Empowered in education

by Gabrielle Corrigan

Horizon Reporter

Whatcom Community College’s president grew up as an islander.

“All I knew was I didn’t want to live in Hawaii all my life,” said Dr. Kathi Hiyane-Brown. “There was a whole new world out there that I needed to explore and experience.”

After a life of exploring a mélange of careers, the Hawaii native Hiyane-Brown finally settled down in the Pacific Northwest, becoming the Whatcom’s president in 2007.

The petite Hiyane-Brown walks through Whatcom’s Laidlaw Center as if she is one of the students. Stopping to talk with teachers, her laughter and gestures portray a humble and unpretentious personality, yet she communicates with an easy authority.

Being an educator wasn’t always Hiyane-Brown’s aspiration. “Education was really my default,” she said. After commuting to school and a part-time job at the University of Iowa, she wanted a job closer.

It just happened that Muscatine Community College was in her backyard, and she walked into the community college, saying “ ‘Hi! You have to hire me,’ ” said Hiyane-Brown, reminiscing with a smile. “I do wish it would have been more rational, but you just need to explore those experiences.”

Over 13 years, she has worked as vice president of academic and student affairs, dean of instruction, and in administrative positions at community colleges across the nation from Tacoma to Minneapolis.

“I discovered this whole new world of higher education in community colleges that I didn’t know about,” she said. “I have become so strongly attached” to them, she added.

Hiyane-Brown’s own education was a mixture of everything. Originally, she said she wanted to be a dentist, but that changed when she became a junior. “I chose my major out of what I had the most credits in,” she said, graduating with a degree in anthropology from Grinnell College.

“I felt like I could do anything I set my mind to,” she said, so she started working on her master’s in research and planning. But after doing research with a doctor, she decided she wanted to become a general doctor.

“I was just one of those undecided students who would be in school all her life if she didn’t have to bring in a paycheck,” said Hiyane-Brown.

She admits she regrets not going into research oriented work, but when she went on to her doctorate, she found her niche in education.

Her excellence as an educator made her one of 13 Women of Color Empowered in Education in 2010 and 2010’s Outstanding Women Educators by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation and as the recipient of the 2002 Leadership award from The Association.

Mary Vermillion, Whatcom’s public relations representative, said that Hiyane-Brown is academically desired nationally which Whatcom should be proud of.

When she was the president of Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, she was looking for job opportunities and Whatcom was on her list because her daughter lived near Bellingham and Whatcom had a good reputation statewide.

“I have had really great opportunities to work at very good community colleges, Whatcom included, and I have tried to seek opportunities where I could contribute to the community, and in that way, I chose Whatcom,” said Hiyane-Brown.

Along with her love for the diversity of students at Whatcom, she likes how “people support one another, look out for one another,” she said. “We have a real sense of community.”

As for the job, she loves that “no day is the same,” said Hiyane-Brown. As a college president, her days can consist of discussing projects around campus, meetings for the community college system in Seattle, telling Whatcom’s story to the community, or spending time in Olympia when the legislature is in.

“I feel really good about the work we’re doing,” she said, and the creativity and innovativeness that Whatcom has formed in its small, college community. “In these difficult economic times, we have not just survived but created a more efficient college, achieving the dream and diversity, especially for those students from first generations and minorities,” she added.

In the end, she said, it was definitely the right decision to move to Whatcom. “I have never looked back except for on the occasional February day,” said Hiyane-Brown laughing. “Other than that, it is all about the people, right?” And the people she works with and Bellingham’s community are a perfect fit for her, she added.

“She is a dynamic, energetic person to work with and always keeps the job new and exciting,” said Keri Parriera, Whatcom’s executive administrative assistant to the president.

Though she doesn’t have a lot of time outside of her work, she is seeking hobbies. “I spend most of my spare time being with family and traveling,” she said. “I am also addicted to computer games like Angry Birds.”

She also wants to “dabble in the arts” and would like to take a sculpture class, she said, but time just hasn’t allowed it.

Hiyane-Brown’s busy life and hard work has brought her from side jobs, like a travel agent, to the president of Whatcom.

“I have just kind of seized the moment,” she said. “And here I am!”

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