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What's Up Magazine

Dr. Martha A. Smith

Mar 21, 2011 03:00AM ● By Anonymous
The offer of a story is hard to resist from a woman whose eyes light up with passion while she talks about the mission of a community college.

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I nod my head in assent and smile, ready with my pen to jot notes on my stenographer’s pad.

“During the period that I was applying for the position of president of Anne Arundel Community College, I visited the campus in my blue jeans and sweatshirt to talk with students and find out what they thought about the college. They told me this place is wonderful. The faculty are wonderful. But biology is too hard! One consistent theme I heard throughout my conversations that week was, it’s so nice here, I wish it were a 4-year-college.” “No we’re not a 4-year-college,” says Smith resolutely, “we would lose our distinct and unique mission if we became one. What we can do and have done is form an alliance with four other Maryland academic institutions—College of Notre Dame, University of Maryland University College, Villa Julie, and McDaniel College—to provide the opportunity to students to continue their education and earn a bachelor’s degree taking classes at our AACC University Consortium at Arundel Mills.”

The mission of a community college to which Smith fervently refers is part of what inspired her to choose a career in education. Community colleges are an American invention, she explains. They were created more than 100 years ago to provide all citizens with access to higher education. “Everyone gets an opportunity,” she says “to be able to fulfill their potential. Every year we enroll more students. If they couldn’t come here, many might not go anywhere. In spite of significant obstacles they come, sometimes balancing two or three jobs while taking classes. There are nearly 21,000 credit students and 35,000 continuing and professional studies students here—each with their own story to tell.”

Dr. Smith grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, a middle child with an older sister and a younger brother. She excelled in math and science and decided to study chemistry at Slippery Rock State University near Pittsburgh. She quickly immersed herself in all forms of campus life. “I loved all of the extracurricular activities—sororities, sports, student government . . .” She jokingly says she imagined herself at the time becoming a rich and famous chemist and was accepted into the chemistry graduate program at the University of Hawaii. As she began to teach undergraduate students there, she says she realized that she had not “integrated the knowledge” in a way that allowed her to teach the subject at the level she wanted. She began to reassess her career path. She knew she enjoyed life on campus and being around the students and so she began to entertain the notion of becoming a dean of students. “That just seemed like the perfect job.”

Enrolling in the University of Hawaii’s College of Education, she earned a master of education degree in educational psychology and became director of the Hawaii Open Program, where she served as student services specialist and director. After earning a doctorate f rom the University of Colorado, she took the position of vice president for student affairs at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona, Minnesota. She moved from Minnesota in 1982 to take the dean of students position at Dundalk Community College (DCC) in Baltimore County. Six years into her position at DCC, she became president there—the first woman to hold a presidency at a community college in Maryland. During her 7 years as president of DCC, enrollment there grew, including significant increases in minority student enrollment.

In 1994, she was named president of AACC. “I considered AACC to be the plum,” she says. “It already had a great reputation and I knew it had a great deal of potential.”

As a respite from her prominent leadership role in Anne Arundel County, Dr. Smith enjoys skiing, hiking, and canoeing for fun and relaxation. One of her favorite vacation spots is Maine. She also collects antique oil lamps. A lovely one resides on the coffee table in her office—a gift from the leadership at the college to commemorate her first 10 years there. Although she knows little about the history or types of lamps she owns, she collects them because she loves the soft radiance of the lamplight and enjoys attending auctions.

Dr. Smith considers her mother to have been the most influential woman in her life. Her mother was a dedicated physical therapist who worked at (what was then called) the Society for Crippled Children. “She had a quiet strength and a generosity of spirit,” she says, “and sometimes she’d bring patients home with her for dinner or we would take them with us to the lake. She was not one to prejudge people and always gave people ‘the benefit of the doubt.’”

This philosophy of providing opportunity for everyone carries over to Dr. Smith’s current role as president. “I am thrilled by the high level of interest and support for education in our county. We have received tremendous support from Anne Arundel County government and other leaders in the community.” As she looks toward the future, she notes the increasing number of students of diverse backgrounds and the growing Hispanic and Korean communities in the county. “As a county, we have now and will be moving into a huge labor shortage,” says Smith. “Everybody counts. We want to get the students who have dropped out back into the system. It’s important to provide them with training and enable them to become productive citizens and members of the workforce. We live in a global economy and I tell students they are going to be competing not only with other Americans but with workers from all over the world for tomorrow’s jobs. They need to be prepared.”

She doesn’t have to look far for examples of the value of education to today’s students. “If you attend our graduation ceremonies for students in our English as a Second Language or GED (General Equivalency Diploma) courses, you will hear unbelievable personal stories.”

At its 90 sites around the county, AACC has programs to suit all age groups, from children to senior citizens. While many students want to obtain an associate’s degree, others seek merely to take a few classes for personal enrichment. “We’re here to serve everyone. But what often happens is that the student who leaves for a job will return when they realize that they need more education to move ahead on their career path.”

Named three times as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women by the Daily Record, Dr. Smith recently became the fifth woman to serve on the board of directors of the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international consortium. Looking back on her accomplishments in the community, Dr. Smith says, “I still feel like I’m the new president. I t feels great and there’s a lot more I want to do.”