DR. PENELOPE WILLS – President, Yavapai College
“Nobody starts out saying, ‘I want to be a college president,’” Dr. Penelope Wills said with a chuckle. “I would worry about those people.”
But in the seventh year of her presidency at Yavapai College, she wears the role quite well. Part academic, part administrator, part education advocate, she still enjoys meeting new students on campus and learning about their coursework and their plans.
Wills says her achievements – in a field once hostile to women leaders – were never driven by ambition.
“I was really driven by a desire to answer this question: How do I make this life better than I found it?”
At first, she thought the answer was in the stars.
“Originally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said.
When her eyesight kept her earthbound, she turned her attention toward helping others.
“My parents were poor – everybody was poor – but my dad and mother always gave back,” Wills said. “You didn’t do it for recognition. You did it because you cared about people.”
Back then, women had three career path choices: “become a nurse, a nun or a teacher,” Wills recalled. “I faint at the sight of blood, and I liked boys. So I went into elementary education.”
In academia, she found her way to give back.
“I love it,” she said. “You’re shaping lives. You challenge students and become partners in their learning.”
She ascended through the ranks – vice president for Student Development at Georgia Highlands College, then president at Northeast Iowa Community College – by keeping an open mind, finding common ground and working together.
“I’ve had women mentors and male mentors,” she said. “You can learn from everybody in your life. I still learn from students every day. You have to be assertive and you have to be strategic. But you also have to be willing to work together.”
Above all, she said, you need passion for your work.
“We always have to remember who we are here for,” Wills said. “We are here for the students.”