Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey

President, Illinois Central College

An advocate for community college as a pathway to opportunity

Growing up in Caseyville was a wonderful experience. Both of my parents grew up in southeast Missouri in a rural environment. My father had to drop out of high school to work, and my parents moved to Illinois after they were married. My dad worked in the Chevy plant in St. Louis, and my mom provided in-home daycare. We lived the American dream: a house, good schools and a strong community.

Both of my parents grew up on farms, so our massive “garden” fed not only our family, but some neighbors as well. We were very active in our church, and our family’s social life was built around our various sports and school activities. Early on, I was influenced by my parents who instilled in me a feeling that anything was possible with hard work, determination, and the support of friends and family.

After earning your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications, what led you into the world of higher education?
After receiving my bachelor’s degree from Bradley University and master’s degree from Northern Illinois University, I was hired at Arthur Andersen’s Center for Professional Development in suburban Chicago as an instructional designer, and eventually became an instructional manager. I worked with teams of professionals to develop curriculum to ensure our consultants had the knowledge, attitudes, skills and habits to drive success in the organization. I was blessed to work with content experts from around the world and learned early on the value of diverse perspectives and international experiences.

One day while working on a project for new managers, it hit me that I was devoting my life to helping consultants who had graduated at the top of their classes from the top universities in their countries develop strong knowledge and skills. After that, I re-examined my priorities and determined I could help more people and be more fulfilled in community colleges. I applied for a job managing customized training for local businesses at Harper College, and remained there for more than 24 years. The movement from corporate education to community colleges was one of the best decisions of my life.

Tell us more about your experiences here in Peoria after graduating from Bradley.
While attending Bradley, I had the opportunity to intern with Caterpillar, as well as work part-time with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. The CAT experience included interacting with the public and community relations team and analyzing how these functions worked in the real world, compared with the models we were studying at Bradley. It was a wonderful opportunity, for which I was very grateful.

The job at the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce was a part-time sales job, which required me to learn the benefits of doing business in Peoria and of Chamber membership. Then I had to sell those benefits to businesses the old-fashioned way—by cold calling, knocking on doors and asking for their memberships. The outcomes of these experiences provided me a deeper experience with the Peoria community than the average Bradley student. These opportunities—as well as my other jobs, including working at the DeBordini’s pushcarts at lunch downtown, waiting tables and a brief stint with WCBU—provided me a great appreciation of this community.

Please tell us more about your experience at Harper College, some of the initiatives you led, and what can be applied at ICC.
My experiences at Harper College have had an immeasurable impact in my development as a professional and understanding of the importance of student success. Unless students complete certificates or degrees, the benefits they seek from college go largely unrealized. My tenure at Harper College taught me to have a keen focus on reducing the barriers to student success and to ensure all students have access to the quality instruction and support structures that increase that success. My experiences included working with corporate/small business training, workforce development, career and transfer programs, instructional assessment, research, grants and partnership development. These experiences, as well as my time as chief of staff to Dr. Ken Ender, my mentor, provided an amazing foundation on which to build to become a community college president. ICC was the only presidency for which I applied. Its quality reputation, focus on students, and dedicated faculty and staff made it an opportunity that could not be passed by. I am blessed to be on the ICC team.

Your PhD dissertation focused on increasing student completion rates at community colleges. What were some of your key findings?
Completing my doctorate at the University of Maryland University College provided an exceptional foundation for leading a community college. The faculty was comprised of former and current community college presidents and senior executives, whose approach married theory, research and actual experience. I discovered that there are four areas of focus that all high-completion colleges address: student entry and onboarding, developmental education, progression and pathways to careers, and instructional quality. Additionally, there are four categories of high-impact practices, including strong leadership and vision, student success-centered organization; performance improvement and innovation, and employee development and engagement.

Though the exact programming implemented by high-performance colleges varied widely, they all addressed these areas of focus utilizing these completion practices. ICC is currently undertaking a strategic planning process that will allow us to examine both our situation and the needs of the community, and then determine how to best prioritize our approach to increasing student persistence and completion. Even given all the challenges that face us, this is an exciting time to be at ICC.

