TCC Northeast welcomed Kenya Ayers as president in July 2019. A second-generation educator, her experience in both academic and student affairs gives her a holistic perspective on higher education. Suzanne Groves, executive director of Communications, Public Relations & Marketing, met with TCC’s newest president to learn more about her background and what she wants for the students the College serves.
Q: First, tell me about your name. Did you know other Kenyas in your growing up years?
A: I have met just a few other Kenyas. I am a product of a time when people of African-American descent were stepping into great pride in heritage and culture.
Q: Tell me about your career thus far.
A: I feel blessed and fortunate. It’s amazing to me, even on the hardest days, that this is the work I get to do. My journey started with me working in academic advising through a graduate assistantship. I was studying clinical psychology. I had a graduate assistantship in my master’s program that was paying my way through my master’s program, and the assistantship that I secured was in an academic advising office. While I was doing therapy and testing with adolescents in my clinical internship, I found that we were affecting more change with the college students that I worked with through advising in an initiative called the Academic Mentoring Program at Eastern Michigan University.
Students there were matched with mentors and connected with academic support skills and services, then able to come off of academic probation and really see a turnaround. I thought, “I love this.” Once I started doing that work, I got hooked. Soon after, I got a full ride to a doctoral program in clinical psychology. I was the first in my family to have that kind of opportunity to earn a doctorate, but I knew I needed to be on a college campus, so I walked away from that Ph.D. program.
I felt called to work in higher education, and my career has been a progression through student affairs and academic affairs simultaneously. I’ve been fortunate to be able to go back and forth between both. I started in academic advising, I did academic support work, I’ve been a dean of students, I’ve been an associate dean for academic affairs, and I became an associate provost, then served as an academic dean and a vice president.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in education?
A: I’m a second generation educator. My mother is happily retired from her career as a principal in the Detroit public school system. It was the rides in the car with mom where she would be unwinding and talking about her day. Some people shy away from the idea of administration; I thought, “This is awesome.” I saw it as helping people. I saw it as being positioned to have resources and to have a voice at a table where you can effect change. I loved visiting the school that she led. We talked through really thorny challenges. She was in the Detroit public school system and oversaw a kindergarten-8th grade building that was large for their district. She worked with union problems. I learned a lot just watching her. My love of learning came both of my parents, who really instilled the value of education.
Q: When you think about your career and your life up to now, what is your proudest achievement?
A: There is work that I have done in equity and inclusion on many fronts with women, for students of color, along the lines of socioeconomic status, along the lines of international and immigration issues that has really significantly opened doors of opportunity for others to bring their goals to fruition. That makes me proud that I’ve done something that matters.
Q: Were there any hurdles you had to overcome along your journey and, if so, can you describe the situation, the outcome, what you learned?
A: One thing I’ve experienced quite a bit in my career is being underestimated, probably for a variety of reasons. It may have to do with the intersectionality of identity as a woman and as a woman of color. There have been many times where I walk into a room, and I’m not what people expect to see. For whatever reason, I just don’t fit the bill of who they were expecting.
I just focus on doing great work, representing my organization well and bringing my best to the table. I think there were times in my career when my identity was a hurdle for some. Now, I just see it as an opportunity to broaden people’s view of who is successful and what excellence looks like. So, I embrace that opportunity.
Q: What do you think are the greatest challenges in education today?
A: In some ways the work we do is like turning the Titanic. We have organizations that are modeled on middle-class norms, but we aren’t necessarily educating students who come from a middle class paradigm. So, there’s an opportunity for us to shift our way of thinking, not always inviting our students to accommodate to the way that we operate.
For example, we must ask what needs to shift in the classroom to ensure students have what they need from Day One. Because if it takes until Day 15 for me to realize the student doesn’t have a book, they’re too far behind. How do we shift what we’re doing to meet the needs of our learners?
As academics, we are trained to look at the world through the lens of our discipline. We’re not always inviting colleagues to understand the broader focus, the more strategic look that higher education requires today. That’s a real opportunity. The ways in which we partner with our communities, and the ways in which we’re invited to be more entrepreneurial, is a very different way of thinking than when many people came into academics.
Q: Describe your leadership philosophy.
A: I believe very strongly that the work we do should be people-driven and data-informed. It is important to be communicative and clear, to communicate vision and invite people. I’m a very invitational leader, so you’ll hear me use the word “invite” often. Invite people to come along and partake in the vision too. Ownership matters. That is what I really like about TCC’s Three Goals and Eight Principles work. It has shifted the work of the District. It’s shifted the work of the College, and people are thinking about transformation. There are so many opportunities for ownership, for people to say they really can be part of where the College is going. I really believe strongly in this level of engagement.
Q: What do you want students to know about you?
A: That I want them to have a phenomenal experience with TCC. I want them to finish what they’ve started. As much as I like seeing them around, want to get to know them and look forward to engaging with them, I also look forward to their continued success beyond our organization. What brings me joy is that I’m now in my 30th year as an educator, and I still have relationships with students from that long ago. I also hope the students will come to know my heart—that my heart is always for their best. That I will always engage them in conversation about where they’re going. And it doesn’t matter if they’re a student at 13, 14 or if they’re a student at 70, 80, I want to know what their vision is for their own lives. Our role is to help them bring that to light.
Q: Who was your greatest influence and why?
A: My mother. My mother epitomizes a woman of wisdom, faith and strength. She models the difference that education can make in someone’s life. She grew up in the projects of Detroit and became a principal of one of the Detroit public schools. So she’s been a real mentor. She’s been a great pattern for my life. She’s the person I most respect and most admire.
Q: Finally, if I were a first-time college student sitting in your office right now, what advice would you give me?
A: So often, our first–time-in-college students are so anxious, they believe they don’t know how to do this college thing and that everybody else does, or that they’re not going to get where they want to go. It’s all this noise in their heads.
I’d just say, just stop and breathe. You’re already amazing. You’re already wonderful. You will get through this. You will be proud of yourself. Just take your time. Learn the Campus. Understand that there are professionals here who are here to support your success, and we believe in you. We invite you to believe in yourself too.