Experience

Benjamin to retire in December

Cassie Dickman, cdickman@lmcexperience.com

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Chancellor Helen Benjamin leads a discussion on leadership using the Ralph Ellison novel, “Invisible Man,” at Los Medanos College Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 as an event for Black History Month.

After almost 27 years of working in the district and a lifetime spent dedicated to education, retiring Contra Costa Community College District Chancellor Helen Benjamin is looking forward to not getting up for that first day of school after Christmas vacation for the first time since she was 6 years old.
“I’ve been going to school for 60 years,” said Benjamin, but starting in January she won’t be. “I am excited about that feeling.”
Benjamin, who will leave her post at the end of this year, said she was grateful for the time she has spent in the three-college district and has enjoyed her work because she never felt the need to be somebody else.
“I’ve been comfortable here, the majority of the time,” said Benjamin, but that is something she has experienced at every job. Laughingly she said it might be because she adapts well or is foolish.
But although she ended up making the district her home for almost three decades, Benjamin’s beginning was rocky and it took her awhile to settle in.
“I was trying to get out,” she said, because working at a California community college at first was not what she thought it was going to be.
In 1990, Benjamin was hired as the Los Medanos College dean of Language Arts and Humanistic Studies and didn’t have any goals beyond working in the department she was hired for and “doing exciting things.” She had come from a community college in Dallas and a department she described as having amazing programs. And she thought a forward-thinking, new-frontier kind of place like California would be better for all of her ideas and plans for her future in education. But soon realized the new environment she found herself in was completely different than she anticipated and immediately felt like it wasn’t the right fit.
“I thought I would have the opportunity to do more things but [the faculty] weren’t accustomed to having managers as leaders and creating programs, and things like that,” said Benjamin. “So, that was kind of a disappointment to me when I came, that I couldn’t further use those skills and abilities that I had.”
On top of issues with the inner workings of faculty and management, the technology wasn’t up to the speed she was used to, the district had just gotten a new chancellor and her children were having a hard time, all of which led to Benjamin thinking, “I got to get out of here.” But she went to work and did everything she was supposed to do, all the while constantly looking for another job — without much luck.
She said it “was just a mess.”
As Benjamin was chasing down every job lead that could help her leave the district, the new chancellor, Bob Jensen, had been trying to get a hold of her and Benjamin had been refusing to pick up the phone or call him back.
“I am not calling him,” she said. “I don’t know who he is. Why is he calling me?”
Finally Jensen got in touch with her and told her he knew she was trying to leave California. Benjamin was confused because she hadn’t told anyone she was looking for another job but chalked it up to Jensen being well connected. He asked her to meet with him, so she went to his office in Martinez, and when he asked her why she wanted to leave the district, she told him — her kids were unhappy, it wasn’t what she thought it was going to be, the district didn’t have computers or email and the place was kind of backward.
“This was not progressive enough for me,” she told him. “I can’t stay here.”
But what she was describing she wanted was what Jensen wanted this district to become and he thought she could help him because she had seen it elsewhere. He wanted her to apply for an open position of associate chancellor, but Benjamin still insisted she wanted to leave because it would be too much work.
“No. These people are not ready. They don’t even know what I am talking about,” Benjamin told him, remembering her first day on the job when she asked someone about email and they didn’t even know what it was. “They didn’t have email. In 1990, they didn’t have email.”
In the end Jensen won — because she just couldn’t find a job anywhere else — and she applied for the district level job.
“I had to really make adjustments to this new environment,” said Benjamin, adding she wasn’t going to change into somebody else. “It would have meant that I couldn’t be the educator I had become, and I saw myself as an educator who was a facilitator and really did help faculty so they could get things done with students.”
Eventually she learned to navigate the waters of the district and spent time developing different ways to approach those around her.
She ended up “using skills I didn’t know I had,” said Benjamin, who eventually built trust and established strong relationships with colleagues.
Her experience here was different than she had anticipated, but because she put so much time and effort into the district for so many years she received a bigger payout than just a good work environment.
“They just became my friends,” said Benjamin. “The best friends I have are here.”
Benjamin served in various positions throughout the district — she went back to LMC as interim president, then became vice chancellor of educational programs and services, then went to Contra Costa College as interim president and president — before permanently settling in the chancellor’s seat in 2005.
“I love this place,” said Benjamin, adding that “it was just like home to me.”
Benjamin watched major changes in the years she has spent in the district — financially, demographically and the growth of each campus — and said the student of today is completely different than the student of 1990. But when she entered her current position 11 years ago, she herself became one of those major changes.
“I don’t think I stopped to think about that part, at that moment,” said Benjamin about being not only the first woman to lead the district since its creation in 1949 but also the first African American. “I [didn’t] have time to basque in that.”
But later she said she did stop to consider that idea for a moment and understood it was a significant achievement.
