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Honoring the Power of ATHENA

Colleen A. Smith, Ph.D., believes it’s extremely important to support women in their professional interests and career choices, especially in male-dominated fields. “This support demonstrates to our society that there are options for women that both women and men may have never considered possible until they see women succeeding in these areas. We need to tell these stories so that we continue to change the narrative around how people view gender and the world in which we live.”

Smith, president of Coconino Community College, is a living playbook of her own advice. In 1995, Flagstaff’s 2020 ATHENA Award recipient accepted a position at a Wyoming community college overseeing programs such as welding, electrical, automotive, diesel, mine maintenance, plumbing and pipefitting. She calls it, “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“Yes, these were male-dominated fields, and at that time, all of the faculty in that area were men. I understood teaching and learning, and they understood industry and technology. We demonstrated our respect for each other and were all willing to learn from each other. I had great experiences like putting on a welding helmet and going into the welding booth to learn about welding, or wearing steel-toed boots and a hard hat and going down deep into the mines so that I could understand what those people we were training would experience.”

Understanding other people’s perspective is a skill she has developed. “If I have to choose a superpower, I guess I would say that I would like for mine to be listening. I have worked hard to try and continually improve in this area. I believe we all have an innate need as human beings to be heard—especially when we feel strongly about an issue. In order to demonstrate that we are truly listening, we must show understanding and compassion. We must show that we care.”

Smith credits her parents for her strong work ethic and emphasis on education. She got her first job when she was 12, mopping floors at an ice cream parlor, and has been working ever since. “My parents constantly reinforced to us (four children very close in age) that college was the way to a more secure and better life. Neither of my parents had a college degree, and money was always tight. Their respect for education and the values they taught us encouraged all four of us to earn college degrees. You could say my first role models were my parents with their tremendous impact on shaping the lives of [her brothers, sister and herself] three attorneys and one college president.”

For leadership advice, she offers, “Lead with integrity and constantly seek to improve, and you will be okay. And if you are very lucky, you will have the support of an amazing partner like my husband, who always encourages me to learn and grow and try new things and thinks it is okay when I need to wake up and cry for a while.”

Smith was honored on Valentine’s Day during the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Arizona Healthcare Foundation ATHENA Awards celebration as more than 600 business professionals and elected officials honored her with a standing ovation.

“To me, the Athena Award is all about community,” she says. “I am passionate about the mission of the community college, and I see this award as being an acknowledgment of the role Coconino Community College plays in serving our communities throughout the county. I am grateful and honored to be selected when there are so many deserving women in our community.”

The goddess Athena was chosen as the symbol for the program to reflect the qualities the award honors – strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment.

“It has been the honor of the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce to work in partnership with ATHENA International to bring forth the incredible contributions of females in hopes of creating and advancing gender balance in the workplace,” said Chamber President Julie Pastrick. “Through the years, I have felt great emotion surrounding this opportunity to shine a spotlight on ladies who might never ever get recognized for the incredible things they do day after day. And if AtHENA is the vehicle to elevate so many deserving local citizens, what a phenomenal partnership the Chamber gets to take part in.”

Smith was born in Oklahoma and raised in Texas. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Texas A&M Commerce and her doctorate at Texas Woman’s University.  She and her husband, Billy Smith, a retired professor, met in their freshman year of college and have been married for 39 years.

What’s the best adviCe you’ve ever received?

“When you make a difficult decision for the right reason, things have a way of working out for the best.” That advice came from Dr. John Muller who was president of a community college where I served as his vice president/chief academic officer. I had great respect for him and the values he demonstrated as a leader in higher education.”

When was the last time you sang out loud?

“Today, in the car. I sing very loudly and often and completely off pitch because that is the only way I know how to sing.”

What is your biggest pet peeve?

“People not treating others with dignity and respect!”

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

“Anything with my husband — walking, dancing, eating, reading, watching a movie — but most of all singing and laughing! By the way, he is a great singer.”

Do you have a favorite city or place you like to visit?

“When I don’t get to live in the mountains, I like to visit the mountains. When I get to live in the mountains, I like to stay at home. So, I guess maybe the answer is Flagstaff. I just now realized that! Who would have known? FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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