really cared about students,” she adds. “RCC is that kind of college. Students come first.”

The college’s core values got high marks, too.

Striving for excellence, integrity, respect, innovation and stewardship “are not just words on a document. They (staff) are really living them.”

Because of that commitment, “students who start (their college career) here perform better than those who start out at four-year universities,” she says.

“Our transfer students complete their education at four-year universities at far better rates.”

In addition to mentoring approximately 17,500 students scattered across three campuses and promoting the diverse academic, vocational and technical strengths unique to each, Kemper-Pelle is poised to oversee $31.35 million in capital projects that will improve physical facilities, replace aging infrastructure and expand transfer and workforce programs on each campus.

Voters in Jackson and Josephine counties approved a $20 million bond levy in May 2016, and there is an anticipated additional $8 million match from the state of Oregon.

All of which gives Kemper-Pelle and her staff leverage to fill a growing demand for skilled workers in the medical, manufacturing and technology-based fields.

She points to a recent study by Georgetown University that indicates 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require some college by 2020 due to the increased use of technology in the workplace.

She also plans to lead an effort to align the college’s strategic plan with the needs of the community and region.

“We must provide our business and industry partners with a technologically skilled workforce,” she says.

But, first and foremost, she wants to ensure student success.

“Their success results in economic prosperity.”

Her staff has assigned reading: Stephen Covey’s “Leadership at the Speed of Trust.”

“We’re building a culture of trust and productivity,” she adds.

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Rogue Community College President Cathy Kemper-Pelle greets student and army combat medic Sgt. Jason Ashworth during a walk-about Tuesday on the Medford campus. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta