KATHLEEN O'CONNELL HODGE, ED.D
My career with Saddleback College began in 1975 as a member of the Counseling Faculty. My husband and I moved to the “outskirts” of South Orange Country to be where homes were affordable. Riding the wave of housing inflation we made three quick moves before settling in San Clemente, our home for the past 35 years. At the time of our move to South Orange County, I was commuting to Cal State Fullerton to complete my Master’s degree in counseling. To my good fortune in June 1975 when I completed my MS degree Saddleback College was hiring a counselor. Having no idea how coveted these jobs were and how unrealistic my pursuit with no teaching experience was, I naively “went for it.” Community colleges served as my access to higher education and I wanted to be a part of the system I deeply admired because of the opportunity afforded to all students who could benefit. In the late 1970s Saddleback College was a far cry from the “student political action” that was happening on other California campuses. This was due in part to the early conservative student policies that had been implemented by the original Board of Trustees. The counseling position opened when the only woman counselor, Dr. Anna McFarland, left counseling to serve as the founding director of the college’s new Women’s Center. I thought this was a good omen as the College would surely need a woman counselor. After a final interview with Dr. Lombardi and Jack Swartzbaugh, I was hired to begin my Saddleback career on July 1, 1975. I was living the dream and continued to do so for 29 years of association with Saddleback College.
The early days were amazing, the California Community Colleges were building a system that was open to all and promised “affordable, accessible, quality education for all who could benefit.” A fantastic model that has never been fully replicated. Building new programs, facilities, campuses, growing the student body from 1,800 to 26,000 and the expanding to a community college district of two colleges and centers was a great challenge and the results were fully rewarding. In this era of expansion, the answer to requests to support new ideas and programs was almost always ”yes” and the local budget followed. Ah, the good old days! A team of extraordinary faculty and staff was assembled. The dedicated team worked hard to make Saddleback College the best in the system. We took great pride in bragging about Saddleback to students, colleagues, and the community. The college and district grew. Irvine Valley College was created and eventually the district name was changed and became the South Orange County Community College District. This period of development created new opportunities for leadership and building of educational programs. The original team selected the “North Campus” or “South Campus” as home and the sibling rivalry began. The long term and beloved Chancellor, Dr. Robert Lombardi, left the District and the notion of leadership change was introduced. Prior to this time deans stayed for 10 to 15 years, Vice-Presidents ended their careers after long and dedicated service. The SOCCCD had matured to the top position in most areas of excellence from sports to student success. It was a fantastic opportunity to be a part of the building of a great community college district from the beginning days of a startup small college in the suburbs.
My personal history was of six major themes within my 29 years at SOCCCD. The opportunity to grow professionally without having to move locations meant my family was not impacted by new positions and roles I accepted. I was a counselor; full-time faculty in Psychology; governance leader; accreditation self-study chair and Academic Senate president (twice); dean of continuing education; dean of the Emeritus Institute; Vice Chancellor of Educational Programs; and Acting Chancellor for one year. Each position was challenging and rewarding.
The motivation of the Saddleback College faculty and staff toward continued excellence made a profound difference in students’ lives. I have many intense, impressive, amazing, memories of the students. A profound time was just after the bombing of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. An Egyptian student in one of my Psychology courses was following his dream to be a U.S. citizen. That week he finalized the process by swearing allegiance to his new country, the United States of America. Unfortunately, he was very cautious about sharing his new status because of concern for backlash after the 9-11 attacks. The class learned of his great news and hosted an in-class party to celebrate the occasion. Ali, with tears in his eyes, went to each member of the large class and thanked his classmates for their welcome. The thoughts that the 9-11 sentiment would not allow him to be comfortable in his new country were diminished. My students authored two books in the weeks that followed 9-11, recording their first thoughts, memories, emotions, and fears. One Mission Viejo native of Arab descent and a first year student noted that he had never experienced discrimination but after 9-11 he was afraid. One semester I was able to tie my traditional freshmen students with my Emeritus Students in a wonderful project in which the Psychology students interviewed the seniors (criteria 80 or above) about happiness and what they valued. The project resulted in the publication of the interviews in their publication “Wings of Happiness.”
The experiences of women re-entering college in the early 1980s were most rewarding as they returned to the community colleges hungry to earn their degrees. I was very proud when one of my early students continued her education and earned her Master’s degree. She returned to Saddleback College to teach Economics and ultimately earned her place in the full time faculty. The Assessment of Applied Learning students were amazing. They taught me the personal pride that goes with an earned degree. Often the students had accomplished position, wealth, power, and their families were raised but they were driven to accomplish the one goal that eluded them, an earned degree. The APL program welcomed them to academia and launched their student life. There were great students in the Emeritus Institute. A lasting memory for me was sitting in a Hebrew Studies class listening to intense debates by students who were Holocaust survivors. They debated the conditions in the camps from Russia through Poland and Germany and topics as was “Yiddish” a common language that connected them in the movement from one camp to another. Those students are no longer with us so these discussions and the students are now cherished memories. Emeritus Institute students often had invented something in their working lives. One such student was on the engineering team that created the pricing “bar code.” He laughed with great glee as he shared the scheme to avoid altering the bar code: if a bar was added the price would be increased so the fraudulent behavior would not be rewarded. Who knew?
The opportunities for faculty leadership were amazing. Saddleback College was home to the State Academic Senate President and the Statewide Faculty Association President at the same time: Jean Vincenzi and Jim Thorpe respectively. The district encouraged faculty and staff to be leaders and supported professional development by allowing pursuit of new and creative programs and opportunities: from the Emeritus Institute to Assessment of Prior Learning; Re-entry Women; Veterans; Honors; Disabled Students; Tutoring; and Student Government, all fully engaged in the life of the college. These and other programs were replicated state-wide.
On retirement, I went to the North Orange County Community College District and served six years as President of Fullerton College. I went from a basic aid college district to an underfunded one. That was a reminder of the underpinnings of the success of the SOCCCD.
On full retirement, I took a position in the Middle East as Director and then Managing Director of an emerging system of higher education. My skills and expertise drawn from Saddleback College are the basis for making a significant difference in a new country.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that my wonderful journey in the SOCCCD was shared with my husband, Dr. Vern Hodge, who also served 28 years in the SOCCCD supporting students through Student Government, Admissions and Records, Child Care and Athletics. The SOCCCD was a central part of our lives, where our children learned to swim, enjoy the theatre, took their first college courses, and saw rabbits and bobcats in the open areas. It was a great journey: the lifelong friendships and the legacy of the lives impacted by the education in the SOCCCD is a source of unending pride.