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Get to know your super 

New Times spoke with Cuesta College's new superintendent to learn about her educational past and future goals

Belonging in the educational field didn't completely click for Cuesta College's new superintendent, Jill Stearns, until she dove into working with community colleges.

"I didn't attend a community college, and I really did not understand the role of community colleges until I went to work for one," she said.

click to enlarge NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN Cuesta College welcomes its new superintendent, Jill Stearns. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cuesta College
  • NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN Cuesta College welcomes its new superintendent, Jill Stearns.

As soon as she understood the mission of providing educational access to students, she knew she was in the right place.

"I felt the opportunity to make higher education a reality for anyone who is interested in pursuing is a tremendous opportunity to impact lives," she said.

After she graduated from college, Stearns managed her family's retail business for 10 years. During that time, Stearns and her husband had several small businesses of their own, including building a gas station with a convenience store and car wash in Avenal. In the process of building the gas station, Avenal High School was desperately looking for someone to teach math so they asked Stearns.

"So I started out with the intent of not being an educator, but that didn't work out so well. As it turns out, this is where I belonged," she told New Times.

It didn't help that being an educator ran her in family. Her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri. Stearns' mother had a 43-year career in education, primarily as a high school counselor. Her father taught kindergarten and was also a high school counselor.

Stearns taught math at Avenal High School, before working at West Hills College in the Central Valley, where she served as vice president of educational services, interim associate dean of student learning outcomes, and director of financial aid. In 2012, she also served as the president of Modesto Junior College. And in March of 2018, Cuesta announced that Stearns would be its next superintendent, replacing Gil Stork, Cuesta's superintendent of more than 50 years, who announced his retirement in August 2017.

Stearns is continuing her educational career and her understanding of a junior college as she takes the helm of Cuesta.

As she spoke about the positives at Cuesta—such as creating your own class schedule and exploring various career paths through offered courses—she said community colleges still have a certain stigma.

She said many people perceive that attending community college is just like being at a giant high school.

"The reality is it is very unlike high school; the path is not set out for you here," she said. "You have a tremendous opportunity to explore areas of interest, to take class at a time of day and in the modality that best meets your preferences."

Although she's only been on campus for two months she's already recognized the community between students and faculty.

In order to maximize the connection, she's part of a new program that the college is launching called Guided Pathways. Its intent is to redesign the student experience—whereas traditionally a student seeks a counselor for academic milestones or mentorship on their career path, through this program, counselors reach out to students.

"So it's a very different model, and the intention is that we have a whole array of services and things available to students. But also making sure that we are not across all those services waiting for student but instead being very intentional and reaching out to them, or helping keeping them on the path to completion," she said.

Although fall semester has officially begun at Cuesta, Stearns said many classes have start dates in October. She said the institution doesn't just revolve around the two semesters of fall and spring. Cuesta offers plenty of opportunities for students to explore more education outside of the traditional school year.

"We recognize that not everyone's life goes by the academic calendar, so we are ready to help you start when it works for you," she said. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com

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