“The fact that I’m black is important, because I know — for women, for people of color — it’s really an important symbol,” said Benjamin. “So, I’ve tried to do every job I have with passion and commitment and to be an example to people. Not to do things wrong so that I mess it up for everybody like me behind me.”
Paving the way for others can be good or bad, she explained, and doesn’t want them to say they don’t want “one of those again,” adding with a laugh, “that happens!”
Benjamin explained how the role models in her life helped pave her own career path, and although she has always been interested in education and loved going to school, she never planned to end up in the position she will be vacating officially Dec. 31.
After entering the higher-education workforce, Benjamin was firm on never becoming a college president, but then she did. And after serving in that position at two different colleges in the district — as interim president of LMC and president at CCC — she swore she would never become chancellor of a school because she didn’t want to have to answer to a board, but then she did that too.
“And now I have been reporting to a board for 11 years,” she said. “So, the lesson is never say what you don’t want to do.”
Not always having a plan was nothing new to Benjamin, who said things just happen in your life. But what she did know early on was that she wanted to be a teacher.
“It might have been because I grew up in a segregated environment,” explained the Louisiana native, who added that where she lived “there were not many role models of African-American professionals.”
Benjamin doesn’t even think she knew a black registered nurse growing up, and recalled that when she went to the doctor’s office the nurses were white and when she went to the hospital they were white there too.
“We had two black doctors in our town. There were examples of that, but those were men,” she said, adding that was not something she ever thought about. “The professionals that I knew, who were like me, were teachers.”
But her parents, both of whom are still alive, also played a part in who she became.
Born to a navy veteran and a domestic worker, Benjamin described her parents as intelligent people and, like many people in the black communities, she said they saw schooling as their children’s only chance at a successful life — so, doing homework was a must.
“What they knew was that education was our way out,” said Benjamin. “We lived in the segregated south and, so, that’s what they stressed. The whole family did, and nobody in my [family] had a college degree.”
Benjamin was one of four children who grew up in a tough, Christian home. Benjamin remembers her father making her and her siblings memorize whole chapters from the Bible and having to recite them back.
“We had a very strict household,’ said Benjamin, characterizing her mother as the more stringent of the pair. “There were all kinds of rules and regulations, and if you did not abide by them you were just in trouble.”
And as soon as any of them turned 18, they had to move out.
“So, I went to college,” said Benjamin, who added that all her siblings were good students and are professionals now as well.
Benjamin said she thought her parents “were way overboard,” but spoke of them fondly, and explained that when you become a parent you are doing it for the first time and just trying to do what you think is best. And even she didn’t resist all their parental influence.
“I could often hear their words coming out of my mouth,” said Benjamin.
When she went to college she counted on pursuing a degree in education but was informed that she had to put a primary subject down on the paperwork.
“I looked in the catalog and I saw these majors listed and I said, ‘Well, I like English. I’ll major in English,’” recalled Benjamin, who was also required to decide on a secondary education major as well. “I’m telling you, I didn’t have a plan.”
But she eventually received a bachelor’s of science in English and Spanish from Bishop College in Dallas before moving on to receive master’s and doctoral degrees from Texas Woman’s University. And, after spending about five or six years teaching in the public school system, Benjamin decided she wanted to become an administrator but didn’t end up getting into the program required for the job.
“I just gave up on that,” she said, in a go-with-the-flow attitude, which has been reflected throughout her career. “It’s not anything I had to do anyway.”
But Benjamin knew she liked to take charge and had always been in leadership roles while working on her educational goals in high school and college — student body president, student government, yearbook editor. So, she decided to do something about it. Benjamin, who was pregnant with her second child at the time, went to the the principal’s office of the school and told him she wasn’t coming back. He asked her if she had lost her mind and wanted to know what she was planning to do.
“I don’t know,” she told him. “But I know I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Just like that, she was ready to move on despite her boss’ pleas for her to stay. She just knew she didn’t want to go back to teaching at a high school. So, she became a department chair at the predominately black college where she received her undergraduate degrees, but left after about six years because the college was going bankrupt.
At the time, she had already started working part-time at a community college, and when a division chair job opened up she applied for it.
“I was shocked,” remembered Benjamin, who said she had only met the minimum requirements for the job. “I couldn’t believe I got it.”
Her first permanent position at a two-year institution was eye opening because she knew nothing about community colleges, and said it was completely different from her previous work experience. So, Benjamin started going to conferences and participated in a national leadership program. That’s when she realized she could do more. So, after finishing up her doctorate in English, she decided it was the right moment for a change.
“It was just time for me to do something else,” said Benjamin, who described her decision to leave as similar to the way she left K-12 instruction. “I kind of scare myself that way, you know, but I just one day said, ‘I want another job.’”
The journey to Contra Costa County from Dallas was long, both figuratively and literally, for Benjamin, whose lively description of the events leading up to her departure from Texas made the situation seem like an uncanny twist of fate — at the end she even added in her own imitation of “Twilight” music for effect. Her story involved multiple people from opposite ends of the country — in places like Florida, Texas, California and North Carolina — who all happened to either know each other and/or worked or had worked for the district. And it all lead up to her sitting outside a door in Pittsburg, California waiting to see if a hiring committee would decide to give her another interview for an open dean position the next morning — they did.
