Leading with Purpose: An Insightful Interview with Dr. Todd Kitchen, President of Tri-C East Campus
In December 2021, Dr. Todd Kitchen assumed the role of President at Tri-C’s Eastern Campus, bringing with him a wealth of experience in education. Prior to joining Tri-C, he served as the Vice President of Student Affairs at Northwest Arkansas Community College for a decade. Dr. Kitchen has a keen interest in leadership and has contributed his expertise by serving on various non-profit boards.
Edona Vajushi: Dr. Kitchen, you joined Tri-C as the President of the Eastern Campus in December 2021. How has your first year been?
Dr. Kitchen: It’s been an amazing year of lots of new things, lots of new people, and lots of new processes. Transitioning from one college to another, from one state to another has been a quick and ongoing process. There’s been a lot of change, but it’s been a good year.
Edona Vajushi: So, it’s your first time in Cleveland? How are you liking it here?
Dr. Kitchen: Yes, it is. I was born and raised in Missouri and spent almost 13 years in Arkansas prior to coming here. It was an adjustment, but I like it now. I had to survive the weather of the first winter, but after enjoying the beautiful summer and watching the transition in the fall, it’s okay. We’ve adjusted, and this winter may be better.
EV: You arrived at Tri-C during a challenging time for education. How challenging was it for you to take a step into that situation, and how do you see the progress?
Dr. Kitchen: I underestimated the challenge of transitioning to a new position during COVID. As a relational person, it was difficult not being able to meet people in person and read their body language. However, I worked hard to connect with people through virtual meetings and eventually made good progress in getting to know my campus and college community. Although I feel I could have accomplished more without COVID restrictions, I’m satisfied with the progress I’ve made so far.
EV: Dr. Kitchen, you have a Bachelor’s in Human Resources, a Master’s in Sociology, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. Was this a way to explore yourself, or did you always plan on pursuing a career in education?
Dr. Kitchen: I was exploring. I was trying to figure out what felt natural and what would allow me to land a job that would pay me a decent wage. But the real “aha” moment was substituting teaching at a junior college. I had conversations with the students, and that was the moment where I found myself. I found something that I had an interest in. Something in my heart connected to what I experienced in that classroom and that led me back to school to pick up a master’s degree in Sociology so that I could transition from administrative work into the classroom. I taught very early on after finishing my master’s degree in Sociology. I did that work for several years before eventually landing an administrative position. That role opened the door for me to go back to school and pick up a doctorate, which eventually led me here.
EV: How have your academic experiences contributed to your career, even if they were not directly related to your field of work?
Dr. Kitchen: Absolutely, my academic experiences have contributed to my career in various ways. Although I obtained a degree in business management with an emphasis on resource management, my ongoing work involves paying attention to processes, policies, and everything that pertains to people. This includes sociology, understanding people’s behavior, culture, and more. My doctorate is in educational leadership and policy analysis, which allowed me to focus on how to look at big-picture policies and determine how they impact people and their ability to experience education.
All of my academic experiences have been helpful in shaping my career path, even though I had no idea what I was doing with them initially. I was willing to try new things, go into new situations and opportunities, which helped me to solidify my career path. The beauty of the process is that even if you don’t know what you’re doing at the time, trying new things and taking on different challenges can help you find your way.
EV: Can you identify some concerns that are not only present in our institution, but in education in general?
Dr. Kitchen: One of the primary concerns is how we can prompt colleges and universities to be more adaptable and responsive to the constantly evolving needs of our workforce and changing student expectations. As many of our students are part-time and have multiple responsibilities, it’s crucial for institutions to reimagine themselves and become more integrated into students’ busy lives. I focus on ensuring that Tri-C makes the necessary adjustments to minimize disruptions and hardships for students as they pursue their higher education.
EV: How do you see yourself making concrete steps towards addressing the challenge of community college students’ busy lives and needs? What are some of the current offerings at Tri-C, and what improvements are you hoping to make in the future?
Dr. Kitchen: I believe that continuing to listen to our students and monitoring workforce needs is crucial in building programs that meet everyone’s needs. As an individual, I strive to do my part by regularly engaging in conversations with students and relaying their feedback to my colleagues. To gain insight, we sponsored student lunches to learn about their studies, what we’re doing well, and what we can improve upon. This helps us stay informed and responsive to our students’ needs.
