They navigate issues with their parents, struggle with support, agonize over career decisions and question their identities. They can make the same immature mistakes as they learn to see beyond their own perspectives and take responsibility for their actions.
Dr. Carol Ross knows this well. While she began her career in American community colleges, for nearly 13 years she has led similar institutions in Kuwait. She came back stateside to take a position as SUNY Broome’s new Vice President for Student Development and Chief Diversity Officer, replacing longtime stalwart Debbie Morello, who retired this summer.
“We are so pleased that an international leader of Dr. Ross’s stature has joined us as Vice President for Student Development & Chief Diversity Officer. Her breadth and depth of experience will be a tremendous asset to both the college and our community,” said SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm. “In succeeding our retiring VP, Debbie Morello, she has big shoes to fill, but already Dr. Ross is making those strides. We wholeheartedly welcome her to SUNY Broome and the Southern Tier.”
Globetrotting may be in Ross’ blood. A native of Compton, California, she moved to Europe with her parents – her father worked for the Department of Defense — from 1980 to 1987. She spent four years in London and three in Naples, Italy, earning two degrees while in Europe: a business degree from the University of Maryland-European Division and her master’s in human services and human resource education at the Boston University European Division in Naples.
She went on to earn a Ed.D. in higher education administration from Florida State University, specializing in community college students and retention, and has worked full-time in higher education since 1993. She began as dean of student development at Dyersburg State Community College in Tennessee, followed by a stint as student dean at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus. Then, it was off to south Florida, where she was Dean of Student Affairs at Broward Community College for seven years before moving to Kuwait.
She served as founding Dean of Student Affairs at the American University of Kuwait, serving there from 2004 to 2015, and was then hired as the founding president for Kuwait Community College, the first American-model community college in the country.
At the urging of family members, Ross began looking for career opportunities back in the United States and applied for the position at SUNY Broome. The chance to work for a school in the SUNY system was attractive, as well the chance to combine two passions: community college and working for diversity and inclusion.
“When I interviewed here, it felt so right,” she said. “When I came here to campus, I felt so at home.”
The college experience overseas
So, how does the American college compare with the one on the other side of the globe?
Overseas, students tend to value bachelor’s degrees – despite the fact that they, much like students in the United States, often need some sort of developmental coursework in writing, English or math. And like their American counterparts, they often need help developing college readiness: study skills, critical thinking, discipline and time management.
“The community college has always been the best teacher and support for that,” Dr. Ross said. “To me, they are community college students. They are English as a Second Language students who need to learn how to be successful at college.”
When she worked to establish Kuwait Community College, the Middle Eastern country already had two-year institutions based on the Australian and Canadian models. The American model, by contrast, demands more in the way of student engagement, both inside and out of the classroom.
“They need a community college where they can get grounded, get their start and get their basics down, and then they can go on to be successful,” Ross said of the Kuwaiti students.
There are some differences between the needs of American and Kuwaiti students, of course. American community colleges work to foster a global perspective among their students, who may never have left the country or even their home state. In Kuwait – a half-hour from Bahrain, 1 ½ hours from Dubai and relatively close to China and many other countries – global awareness and international travel are givens.
In some respects, Middle Eastern culture was more like American culture in the 1960s and 1970s, with its focus on family. Raised Catholic, Dr. Ross remembers when Sundays were reserved for visiting family and extended family – traditions that still persist in the Middle East, although their “Sunday” falls on Friday in accordance with Islam.
“We are so much more similar than we are different; we just don’t want to admit it,” she reflected.
Just like American students, students in Kuwait were expected to take responsibility for their actions, step up as leaders, do volunteer work, and be civil and open to other opinions.
Ross fondly remembered one student, an outspoken young man who believed that Madonna was a she-devil. Four years later, he was still conservative, but willing to consider other people’s views, change his mind, and listen and participate in discussions – a success story in terms of maturity and civility.
During her time in Kuwait, Ross took the opportunity to travel extensively and played for a Kuwaiti women’s softball team. Her daughter graduated high school there and was well-prepared for college; she’s currently back in the United States, doing her medical residency on her journey to become a physician.
“I feel like I really had an impact on people’s lives because I was living my purpose, but it was time to move in another direction,” she said of her experience in the Middle East.
A welcoming campus
As the start of the academic year approaches, Dr. Ross has plenty to do. She wants students to feel welcome to SUNY Broome, and ready to learn once the year starts; the first two or three weeks, after all, can set the feel for their entire year.
That involves a look at all the little things in how campus runs, from Move-In Day at the Student Village to the registration process.
“I want our students to know we want you here, and we want you to do well. I want the faculty to know that the goal is to get the students into their classes with minimal disruptions so they’re ready to learn,” she said.
As Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Ross will make sure the campus is welcoming to all – regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, ability or disability, or military service. And yes, she emphasized, that includes everyone.
“Affirmative action is about laws. Inclusion is about what you feel inside,” she explained. “We want to make sure that how we treat people is fair and equitable and humane.”
College is, of course, an environment where young people traditionally have the opportunity to test the norms and figure out who they are as adults. That one of the factors that makes working in higher education so fun – and challenging, and ultimately worthwhile.
“If you want to learn and you want to be in an environment where people care, you come to Broome because that’s who we are. That’s what we do,” she said.