We have grappled with some of the most challenging issues of our times since the COVID-19 pandemic revealed deep fissures running through our nation, including social and racial inequities that have long plagued our communities.
As the pandemic has continued, we have come to face fears and concerns related to returning to work safely, vaccine hesitancy, and within the educational system maintaining the integrity of instruction and students’ experience, as well as just plain simple COVID fatigue.
Throughout this ordeal, we have learned to lean into our support systems, prioritize what matters and focus on change.
We value leaders who invite us to be part of the vision that will transform the current situation. They exhibit leadership by knowing when and how to listen, and how to build trust and community. They understand that leadership is not about being liked, but rather setting and building confidence for the future.
While we need strong, clear and decisive leadership now, we also need to cultivate our community’s future leaders. I believe that we will find them in Ventura County’s community college students.
This generation of students is civic-minded. Many come to us already embracing social justice, a deeply held belief in equity and a desire to foster inclusion. We encourage this discourse, as the mission of the Ventura County Community College District is to inspire students to become leaders.
Not all of our students walk onto our campuses thinking of themselves as leaders; they might not even be able to articulate the myriad traits of an effective leader. However, while these students attend Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura colleges, we will provide them with the pathways, experience and opportunities to foster growth and nurture leadership.
Students have leadership modeled for them on multiple levels throughout their time with us. They, in turn, model that leadership for their peers and the community as they leave our colleges and transfer to a four-year institution or enter the workforce.
As president of Moorpark College, I must ensure a safe work and learning environment for our entire campus community. My responsibility is to maintain the college’s integrity of instruction and our delivery of services while providing for our safety.
But leadership is more than that.
At our college, it involves listening to various perspectives and voices that make up the campus community. Fundamental to the process is hearing opposing viewpoints and engaging constituents with an open mind and professionalism.
When we do, we develop more informed, impactful and substantial decisions. During the pandemic, this has meant visiting with faculty and staff to address their concerns about remote work and equitable work assignments for instructional and non-classroom faculty.
To support student leaders as they advocate for all student perspectives, we collaborated with the Associated Students of Moorpark College to host two town hall meetings. Each event provided opportunities for students to voice their concerns.
In partnership with the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the student government also developed a survey asking specific questions about the vaccine requirement, testing options, student support services and remote learning.
The process taught student leaders that listening does not mean agreement. It means taking in information, working to understand positions and listening for emotional understanding, which is what others are feeling about the issue.
Our students discovered that leadership is relational, meaning you need to collaborate to achieve agreed-upon goals. And they learned to be intentional in building and sustaining relationships.
Through service-learning projects integrated into the curriculum and work-based opportunities, such as internships and job shadowing available at the community college Career Transfer Centers, students grapple with ambiguity and discover that compromise and innovative thinking are essential to life-long success. Faculty and staff prepare graduates to accept that they will make mistakes, teaching them that the true mark of leadership is admitting errors and then committing to learning from them.
Our students understand that leaders also harness the strength found in our cultural differences. They recognize institutional and structural barriers and work to eradicate them and close equity gaps. They create welcoming and supportive cultures for everyone. As designated Hispanic Serving Institutions, we are committed to leading the way to racial and socioeconomic diversity as it reflects our communities and student populations.
Our responsibility is to prepare students to be future leaders for a pluralistic society where diversity, equity and inclusion are essential to maintaining social fabric, economic vitality and humanity.
With hope and preparation, we look forward to teaching more students in 2022 who will become pillars and transformational leaders in the community.
Julius Sokenu, Ed.D., is the president of Moorpark College.