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Drawing Strength from Superheroes

KVCC President L. Marshall Washington in his superhero-themed meeting room at the college. © 2022 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Leading KVCC, Marshall Washington is in ‘his greatest form’

Dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, blue-and-red bowtie and Kalamazoo Valley Community College lapel pin, KVCC President Dr. L. Marshall Washington selects the large boardroom near his office for a one-on-one interview.

For more than 80 minutes, as he sits at a lengthy wooden table surrounded by minimally decorated walls, Washington talks about his childhood, family, career and leadership mentality as the community college emerges from the pandemic amid a tumultuous time for the workforce and higher education alike.

Washington is only the third president in the college’s 55-year history, and he emphasizes the importance of humor and listening — all while holding a massive Wonder Woman coffee mug.

“Sometimes people have got to see this — this is the president right here, big, long table,” Washington says, gesturing around the room, but then, he says, “I’ll let you walk in my office and you’ll see the difference. I’ll let you see a little bit of who I am.”

Across the hall and through his personal workspace, which includes a treadmill desk, is another meeting room with a smaller conference table. The walls and countertops of this room explode with splashes of the reds, yellows, greens and blues of comic book art, specifically, the figureheads of DC Comics, including Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman. Framed posters of these superheroes adorn the walls, including a DC-themed framed painting by one of Washington’s former students, depicting the college president as an assemblage of his heroes.

Once seated in this room, Washington’s posture relaxes a bit. He gushes over the origin stories and character traits of the comic heroes he admires most. He excitedly recalls using money from his early jobs to buy his first comic books when he was 12 years old. He pauses, then laughs and confesses, “I’m a nerd. I’m a geek.”

“When you see Dr. Washington coming, he has a bowtie on and a very nice suit — very representative of what a college president would look like and what people expect to see out of a college president,” says Von Washington Jr. (no relation), executive director of community relations for The Kalamazoo Promise scholarship program. “You definitely wouldn’t understand until going into his office that he has superheroes on the brain.”

“He’s a fun individual,” adds Washington Jr., who has known Washington since the late 1990s. “He’s a private individual but one that loves superheroes and what they represent. He draws strength from that fondness for comic books and superheroes. I think that makes him special. There’s a certain charm you begin to understand as he has so many difficult decisions he has to make on a daily basis and the extreme responsibility he has as a leader.”

Inspired by comics

The middle of three children growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Washington drew on the strengths of both his father, Nathanial, a no-nonsense welder and diesel mechanic for the state’s transportation department, and his mother, Barbara, a neighborhood health clinic receptionist. He describes his mother as caring and generous, a wonderful cook who regularly fed neighbors in need. Washington says his dad had the respect of the neighborhood and was viewed as a father figure for those without that presence in their own homes. His parents, now in their 80s, still live in the home of Washington’s childhood.

“They stressed going to school for all of us (kids). ‘You are going to go to school. You are going to do well in school, and if I have come off my job to come see about you, you’re going to hear about it later,’” Washington says, describing his parents’ standards. “I was pretty much OK for my parents. I liked school. I’ve always liked school. I was a little mischievous in terms of thinking, a little smart-aleck-y.”

As a pre-teen, Washington delivered newspapers and volunteered at the nearby library, including making popcorn for movie nights geared toward younger kids. Almost as soon as he got paid, Washington says, he ran to the corner store to buy a new comic book. His collection remains intact today.

“I have an extensive (comic) book collection that I love. I love Wonder Woman, Batman and Aquaman. (They) are probably my favorite characters.

“I love the history behind Wonder Woman, as it relates to royalty and warriorism and the Greek mythology that comes out of her character.

“For Batman, it’s really the evolution of Batman over the years and that this is just a regular type of guy who happens to be smart, a detective, and he knows how to put these gadgets together.

“Aquaman gets the flack, but he’s still powerful. He’s a strong guy. He also has that background story being an Atlantian. There’s a lot of rich stories that are told there.”

