by Matt Benoit
Ray White loves community colleges. In fact, the role that two-year institutions have played in his life cannot be understated, because although White now holds several degrees, he was once a high school dropout.
White, 47, has been Whatcom’s vice president for administrative services since 2002, and originally came to the college in 1999 to teach accounting.
“I was not a good student,” says White, who attended an alternative high school in North Seattle, where he grew up. “I wasn’t stepping up to the high school challenge.”
After an experimental rebellious phase and a point when his guidance counselor told him that high school was “not for everyone,” White dropped out in the tenth grade and did shift work for two years, stacking hot pans at an industrial bakery, before going to Edmonds Community College to get his GED.
He then spent a year at Shoreline Community College before transferring to Western Washington University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1986. It was in attending Western that White said he “fell in love” with the area and made it a life goal to raise any children he had in Bellingham.
After college, White moved back to Seattle and was hired by a brokerage firm. Just a few weeks after he had started working there, White received an unexpected promotion when the company’s accountant was diagnosed with leukemia.
“They kind of sat me at the desk and said, ‘you’re the new accountant—you just got out of business school,’” White recalls. Eventually, White went on to run his own accounting firm in Seattle, selling it when he came to Whatcom as an accounting instructor in 1999.
Although he’s now in an administrative position, White says he believes he’s a better teacher than administrator, and one day wants to become “the world’s happiest adjunct faculty member” by teaching again.
His passion for teaching was something he discovered years ago, at another community college.
After successfully teaching small business group seminars, White was told that someone was needed to teach the QuickBooks computer program to students at the North Seattle Community College.
“They talked me into doing it,” he recalls. His first night of instruction, though, was like a trial by fire.
“The first night was awful,” says White. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I was awkward and my lesson plan was disjointed.”
Things got better the next night, however, when White returned to the classroom knowing what to expect and having an engaging lesson plan.
“Everything went right,” he recalls. “It was just eye-opening for me. I can remember after a class, being in the parking lot [and] thinking, ‘this…is great. This is what I was meant to do.’”
White went on to become an adjunct instructor at the college, and over the years has taught entrepreneurship, business math, accounting, consumer relations, and marketing, among other business-related subjects.
In his spare time, White spends time with his family—his wife of nearly 21 years, and their two boys, ages 14 and 18, who are both involved in athletics and Boy Scouts. White is involved with one of the local Scout troops, and is also an avid motorcyclist and precision target shooter.
White began serving as interim “dean for administrative services” in 2001 while a search was conducted for a full-time replacement. When that person left after a year, White was asked to re-assume the position, permanently this time, in 2002.
So what does he actually do?
“All the boring stuff,” White says. His job involves overseeing six different areas of the college: finance, human resources, information technology (IT), the campus bookstore, mail and copy services, and campus facilities.
A director for each of the six departments is responsible for reporting to him. When the college was smaller, White says he had to handle human resources and IT responsibilities himself before the other positions were created. The human resource issues, he says, were most rewarding, but also the most exhausting.
“Often, you’re dealing with people at very tough times,” he says. “You really have to be your best when you’re dealing with people.”
White’s office includes an old radio microphone and two framed pictures of a handful of Whatcom staff and administrators in a “Simpsonized” state, which he created several years ago through a now-dormant Web site that converts photos of people into Simpson-style character illustrations. White says he also had coffee mugs made for several of those featured in the pictures.
Overall, White enjoys his job, which he says satisfies the three things he looks for in a career: it allows him to be a good resource manager, a teacher to staff members, and a service provider.
“I like the diversity of it,” he says of his job. “Every day is something new—some new challenge, different types of fires to put out. I like being a generalist.”
Recently asked by someone about his accomplishments, White says that dealing with the on-going and “unprecedented” budget crisis is what he’s most proud of, despite how taxing it can be.
“It’s really challenging,” he says. “A lot of sleepless nights thinking about…how to avoid pain for our campus.”
Even though White says the budget crisis will get worse before it gets better, he asks students to be patient, and to understand that faculty and staff are doing their best to give students the most exceptional college experience they can.
And coming from someone who believes in the redeeming effects that community colleges can have for people, that means something.
“The job is personal to me,” White says of his position at Whatcom. “Community colleges were catalysts for…really positive changes for me.”