As for Tri-C’s current offerings, we offer a range of programs that address workforce needs, such as health care, IT, and manufacturing. We also offer non-credit programs and continuing education courses. However, we’re always looking to improve and adapt to our students’ needs, such as offering more flexible scheduling options and expanding our online course offerings.
Ultimately, our goal is to provide a seamless educational experience that fits into our students’ busy lives and meets the demands of the workforce. By actively listening to our students and being responsive to their needs, we can continue to improve and provide the best education possible.
EV: What do you think sets the Eastern Campus apart from other campuses within Tri-C?
Dr Kitchen: I believe one of the strengths of the Eastern Campus is its accessibility. No matter where you are in Cleveland, it’s easy to get here in a short amount of time. Additionally, the campus is located in a beautiful area, surrounded by nature and wildlife, making it a great place to relax and clear your mind. Another advantage is that within just five minutes across the highway, you can find great food, shopping, and housing options. But what truly makes this campus special is the people. I may be biased, but I believe everyone at Tri-C is great, and the staff and faculty here embrace our mission and are committed to supporting our students’ needs. We put our arms around our students and work tirelessly to meet their needs and help them achieve their goals. At the end of the day, I think that’s what sets us apart.
EV: Can you tell us how being a first-generation college student affected your pursuit of education?
Dr. Kitchen: Initially, I wasn’t necessarily inspired by education until I had earned my first degree. It wasn’t until I earned my first graduate degree that I began to consider myself a first-generation college student. When I thought about the support that I did not have as a student of color and the focus, determination, and commitment of Community Colleges to support every student, it became a natural fit for me to pursue a career in education. Now, I am more inspired than ever by doing this work because Tri-C is very vocal and intentional about welcoming every student, regardless of their background, and making sure that they have a place here to start their future.
EV: What are some exciting projects that you’re working on here at Tri-C?
Dr. Kitchen: I’m really excited about the partnerships that Tri-C is building with community and industry partners, as well as with local high schools and K-12 school districts. Through these partnerships, we’re able to learn about the needs of students and respond accordingly by creating new certificate and degree programs. I think these partnerships are really going to benefit our students and the community as a whole.
EV: Can you think of a main event that impacted your life and defined who you are today?
Dr. Kitchen: I think it was watching my hardworking parents and grandparents sacrifice so much to open doors for me to have the opportunities that I’ve had. My grandfather was a custodian at a junior college that I attended, and although he never said to me, “I don’t want you to be the custodian. I want you to be the person that’s running the school,” that was the message that I received. That gave me motivation to stay in school, finish my degrees, and be in a position where I can do the work that I’m doing now.
EV: What are your interests and hobbies outside of your role as a president? What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Dr. Kitchen:I love to read, especially anything and everything around leadership. I love coffee and golf. I’m married, and my wife is my golf partner and coach. She’s the one who inspired me to complete not just one, but three college degrees. We’ve been married for 33 years. We have three adult children, and we like to have fun together. I also love spending time with our pets. We have a 15-year-old Yorkie terrier named Caesar and a 2-year-old Boston terrier named Titus. They keep us going with their energy.
EV: You mentioned you love reading. What is a book you would recommend to every student?
Dr. Kitchen: Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’m currently reading it myself, and I think everyone needs to read it.
EV: What is your vision as president of Tri-C?
Dr. Kitchen: I want every member of this team to truly believe in and invest in the potential of every student who walks through our doors. My vision is for this campus to be a place where we create a vibrant and energetic community that fosters a shared belief in the potential of one another and every student. If, at the end of my time here, people can say that we have succeeded in building that community and instilling that belief in our students, then I will consider that a measure of success. It’s all about getting everyone to buy into the idea that every student who comes to us has a vision, has goals, and has something to accomplish, and that we have the power to help them achieve those goals. When we can get people to say, ‘I believe in that student,’ that’s a win-win situation for everyone. That’s the legacy I hope to leave when I retire.
EV: What message would you like to send to the all Tri-C students?
Dr. Kitchen: I want them to remember that their goals, dreams, and priorities are important. Don’t waver from them and invest in them. Don’t place limits on your potential. As the saying goes, “Think big and dream bigger.” Be your own biggest advocate and fan. I’ll cheer you on, but I need you to believe in yourself and your potential. Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do. If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you believe you can or you cannot, you’re correct.”