Where life has led him

Washington started his higher education journey by earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Ohio Wesleyan University, in Delaware, Ohio, in 1991. It was there that, visiting the campus as a high school senior, he met his future wife, Tonja, while taking a tour of the school’s small living units, a dorm alternative where students helped to create educational programming and mentor younger students.

After graduating, Washington went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Winona State University, in Winona, Minnesota, in 1992.

In 1996, he came to Michigan to work at Kellogg Community College, in Battle Creek, as director of its Upward Bound program, a federally funded program that helps high school students from low-income families pursue secondary education. This experience proved pivotal in solidifying his future. Washington remembers helping a single mother in her early 20s secure a grant to complete the school’s nursing program, and as they talked through the earning potential of her new career, he watched the “light come on.” He knew then that community college would be his future, and replicating that feeling for other students is what keeps him excited about his work, he says.

“It’s almost immediate that I can see the change. I can see the change in some students after taking one or two courses. They get that confidence builder.”

Around the time he came to Battle Creek, he first crossed paths with Von Washington Jr., then a children’s librarian at Willard Public Library. The two collaborated on programming to bring resources to marginalized communities. Over the next 20-plus years, the men saw their career paths go in different directions, with Washington obtaining a doctorate involving educational leadership and higher education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and ascending to become vice president of student services at KCC and Washington Jr. going from school librarian to principal at Kalamazoo Central High School to executive director of The Promise.

Marshall Washington would leave Michigan to become vice president of the Harrisburg Area Community College’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, campus and then president of New River Community College and Technical College, in West Virginia.

But five years later, Michigan came calling. In July 2018, Washington took over as president of KVCC, with its more than 10,000 students, succeeding Dr. Marilyn Schlack, who retired after running the college for 35 years. Washington Jr. says Schlack, whom he often collaborated with in his role with The Kalamazoo Promise, was an “educational icon” in the area. Following Schlack is not an easy task, but it’s one Washington Jr. trusts to “Marshall,” as he prefers to call the KVCC leader.

“He brings the same energy he had when we were much younger — and very idealistic — about how to help everyone in the community. I have appreciated his fresh perspectives, his dedication to making sure all students — not only Kalamazoo Promise students, but all students at Kalamazoo Valley Community College — get open, fair and just opportunities to advance themselves in education and their lives.

“For Marshall Washington, it’s undeniable that this is where his life has led him. This is where he is in his greatest form.”

Pandemic upheaval

Before accepting the KVCC presidency, Washington says, he needed to ensure that his family was on board. He and Tonja, also a trained educator, have been married for 28 years and have three children, including two sons, Ethan and Jordan, who at the time were finishing their junior and senior years, respectively, of high school. Not wanting to uproot them, Tonja opted to stayed in West Virginia while Washington headed to Kalamazoo with their daughter, Lauren, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in speech pathology at Western Michigan University.

A little more than 18 months into his new job, the global pandemic arrived. Tonja and Marshall intended to reunite in Kalamazoo by early 2020, as both sons were enrolled at West Virginia University. The family bought a new home one week before the statewide lockdown took effect in March 2020. Very quickly, the timing of the Washington family cross-country transition collided head-on with the critical needs of Washington’s role as KVCC’s leader.

“It was a kaleidoscope, changing all the time,” Washington says. “Having all those different perspectives, it did give me different ways of looking at this situation, even for how we knew we were going to manage it. I knew we had to manage it through a very human touch. That meant, yes, obeying and abiding by the state regulations at the time, but also (acknowledging that) this is impactful to all families at all levels. I didn’t know everyone’s situation, but I tried my best to take into consideration the multitude of things that were going on. This was also impacting me as a dad and as a son to my parents, who are elderly (and) living in Columbus.”

Washington credits Tonja with keeping the family calm during a time of uncertainty and change.

“Looking back at it, we had all those things going on at the same time,” he says. “I have a wonderful wife who is able to manage a lot of things and keep things going. My hat goes off to her all the time. She’s made a lot of sacrifices in order for me to do what I do.”

