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New year, new president

Dr. Sundberg makes history on campus

By Christina Uptain
On September 20, 2018

Kirkwood Community College President Dr. Lori Sundberg is the first female president in the school’s history. Photo by Jeff Sigmund.

The ushering in of the 2018 school year at Kirkwood Community College has been accompanied by changes around campus that include curriculum, facilities, faculty and staff. 

Most notably is the welcoming of Dr. Lori Sundberg, who has been settling into her role since July 31 as the first female president in the school’s history.

According to a 2017 study done by the American Council on Education, 30% of colleges nationwide have a female at the helm and Kirkwood’s new leader comes with a professional portfolio that includes a presidency at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Ill.         

Q: Up to this point in your career, what has been one of your fondest memories?

A: Gosh, I have a few. My time at Knox, graduating with my doctorate, being president at Sandburg... Those milestones and memories that I look back on and can still remember them clearly, like they were yesterday.

Q: Who has been an inspiration in your life and why?

A: I have had staff and faculty along the way, and my husband has been a huge part of my support. Especially as a non-traditional student you have so many unanswered questions and I think you have to find someone to be your champion. I said if it could go wrong it did while I was in college and you just have to be able to roll with it and having someone to turn to is key.

Q: You are one of 30% of female college presidents nationwide and KCC’s first female president. What does this mean to you? 

A: Well, I have a piece of glass here and there is a story behind it. The box is a little chewed up because my dog got to it (laughs) but it was a gift from a friend of mine who is a faculty member at Sandburg. It is a shard of glass to always remind me that I was able to break the glass ceiling at two places. I keep it because it is a reminder and probably even more important that it’s also a reminder for other women because, ‘This was really important to her.’ I had a reporter ask me about it and I said that I don’t think my gender defines me but it certainly is a reminder when women don’t occupy those seats very often. 

I am hugely respectful of that. I understand the meaning and symbolism that it carries  and I am really proud that I am the first. 

It is kind of a double edged sword because while I am the first and I know what that means, I also don’t want it to be defined as ‘the female president’ so it is this interesting way of looking at things but no less important and carries with it a sense of responsibility to bring other women along. 

Q: What would you say has been one of the biggest challenges in your career?

A: You know, if you’re a female and especially a first female, you had to have had a man along the way to give you a shot. When I retired from Sandburg, the president before me was at my retirement dinner and I recognized him because I was the first VP there and the first cabinet officer. I think without those opportunities I would not have been president and he gave those to me. Without that challenge, you really cannot surmount if you don’t have someone willing to give you a shot.

Q: You just mentioned retirement from Sandburg. How did coming to Kirkwood fit into that picture? 

A: I retired to accept the position here. It was an open process for sure but I believe a consultant reached out to number of people he knew that he thought would be a good fit and I was one of them. I had spent my entire career at Sandburg and graduated from there. I had planned to retire from there (laughs). Sandburg and Kirkwood are in a consortium together, so I had been over here before and knew about Kirkwood. 

The reputation surpasses everything and everyone knows about Kirkwood, so I decided I needed to at least take a look at it. I submitted my materials then was offered and came for the interview. 

My husband came with me because we had this plan, which was for me to retire from there [Sandburg]. At the end of the second day, my husband said, ‘All I have to say is if they offer this to you and you don’t take it, you’re crazy because this is a phenomenal place and what a great opportunity for you.’ So, we went into Plan B.

Q: Did you know when you were growing up and during your life that you wanted to be an educator or did you have another path that changed over time?

A: I had another career prior and was in my mid-30s when I changed careers. I had gotten my cosmetology certificate from Sandburg and worked in that field until I was about 30. 

At that time, I thought I had always wanted to get a bachelor’s degree, so I went back to Sandburg then on to Knox and had not thought about changing careers up to that point. 

I had my own business with employees and it was successful, so I was really just going for my education but at the end of my senior year I began to think maybe I could make some changes. 

I had a few offers but nothing really fit and the local newspaper did an article about me being a business woman who goes back [to school]. 

I had said in the article that someday I may want to teach or tutor and help other non-traditional students go back to college because that is what I was, and it’s harder to go back. Non-traditional students have unique challenges and trying to balance, so later that fall I got a call from the Dean at Sandburg. 

The economics professor had fallen ill; his absence was uncertain and they couldn’t find anybody, so it was like, ‘Do you remember that quote you had in that article...’ (laughs). It was a full load and I was working full-time still... but I decided to do it and from the moment I got there, that was it. 

I just knew that a community college was where I needed to be. I am a first-generation college graduate, a non-traditional student... another position became open and the rest is history.                                                                                                    

Q: Tell us a little bit about who you are outside of Kirkwood.

A: I am a certified yoga instructor and I am an equestrian. My horse is not here yet but he will be and I have been riding at a barn nearby. I am a brown-black belt in martial arts, which helps with stress while yoga brings out Calm Lori (laughs). I am married and have two grown stepchildren. I have a Sheltie dog named Decklin and I like to travel. We try to do a big trip every few years and went to France this summer which just happened to fall between when I left Sandburg and started here. 

Q: What has been your favorite part about being at Kirkwood thus far?

A: It feels to me that as big as it is, that it is a family. That is what everyone says: Alumni, former employees...I think that in a sense that even though it is this huge place and multiple locations, people feel like they are bigger than something just of themselves, and they are proud of that.

Q: What are you most excited for this school year?

A: Well right now it is like drinking from a fire hose (laughs)…this place is huge, so many people to meet and so much to learn that I want to spend this first year really getting to know Kirkwood from the inside out. I love it here. I have only been here since the end of July but I like it here and I love Iowa. 

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