By CRAIG FLAGG
For Home Page Media Group
Here are a few words of advice for whomever Columbia State Community College
President Janet Smith selects to fill the shoes of Shanna Jackson: You might want to bring an extra pair, maybe several in fact.
You most certainly will need them if you intend on keeping up the pace set by Jackson, a passionate educator who is driven to help not only individuals who seemingly have limited options but also communities that lack opportunities for economic growth.
The dynamic Jackson, who has been at Columbia State since 2010 and now serves as associate vice president for CSCC’s Williamson County campus, on March 13 was named president of Nashville State Community College.
Jackson, whose mother instilled in her an undeniable can-do attitude, has made huge contributions wherever her career path has taken her. Her departure from Columbia State’s Williamson County campus, will leave a significant void.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for her, and she will be an outstanding president for Nashville State,” Smith said. “I hate to lose her –– I dread that –– but I am so happy for her. And I see advantages also with her going into that position, that, for this region, her relationship map with Columbia State and her future relationship with Nashville State will help to increase how we work together as institutions and how that can only benefit the region.”
Jackson, who has a remarkable penchant for good timing –– as her pioneering work in the development of dual-enrollment initiatives shows –– arrived at CSCC at a crucial point.
“It was hard, because the quality was there,” she says. “Great things were happening under the roof, but just aesthetically, (the old facility) did not help our reputation.”
As the county grew and added new high schools, many of the schools appeared far more impressive than what CSCC had to offer. For students, the idea of going on to attend the local community college campus almost seemed like a disappointment.
“But now, when they walk here, they are just like, ‘Wow, this looks like a college
campus,’ ” Jackson says. “So we were, in my mind … really able to hit the reset button on what people thought about Columbia State.
“I’m so proud of the Williamson campus and Columbia State and the work that we’ve done. I was a part of conception –– you know, ‘What do we want this new campus to look like?’ –– through construction to the phenomenal growth that we’ve had here.
“So it was a win-win for me,” she continues, adding, “I know I’m ready to be a college president.”
Yet being a college president wasn’t on her radar from the outset.
Finding her true love
“I would say, honestly, I think I made a decision in 2004 that I wanted to be a community college president. I did not start my career thinking I would be in higher ed at all.”
Yes, with her MBA in hand and a background in business, she says she initially thought “I would be Miss Corporate America.”
And no doubt, she could have been –– if she’d hadn’t caught the eye of a handsome young man, and vice versa.
While love and marriage and children would follow, Jackson’s intense desire to make a lasting impact never waned.
So, with family in tow, she altered her journey through the “not-so- corporate world” when she responded to an ad to teach at what is now South College in Knoxville. She got the job, teaching business and serving as department chair.
Then, in 2000, she took a position at Volunteer State Community College.
It was her first time to truly understand the mission of community colleges. It also would be the catalyst for much of her life-changing work.
“We really are for teaching and learning, I mean that’s what you’ll find at a community college,” Jackson says. “It’s not the research. It’s not going after these huge grants, it’s about the students –– and getting where they are and helping them get to where they need to be. “And it’s about community outreach, you know, really impacting the communities that we serve.”
While serving as director of off-campus sites at Vol State, Jackson got out into small communities and saw how education could really make a difference for them.
“They were struggling, these rural communities,” she says. “And you see these lower educational attainment levels, which impact your ability to recruit and have economic development happening in your region because you don’t have the workforce.
“So it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness! This is where I need to be.’ And so that’s when I said I’m committed to Middle Tennessee and I’m committed to the community college (mission).
“I had to be very intentional and strategic about the types of positions because I had a young family back then, and we weren’t really in the position to move. We made a decision that we wanted to stay in Middle Tennessee.”
She carefully and thoughtfully weighed new opportunities as they came “because it wasn’t like I could just say, ‘I’m now ready to be this and I’ll just try to find that position –– anywhere.’ I wanted to stay here.”
A chance to be president
Having played major roles in projects and programs at Vol State and more recently Columbia State, the opportunity to become a college president came this past fall.
“It started back in October, November,” she recalls. “And you go through a series of interviews. You have a first round and then you are selected to move forward and then you have a final, and it’s an all-day process.
“But it’s a good process because they truly what to vet not just what is put on paper about a candidate but really how people feel about that candidate, and I would say, really about their leadership. Because that’s really what it is.
“The president is not going to sit down and do every piece of the work. But they are going to provide the leadership and the resources to make sure it gets done. And I’ve had a great mentor in Dr. Janet Smith, and several others, of how you can make sure that people feel valued for the work that they do, because that is important.”
Making her mark at the Williamson campus
As Jackson prepares to embark on her next challenge, she will carry fond
memories of her time spent developing Columbia State’s beautiful new Williamson County campus.
“This campus, I mean, this was just amazing,” Jackson says. “From conception to
construction, being able to bring faculty into a room and say, ‘If you could have anything you wanted, what would you want?’
“Now, we had to start scaling it back, of course, because of the budget, but really we designed this campus based off our film crew technology program because the director said ‘I’d really like a sound stage.’ Well, it has an extremely high ceiling to it. And the architect said, ‘This is where we start.’
“And everything was built around that.”
Being fully aware that community colleges have a stigma, Jackson was instrumental in helping to make this new campus –– which sits on 36 acres, has three buildings and features plans for much more –– become a crown jewel.
“We wanted to have a welcoming campus where students would want to be here and feel good about being here, and we’ve done that,” Jackson says.
She says that from the great lab in the highly in-demand nursing program to all across campus, visitors can see the equipment, the investment, the technology.
Suddenly, students could start seeing themselves here, parents could start seeing their students here.
“And then the Tennessee Promise happened all at the same time,” Jackson says, “So now it is affordable for you to let your student get a good start.”
And clearly, the secret is out, because the local CSCC campus has rapidly become the first stop for many Williamson County students.
“We do a great job educating them to go on and be juniors and do whatever they want to do,” Jackson says. “Even in an affluent area like Williamson, where you think they are going to ‘four-year (schools),’ we are the perfect choice for so many students.”