What are some of your top priorities for ICC, both in the current school year and in the long term?
Our top priorities this year include the development of a new strategic plan, an examination of our onboarding processes and development of a strategic enrollment marketing plan. We are also focused on redesigning our programming and partnerships with our high school partners. We want to improve access to college credits for our high school students. Research shows that earning college credits in high school increases not only high school completion, but also college enrollment and completion. Earning a post-secondary credential (including apprenticeships, military and industry certifications) is required to earn a family-sustaining wage in this economy. Additionally, we are interested in partnering in new ways with our employer base to ensure we are creating pathways to good jobs to reduce labor market gaps and increase employment.

What are your biggest challenges in this position?
Finances are currently a real struggle for higher education in the State of Illinois. Without a budget for the last two years, funding for higher education is dependent on stopgap measures, leaving the timing and amount of the state contribution as unknown factors. ICC received an annual contribution of nearly $9 million in 2010; this year, we have received $2 million, without any indication if we will receive the additional $1.8 million.

Over and above these financial challenges, the College must also rethink its processes to ensure that each cohort of students is more successful than the last. This is a challenge as we serve our students of poverty, both in urban and rural areas. While ICC’s graduation rate is currently above the state and national average, we must do more to ensure our students complete certificates and degrees that allow them the ability to transfer, and/or become gainfully employed and earn a family-sustaining wage. By partnering with our high school districts, universities, the business community and economic development professionals, I am sure the outstanding team at ICC will overcome these challenges and bring more success to all of our students.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
The hardest lesson that I learned is that life is not fair, but that doesn’t mean you give up. It also doesn’t mean you treat others unfairly. You only have control over yourself, and you must at the end of the day know in your heart you are doing the right things for the right reasons. I have always been inspired by Mother Theresa’s “Anyway” poem, which was written on the wall of her home for children in Calcutta:

“People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and your God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

What inspires you?
I am continually inspired by the stories of students who have risen above their lives’ circumstances and had the courage to seek out a path to change their lives for the better. One of our top students from the past few years was a young man who served several tours of duty in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. While at ICC, he worked hard through tough math classes to be ready for his chosen career: engineering. He excelled in his coursework, served as student trustee, was elected to the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and eventually became an international officer for the organization. He won all three available scholarships from PTK and went to Bradley, became an engineer, and married his ICC sweetheart. His story is just one of hundreds—no, thousands—of life-changing experiences at a community college. At the end of the day, it was his initiative and dedication that made him the successful person he is. That’s the kind of thing we want to do for all of our students: help them dream new dreams and be there to support them.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Well, this not a piece of advice that someone shared with me, but it is advice that I turn to when I find myself working with others to find solutions to problems that can often seem insurmountable. In the immortal words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
My greatest fear is that if we don’t find a way to provide educational opportunities for our young people, they will not experience a better, stronger and more secure nation than our parents left for us. For the first time in our history, this generation of children will be less educated than their parents. Americans are more likely to die in poverty, if they were born in poverty, than ever before. Whether it is urban or rural poverty, we need to ensure these young Americans have the opportunities to access a pathway out of their current circumstance into a middle-class lifestyle. This is why I am so passionate about the difference ICC can make in this community. Achieving these credentials can not only change the trajectory of individual lives, but their families, the workforce and our communities.

My greatest joy is my family. Dave, my son, Michelle and my first grandchild, Jaxson, reside in Charlotte. Dave is an auto-body professional (and a community college graduate) and just opened his own shop. My daughter Sarah is a financial data analyst on the iPhone team for Apple in San Francisco. They don’t make it easy on me being on opposite coasts, but they are both great places to visit. Our youngest, Jacob, is a sophomore at Harper College, and he and my husband Dave are staying in Chicago until Jake graduates in May. We are also the proud parents of two rescue cats, Katie and Lucky.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am blessed to be at ICC and in this community. Everyone has been amazingly welcoming and supportive, and the community is very appreciative of ICC. The college has become such a fixture in the community that I fear it is no longer top of mind in playing a larger role in the future. Our community should be assured that, as poverty increases and the job market tightens, ICC is focused on aligning with our high schools, universities, workforce system and community agencies to provide:

  • Pathways out of poverty through education and credentialing that lead to careers with family-sustaining wages;
  • Perseveration of the middle class by providing quality education to students that does not result in onerous student debt; and
  • Potential maximization by building student competencies and confidence that allow our transfer students to
  • consistently achieve higher junior-year GPAs than the students who began at the transfer universities. iBi

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