Hughes named first African American woman president at Bay College

Dr. Nerita Hughes M’09, D’20 has had a number of firsts in her career, serving as the first African American woman in a number of administrative roles — including her current position: sixth president of Bay College in Michigan.

Firsts definitely run in her family. Her late father was among the first African American firefighters in the Minneapolis Fire Department, and her mother was among the first African American teachers in Minneapolis Public Schools, both during the 1960s.

In some ways, it’s because Dr. Hughes saw more “firsts” were needed, that she decided to change career paths.

After a successful career in business and industry, and after earning her MBA from Saint Mary’s in 2009, she decided to return to Saint Mary’s for her doctorate in Education in Leadership and pursue a future in education.

“I saw there were no college presidents — at least in the Minnesota State College and University system — that looked like me, let alone, vaguely, anyone in administration in general, who looked like me,” she said. “That’s largely why I decided to pursue my doctorate.”

Prior to assuming her current role in July, Dr. Hughes served as interim associate vice president of Academic Affairs and Workforce Innovation and dean of the School of Business, Careers, Education, and Workforce Innovation at North Hennepin Community College. There, she served as the first African American dean. In 2008, North Hennepin served a diverse student population, with roughly 40 percent students of color. Yet, she said, the administration did not reflect the students they served.

“When we look at the many different opportunities available to people of color, how do we make sure they have these types of opportunities available and not just some of the front-line positions, like customer service?” she asked. “They need to start seeing more and more people like them (serving as administrators) to see themselves in that equation.”

Preparing her students to meet the needs of surrounding businesses is one of her goals as president of Bay College, a public community college in Escanaba, Mich. Founded in 1962, the college has a main campus in Escanaba and another 25-acre campus in Iron Mountain, Mich. The school currently has about 1,900 degree-seeking students, and that number climbs another 8,500 when you include workforce students.

“We are the community’s college,” she said, explaining that the college’s goal is not only to provide a holistic service to its students (not just academically but also in mind, body, and soul) but also to work closely with business and industry partners, along with community organizations. “We are trying to make sure we are responsive to business and industry needs and will position ourselves to be a prime feeder for these partners in filling roles with the qualified applicants they need.”

Dr. Hughes advises young professional women, looking to start out in any field, including education, to map out what they want to impact. Her father used to tell her, “You can have a lot of letters behind your name but what are you going to do with it?”

“If you’re in it just for status, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” she said. “What legacy are you going to leave at that institution? Inspect what you expect. In other words, what homework do you have to do? Highlight areas that you are not as proficient in as you should be and get the training you need. Know your ‘why’ and your purpose.”

When Dr. Hughes was researching schools for her MBA, she looked at Saint Mary’s alongside several others. It was the school’s reputation and a personal referral that made her choose Saint Mary’s. “I really felt like it reflected an adult-friendly environment,” she said. “I was working and had young kids at the time, so I needed that.”

And, she said, what she learned was directly benefiting her work: “It allowed me to, in real time, be able to put into practice things I was learning like accounting practices, operations management, quantitative statistics and analysis. I was able to make data-driven decisions.”

Even with a strong education, Dr. Hughes admits women continue to face barriers and that “there are still glass ceilings we need to burst open.”

“I feel like (women) lead more from an authentic lens and are more mindful of our impact and the imprint we are making as we lead,” she added.

“The last barrier I see is ourselves. If we apply for positions, we feel we need to be able to check the majority of (qualification) boxes, 90% or higher, or we won’t even apply whereas men will apply if they can only check 60% of the boxes (or less). How do we overcome that? Women run into imposter syndrome more so than men. We are quicker to discount our attributes and abilities.”

Dr. Hughes says that even if women are brought to the table, they need to feel comfortable eating and not question if their voice is going to be heard. It can begin by women supporting women.

“A mantra that really fits is ‘lift as we climb.’ That’s how women can help each other,” she said. “As we’re climbing, how do we reach back and help bring someone along with us? What are the tools we used that can help someone else along the way?”

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