Rose Bellanca is the president and CEO of Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor. In her role, she is responsible for the organization, administration and strategic direction of the college, which serves more than 100,000 students and community members, employs about 1,500 people and has an operational budget of more than $100 million.
Bellanca has five degrees, including a doctorate of education from Wayne State University. She has more than 20 years of executive leadership experience in higher education. Before Washtenaw, she was the president of Northwood University’s West Palm Beach Campus, the president of St. Clair Community College and the provost of Macomb Community College.
What led you to education?
I later attended a private business school and entered an executive secretary program. After about four weeks, I was convinced I could teach it. I met with the owner of the school, but he said I needed a college degree. Later I learned about Macomb Community College and met with a counselor there. They told me I’d be able to become a teacher and accepted me. While attending Macomb, I continued business school. Attending both was the best decision I ever made. The business school taught me the skills I needed to do my job. The home economic classes I initially thought were a waste of my time led me to an area called Family Life Education, which was my first degree.
How did your experiences as a college professor prepare you to lead a university?
As an adjutant instructor at the college and university level, I worked at two universities and taught at the graduate level. Students that came into my classes were all pretty equal in terms of their ability. A lot of them had careers already, and they could also afford school or had a scholarship. I also taught a business class at community college as a part-time instructor. During my first class, when the students walked in, I was taken aback. I met a husband and wife couple who were taking the class to implement it into their company. I had students dressed in uniforms, including a mechanic, a nurse and a waitress. There were students older than I was. The people that came into my class were from all walks of life, and worked hard to get there. I would never have been able to lead as a president had I not had those experiences. It helps me relate to my students, and also my faculty, because I understand when they walk into a classroom they are working to meet the needs of a variety of students.
Were there any early leadership lessons in your career?
I was the first female vocational director in Macomb County. Seventeen vocational programs reported to me, including machine shop, welding and automotive. Being in that arena as a woman was interesting. People would say things like, “even you might be able to understand this.” I was also the first woman administrator. At the time, the men had a difficult time including me in meetings, but I’d overlook it.
One day while a meeting was going on without me, three instructors came into my office. They said, “it really bothers us that you’re not at that meeting. You are our boss, and we want you there.” I realized they were right. I entered the meeting, and there must have been 10 men sitting around a table. I’ll never forget what it was like to turn that doorknob. They all looked at me like, “Why are you here?” I had the same job as they did. There wasn’t a chair, they had to go find one and bring it into this room. I’ll never forget the feeling that I had taking that first step and realizing I have a responsibility to the people who report to me; to lean in, do what’s right and to share, listen, contribute and bring back information. That’s what I was there for. I was not a token.