Despite the lockdown, Washington quickly made the decision to be present on KVCC’s Texas Township campus, one of the school’s four campuses (the other three are the Arcadia Commons Campus in downtown Kalamazoo, the Bronson Healthy Living Campus south of downtown, and the Groves Campus on Elm Valley Drive, near the main Texas Township campus).

Despite the campus being nearly empty, Washington says, he wanted his presence to send an important message to students, faculty and the community — that they could count on KVCC to be true to its mission and that he could empathize with their challenges.

The college provides many classes and labs that have primarily hands-on, in-person courses in industries such as health care, automotive repair, law enforcement, culinary and pastry arts, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. A lot of ingenuity and flexibility was required to keep those programs viable during the pandemic.

“People were still counting on us through this whole thing,” Washington says. “We had to deliver on the educational benefit of our mission. Being the person who was placed here by our board, I take that very seriously. Being here every day helped me do that and to understand some of the intricacies that were going on in the world that other folks were dealing with.”

The early months of the statewide lockdown also provided Washington with an opportunity to more closely examine the college’s multiple campuses and how those spaces were being used. He delved into the nuances of how KVCC’s programs worked to operate within the state’s guidelines and still provide meaningful education to students. He required decision-makers at the college to adapt and change at a faster pace than is typical for higher education.

As a result, KVCC took a number of creative steps to deal with the curve ball of Covid-19, including:

  • Expanding its WiFi service so students were able to connect on more of the campus grounds and outside, including in green spaces and parking lots.
  • Creating mobile labs so students could learn outdoors.
  • Instituting a laptop and hotspot loaner program for students needing those for virtual learning.
  • Creating a Post-Pandemic Task Force to communicate the college’s reopening plan to students and faculty.
  • Holding a drive-through graduation in May 2021, in which more than 150 students participated.
  • And emphasizing to students the available financial and mental health resources at the college.

Washington and KVCC faculty and staff even produced a series of informational and inspirational videos, including one where they sang the familiar Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.”

“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have learned everything I needed to learn (so quickly), but the pandemic sped up that learning process,” Washington says. “One example of that would be understanding our police academy. We had to follow regulations from the state to run the program, and I wouldn’t get in the weeds usually, but I had to get into the weeds because I wanted to understand if this protocol would work or not and not just (hand) this protocol off to a vice president who works with the (program) director, because ultimately I knew I was going to be held accountable by other folks. I was going to get a call from the grandmother regarding their child if they got sick.”

Victor Ledbetter, director of KVCC’s Law Enforcement Training Center and a retired Kalamazoo Public Safety officer with more than two decades of law enforcement experience, says he worked closely with Washington in the spring of 2020 to get the police academy back up and running.

“We were the first program allowed back at KVCC, and my success or failure would impact other programs, so I had to be sure that I could continue the academy without anyone getting Covid,” Ledbetter says, “and we were successful.”

“Dr. Washington leads by example,” Ledbetter adds. “It is not uncommon to see him at many community events, walking around downtown, visiting churches or other venues to simply say hello and to promote KVCC’s partnership with the community.

There are other presidents/organization leaders who don’t do any of those things and you may not even know who they are or what they look like, but Dr. Washington came into this community with the intent of developing relationships with the community and continues to do so.”

Opportunities and possibilities

During a time of great upheaval in the workforce and in higher education — an upheaval that began before the pandemic and has been greatly exacerbated by it — KVCC is finding itself uniquely positioned to face those challenges, Washington says.

Career changes and staffing shortages across a variety of industries are creating opportunities for KVCC to reach potential students looking to pivot in their professional lives or workers looking to retool their skills. At the same time, KVCC is providing education that can jump-start a student’s higher education trajectory.

Washington describes listening to a humanities class discuss the history of zombies one day and then watching as culinary students produced honey from their beehives the next. “Every day is a little different,” he says. “That’s what we are at KVCC.
That’s what I love about community college in general. We hit on all those spectrums, but we hit on them at different levels of age.

