If Dr. Sheila Ortego became Central Oregon Community College’s new president, she would look at connecting branch campuses through technology and developing “an equality of programs and services.”
During a round of presidential finalist visits to COCC, Ortego toured the COCC campuses Feb. 26-27. For Ortego, the trip was a unique experience.
“Usually when you just talk to people, you find out a lot of strengths and weaknesses,” Ortego said. “I have just not seen a lot of weaknesses here, so it’s really nice to visit and learn more about [the campus].”
Evaluating the strengths of community colleges is not new for Ortego. The current interim president at Santa Fe Community College has worked in a community college setting for over three decades. Ortego started her professional career as an adjunct English professor at Santa Fe Community College with a bachelor’s degree in English and master’s and doctoral degrees in American studies from the University of New Mexico. Joining the English program in 1983, Ortego moved on to a full-time secretarial position at the community college in order to get her “foot more firmly in the door.” Ortego worked for the dean of instruction for about a year, then switched to an administrative position running Correction Education programs for inmates in five prisons across Oregon, eventually moving her way up to presidential assistant for three consecutive college presidents at Santa Fe Community College.
Eventually Ortego ran for and was accepted as an interim presidency at the college.
“I had originally thought I was going to retire, but then when the interim presidency came up, I just put my big toe in the water on that and tried it out,” Ortego said. “I just found that I enjoyed it so much, being back in the saddle.”
Currently, Ortego is engaged in the Association for Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges. She also helped found the National Council of Community College Entrepreneurship and has been a higher learning commission consultant evaluator, critiquing colleges preparing for accreditation. According to Ortego, her experience has specialized her in several areas.
“My background has been mostly focused on workforce development and occupational training,” Ortego said. “What I’ve spent most of my passions on is grant writing, because I didn’t like the word ‘no’ when I wanted to start up something for the benefit of students.”
In her various positions at Santa Fe Community College, Ortego wrote federal and private grants, passed bond issues and received legislative funding for the college. While Ortego has made changes in several facets of college operation, she would not be quick to implement new ideas if selected as COCC’s new president.
“I do not believe in change for change’s sake,” Ortego said. “I believe you should only change things if there’s a good reason.”
However, Ortego has suggested some plans for COCC’s future.
“I’ve recommended they think about doing an enrollment management plan … so they don’t get caught by surprise with funding downturns related to lower enrollment,” Ortego said. “Or get caught off guard if they have a real spike in enrollment, and not enough staff to handle it.”
After looking over COCC’s strategic plan, Ortego approved of the layout due to its focus on student success, performance rates and completion rates, all of which Ortego said is “going in the right direction.”
COCC’s political and partnership future would also form part of her focus, according to Ortego.
“The first two things that I would do is really get connected to OSU and make sure that we’re developing a win-win partnership for the future,” Ortego said. “In tandem, I would go to the legislature and get familiar with the new higher education structure. I want to get connected to the other community college presidents so that we work together to make the new system work well.”
Ortego already feels connected to the campus.
“Santa Fe Community College and this college seem very similar, and I feel really comfortable here,” Ortego said. “Even if I don’t come here, I’m going to always carry a lot of respect for this institution with me. … It really is a gem of an institution.”