Leading The Way at KCC

With deep Island roots, Helen Cox wants KCC to help Kaua‘i remain agrarian in nature

Beginning her third year as Kaua’i Community College chancellor, Helen Cox believes in leading by example. That includes the school’s role as a leader in sustainability

In her third year as KCC chancellor, Helen Cox wants the school to be a model for success in all areas

August marks the beginning of Helen Cox’s third year as chancellor of Kaua’i Community College – a good time to take a look back, a leap forward and examine the status quo with this kama’aina Harvard grad at the helm.

“So many accomplishments, so far to go” could be an accurate assessment of the community college that sits on 200 acres of prime turf in Lihu’e, serves about 1,100 students and is part of a three-university, seven-community college system all connected through the University of Hawaii.

The college has had its high points: recent national re-accreditation of its nursing program for an eight-year-period, the longest extension possible, for example.

“That means it’s exemplary,” says Cox, who’s quick to add that as the relative newbie, she’s claiming no credit for the accomplishment.

Cox notes that the culinary arts program also has received a gold star, so to speak, from the American Culinary Federation Foundation Accrediting Commission, which recently gave it exemplary status. Anyone who has experienced the gourmet dining offered on campus would have to agree with that, and again, Cox isn’t claiming credit, but as head honcho, it certainly does reflect on her to some degree.

KCC also now joins the rest of the UH family in having a Marine Option Program Certification, which shows that students who have attained it have an increased understanding and appreciation of marine and freshwater systems. The MOP certification is seen by UH as offering enhanced employability and opportunities for advanced study as a result of the knowledge, skills and contacts acquired through the program’s experiential education and networking.

“It shows that students have strong science courses in their curriculum, and we’re trying to link it to more practical certification in diving, so the learning is both transferable and practical,” says Cox.

“Nancy Bushnell deserves a lot of the credit for the MOP certification,” she adds, referring to the retired professor of biology and zoology.

“She worked with me to get it started.”

There’s more news. The entire college is up for re-accreditation in 2010 and also seeks to raise the level of all of its programs to national standards.

“We’re working on our automotive technician program accreditation, and we just started a digital media program that was in the works when I arrived,” says Cox.

Soon after she came to Kaua’i in 2008, Cox became aware of the strong interest in the community to remain agricultural – and also the challenge that presents.

“I wanted to figure out ways to help,” she says.

Two of her projects are the Saturday market that Kaua’i County Farm Bureau executive director Melissa McFerrin also tuned in to, and the pair got it up and running “with a lot of help,” says Cox. The other way she’s helping is by supporting a bioscience certificate. The certificated program offers courses related to agriculture. A bioscience certificate could lead to working as a technician for any agricultural pursuit and is designed to help students who may want to transfer to a degree program to take it up another notch.

Cox delights in gold stars and exemplary ratings for several KCC programs

“We were asked by the agricultural community to develop the certificate and we were delighted to do it,” says Cox. “Agriculture is such an important piece here.”

Sustainability is an absolute must, something Cox says has been part of her life practically forever and definitely during the more than 30 years that she lived and worked in Utah, the last 25 of them in higher education.

“We’re trying to focus on new programs and methods to help our students and community to live more sustainably,” she says. “An obvious example is that we have a facilities management engineering program that now includes alternative energy and response to new building codes.”

She points to the culinary arts program taking students out to the campus farm to see how food is grown, then replicating the experience for a summer program designed for high school students planning to enter the KCC culinary arts program.

“I cannot take credit,” says Cox. “Lots and lots of people are working on it – I think being passionate helped.”

What the college needs to do, she says, is to be a sustainability model to the community. To that end, the eventual plan is to have photovoltaic panels campus-wide just as they now pepper the roof of the One Stop Center.

“Eventually we’re hoping to have enough photovoltaic panels so that, when the sun is out, we will not use energy from the grid, and will in fact feed it back to the grid,” says Cox. “If we’re going to be a higher-education institution, we need to be a model.”

In brief, KCC provides opportunity for certification, associate degrees, transfer degrees and advanced degrees in a variety of programs. It’s neat that future teachers can stay on the island, for example, and get their bachelor’s degree in education right here at home.

And although no different than the national norm, here comes the bad news. A quick look at the entering student body shows about 60 percent of them must take remedial or developmental math, and about 40 percent need remedial English before they can enroll in their courses.

“We need to strengthen the retention and success piece – it’s something not just we, but nationally, community colleges need to do,” says Cox. “Maybe we need to look more closely to identify what they need to remediate and give them only that little piece.

“Or maybe there’s a way we can link a developmental course with something they love so they’re taking their automotive mechanic stuff and writing about that and doing their math about that. We are moving in that direction, but there is kind of a resistance – we haven’t done that before, you know.”

In this pursuit and others intended to not just get the youths in the door but to usher them out with certificates, degrees and transfer degrees, Cox networks with the community for every advantage.

“We have our science, math and English faculty working directly with faculty from the high schools to try to align the curriculum and also to talk about what the expectations are so that we can make sure students should be able to seamlessly transition from one to the other.”