“I went back to Texas, and they called to tell me I had the job,” said Benjamin.
Her children were not exactly thrilled about the move from big ‘ol Dallas to tiny Pittsburg, but she did her best to help them adjust. They even made a pact to not go back to Texas to visit for a whole year because it might make the transition even harder. But her son, who was a junior in high school at the time they moved, didn’t make it.
“He was just so awful,” said Benjamin, and after about six months she finally relented and let him visit his hometown.
Her 11-year-old daughter seemed to adjust better, even though she had originally said she was going to go to a historically-black college and never stay in California. But she grew to like her new home and ended up graduating from UCLA and is currently a resident of Oakland.
“Because she was younger, I think, and she made friends and all of that, but [my son] had left so many of his friends in Dallas,” said Benjamin, adding that he did not grow to love the area. “When he graduated he got out. He does not come back often at all.”
Benjamin wrote an essay about how her family responded to the relocation of their lives and the kinds of things she tried to do with them to make it an easier ordeal in a book she co-edited called “The Chocolate Truth: An Anthology of Perspectives from Community College CEOs.”
“I wrote about my experience, moving from one state to another, and the whole impact of that,” said Benjamin of the essay she sent to her children to read before it was published. “I was just about as miserable as they were, but I never let them know it.”
After they read what their mother had written, they immediately called her because they had no idea how she had felt.
“That was the first time that we ever talked about it in that way,” said Benjamin, of the conversation they had about five years ago. “I never complained about it because I was trying to to be very positive in helping them make the adjustment.”
Benjamin said she doesn’t have any current plans for the future, but, while she is “kind of playing it by ear” and doesn’t want to do anything work related for the first six months of her retirement, the three-college district chancellor has committed to one thing — helping CEOs get through what they view as major issues.
For four or five years, Benjamin has been a facilitator, along with two others, of a two-day conference called the Vineyard’s Symposium, which happens every April.
“When the CEOs come they have to write a little essay on what keeps them up at night, and then those topics become the curriculum for our 48 hours,” said Benjamin, who also used to attend the conference before helping to orchestrate it. She said the event is spent learning how to work through those issues.
The conference doesn’t require a lot of work but it is her passion because she loves helping people, whether they are students or managers or faculty.
“I’m just so committed to that,” she said. “I know I want to keep doing that.”
She even just published a book about it called “Harvest from the Vineyard: Lessons Learned from the Vineyard Symposiums,” which she co-wrote with a friend about what happens at the conference, only with a little more detail.
“We’ve taken those issues and just expanded on them and talked about how you deal with certain issues when you’re a CEO,” explained Benjamin.
As she sits at her messy desk in the office nearest to the elevator, to which she moved from the back of the top floor of the district building in Martinez because she needed to be “where the people are,” Benjamin said she knows that turning off the switch is going to be difficult because she has been running at high speeds for so long and doesn’t want to come to a screeching halt.
“So, I am trying to pace myself,” said Benjamin, who, along with state-wide projects, has worked on a national level for programs like The College Promise Campaign and also served on the board of the American Association for Community Colleges and the congressional advisory committee for financial aid. She said she has already been attempting to slow down over the past year by finding replacements for some of the things she has been involved in.
And much like when she left previous jobs, she knows it is time to go. But Benjamin is always looking for someone to take her spot and hopes the things she does and says will inspire others to want to do that because, eventually, we all have to step aside for the next person.
“We didn’t come here to stay. We did not end up on this planet to stay and we did not end up in any job to stay,” said Benjamin. “It’s foolish to not want to be replaced.”
And as Benjamin gets ready to leave the students of the district, she offers them some words of wisdom and advice.
“I know the value of an education, and I know how much it can change a person’s life,” said Benjamin, adding that the effects of getting a degree are exponential in the benefits that will trickle down through generation after generation. “I just want our students to know that education opens up the entire world to them.”
And although she knows there are many barriers in life that can delay completing a degree, Benjamin wants students to not put it off because community colleges have the resources to help them through financially and psychologically, and with other things in this world can wait.
“If you make the sacrifice immediately, the return comes sooner,” said Benjamin, explaining that the current average amount of time it takes to complete community college is six years. “And I would love to see them shorten that, because then in those six years they could have a master’s degree.”
She knows that it can take a long time for students to get back to their education after high school or life events, either because of fear or they think they aren’t are ready or not a good student. But Benjamin wants them to know that past performance isn’t an indicator of their future.
“A lot of the reason they don’t come is lack of confidence and bad high school experience,” said Benjamin. “I wish that every high school student knew that what you do in high school is not a predictor of who you are going to become.”
She said research and history proves this — lousy high school students have become presidents of the United States.
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Benjamin to retire in December