“There are misconceptions that we work with people right out of high school, (but) we are truly multi-faceted, working with folks right out of high school and with students in high school in dual-enrollment programs. In some of our summer camps and athletic camps, we work with folks before they get in high school to give them experience on our college campus. Then we have adult learners as well, such as with our Michigan Reconnect program and Futures for Frontliners program that we’ve partnered (on) with the state.” (Michigan Reconnect is a state scholarship that provides free community college tuition for people 25 and older to earn an associate’s degree or skill certification. Future for Frontliners, also a state scholarship program, pays for those without college degrees who worked in essential jobs during the pandemic to attend community college for free.)

One of the challenges facing KVCC is declining enrollment. According to its annual report released in October, KVCC’s enrollment for the 2020–21 academic year was 10,128, down from 10,911 and 11,385 in the 2019–20 and 2018–19 academic years, respectively.

But KVCC is not alone in facing this challenge. Nationally, higher education enrollment numbers are declining, with community colleges among the hardest hit over the last two years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community college enrollment dropped 5.6 percent in 2020.

“These are the students who would normally be enrolling in droves during a recession and then go back to work as the job market improves,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “But this time it’s like the entire crest of that wave got swallowed up by the pandemic, and what we’re seeing here is two troughs, one after the other, instead. There was simply no upside from the recession, just a downside that we’re seeing now from the recovery — or at least the recovery in the job market.”

Washington says that KVCC is starting an important phase in addressing how the college meets the community’s evolving needs as everyone adjusts to what post-pandemic life might look like. He wants KVCC’s long list of community and higher education partners to grow.

“Right now we are doing a mission review process, and we’ve asked a constituent group and the community to provide input,” Washington says. “It’s important we all lean into that activity. The work that’s going to build on that is the next five-year plan.

That’s going to involve the college community participating in that process and, of course, the (KVCC) board of trustees leading us in that work. I’m excited about those pieces. It’s going to answer, ‘What’s the next program we are going to bring on board?’”

But before one gets the idea that the college’s focus is only on today’s higher education students, Washington says KVCC needs to connect more deeply with the community’s young learners, becoming a familiar resource early in their academic journeys.

“What can we do to work with our preschool teachers and our families?” he asks. “Everybody wants their child to do well. I believe that. But at some point, where does that fall off? I want to reach families early to say, ‘The promise of an education is here. How can we help you latch on to that promise and at the end get that post-secondary credential that’s necessary for our world of work?’”

As a professional with multiple degrees and the parent of children holding and pursuing four-year degrees and beyond, Washington says making KVCC a close partner with other institutions of higher education in Michigan is a smart move. KVCC has established relationships with Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and others that make it easier for students to transition from KVCC to those universities. And in November KVCC announced a transfer partnership with Ferris State University. Students enrolled in the state scholarship programs Michigan Reconnect and Future for Frontliners can take up to 12 hours of credit from FSU before completing their associate’s degree at the same tuition rate as the in-district community college rate.

“I’m for all folks completing as much education as you can,” Washington says, “because I believe that makes us better one generation over another, if we’re really trying to make a better society.”

KVCC also aims to benefit its students and the community by working with the leaders of two local entities — The Kalamazoo Promise and the Foundation for Excellence, which has pledged millions for community projects, including youth employment programs and other local educational resources. The Promise’s Von Washington Jr. says his frequent communications with KVCC’s Washington revolve around understanding the varied needs and perspectives of the community.

“We know students start and stop all the time,” Washington Jr. says. “Our conversations focus on that. Our students have a scholarship opportunity that’s unmatched nationally. We want to understand better what … the other barriers (are) that students face, Many of us could manufacture a list of what we think those barriers are. For some people, it’s just individual to them. Everyone’s life is different.

“We talk a great deal about what we can do between the work that we do at The Kalamazoo Promise, the work the community does trying to support students and families overall, and the work KVCC does in educating those students — and how to bring all three of these things together for individual success.”

Marshall Washington, with his more than 17 years in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area as an educator and community college administrator, says his job is not confined to KVCC’s campuses. Whether it’s noticed or not, he says, the success of KVCC and its students is felt in nearly every aspect of people’s lives here, from the quality of local medical care they receive to the character of future leaders the college produces.

“This is not just our work,” he says. “It’s the community’s work.”

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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