Cox and faculty members sit on committees of the Kaua’i Economic Development Board to learn what the business community is planning and carry that into faculty discussions on curriculum development.

“We also sit on the County’s Kaua’i Workforce Investment Board for the same reason,” Cox continues. “Their thrust is looking at the training that’s needed for the work force and in what areas of the work force we need people.”

In her own life, Cox says that, upon graduating from Punahou, she didn’t have a clue what she’d do for the rest of her life. For at least two years after arriving in Boston to attend Harvard she was in culture shock.

She toyed with the idea of being a United Nations interpreter, but in the end it was teaching that called her, a decision she attributes to family influence by example.

Her great-grandfather, Isaac Cox of Kilauea, was principal of the school there; her father was a professor at UH; and her mother was a teacher.

“I think it was in my genes,” she says. “When I was a little kid I used to line up my stuffed animals and teach them.

“As I got older and was choosing what I wanted to do, I discovered that it’s a profession that means you get to keep learning and changing your whole life, which is really appealing to me, because unlike people who resist change, I apparently love it. It allows me to grow and learn and it’s just an amazing place to be.”

Cox’s path through academia was upwardly mobile, and there was no compelling reason for her to leave her position as associate vice president of instruction at Salt Lake Community College in Utah to accept the KCC chancellorship.

But in her position just prior, the college president told her she was presidential material and should pursue leadership training, which she did. But she resisted applying for just any leadership position.

Says Cox, “When the (KCC) opening came, I started thinking that being a chancellor at a place I really believe in and can use my own strengths, what an opportunity to help. It was this particular college – it was the perfect one.

“I have this incredible fondness for being here as a kid and being steeped in this. I feel as if I’m the luckiest person on the planet.”

Cox moved here in 2008 with her husband, John Latkiewicz, whom she met and married in Utah in 2004. He was fortunate to get employment as the director of the Kaua’i Small Business Development Center situated on the KCC campus, but reporting to UH-Hilo.

They’re a perfect match, she says. “He’s very calm and patient, and he’s also very process-oriented, more so than I am. Those are characteristics I think complement my more enthusiastic and perhaps at times not as well-thought-out self.

“It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in my life, and it’s really great to have someone who really wants to have to a grand time on adventures together.”

Cox has two grown sons, each married and each pursuing his own dreams.

Richard Brockmyer, 25, is on Kaua’i this summer doing an unpaid internship with the Kapaa Planning and Action Alliance and the County of Kaua’i. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at Arizona State University.

Brandon Brockmyer, 28, is attending American University in Washington, D.C., working on a Ph.D. in international relations with a focus on conflict resolution.

Helen Cox's ohana, including two sons and their wives: (from left) Kaiti and Richard Brockmyer, Tara and Brandon Brockmyer, Cox and husband John Latkiewicz

“It’s so funny,” says Cox, “because when they were growing up, like lots of kids they were watching TV and playing video games, and I worried they were not going to be anything I trained them to be. I am incredibly lucky.”

Choosing KCC resonated deeply with Cox, whose small-kid time is liberally sprinkled with Kaua’i adventures.

By the time she came along, her grandparents had moved from Eleele to Hanalei, where she spent her summers, she says, “back when Ching Young store was just Ching Young store and there were squashed toads on the road every year. And once a year we would take my grandfather’s little motor-boat up the Hanalei River with cream sodas and tunafish sandwiches and go as far up as you could go and get out and go even further and then come down the rapids in our bathing suits.

“I didn’t know it at the time,” she says, “but it was idyllic – helping to pull in the hukilau nets with other people there, and my grandmother played the organ for Waioli Mission. My grandfather rang the bell, so sometimes he would let me pull the bell.

“My father was a geo-physicist at UH,” she continues. “He was born on Maui, raised in Eleele and he had this love of the earth, and particularly the Hawaiian earth and the sea, that probably formed who I am.”

Who she is includes being an avid hiker and outdoors-woman. She says, “I think one of my formative moments was hiking into Kalalau at 9 years old.”

Another formative force in her life, she says, is being Quaker.

“I’m not practicing because there is no meeting on Island, but I think being raised Quaker – because it’s a religion that first of all does not have answers, it has questions; and second, believes in solitude and listening to what’s within you.

“I think that has informed my life all the way through.”

Cox came home to the Islands with a commitment to raise the bar for the community and for students at KCC. She is a powerful example of how she’s shaped her own life.

Since running barefoot around Kaua’i as a keiki and later acquiring a smattering of languages – Japanese, French and some Russian – Cox has traveled far and wide. She lived in Japan during high school for half a year with her family and later, after earning a Master of Arts in English and American literature and a Ph.D. in American studies, she earned two Fulbright Scholar awards to Eastern Europe.

In all of that, there is acquiring wisdom, a shaping of world views and an assessment of education.

Turning back to her report card for KCC, she says, “As the only higher-education institution on island, we should be the gathering place for applied research and for tough discussions and leadership, and we should make sure our programs reflect that in their updating.

“We’re here for the students,” she notes. “All programs must be geared to the students’ future – the paradigm has to shift.

“We train them to be what the world they’re going to be living in needs.”

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