Meet President Laura Douglas, Ph.D.
By LAUREN DALEY
While she is arriving in Fall River via Iowa, Bristol’s new President Laura Douglas' roots in the Spindle City trace back generations to the days of the cotton loom.
Dr. Douglas, who served as provost at Des Moines Area Community College since 2005, will become Bristol Community College’s fourth president in the College’s 51-year history on July 3, and the College’s second female president. President John J. “Jack” Sbrega, Ph.D., will retire in August.
We caught up with Dr. Douglas recently, for a wide-ranging interview, discussing her past, present, and Bristol’s future. I learned Dr. Douglas has a great sense of humor, loves to kayak, speaks both Japanese and Spanish, and had an “aha” moment about education while working with Cambodian refugees in Thailand.
She is approachable, experienced, and ready to get started.
Dr. Douglas' ties to Fall River go back generations.
Her great-grandparents John and Mary Delahunt emigrated to Fall River from Ireland during the potato famine, eventually settling on Carver Street. Her great-grandmother worked the cotton looms while her great-grandfather repaired them.
Her grandfather John F. Delahunt was born and raised in Fall River, growing up on Carver and Buffinton Streets. He attended the Harriet T. Healy School and graduated from the Technical High School in the early 1900s, which was destroyed in a fire in 1927.
“Then he got a government job, working on the railroads,” Dr. Douglas said.
He and her grandmother Priscilla raised their only child, Dr. Douglas' mother, Priscilla, in Arlington, Mass. “My mom went to Framingham State, then to UMass-Amherst. She was the first in her family to go to college. She met my father, John, at UMass,” Dr. Douglas said.
“I never thought I’d work in higher education because that’s what my parents did,” she added with a laugh.
Born in Northampton, Mass., she lived the first five years of her life in Amherst, Mass. Her parents both worked in higher education, and the family moved a few times before eventually settling in Mansfield Center, Conn. Along with her sisters Holly and Diana, Dr. Douglas grew up summering on Cape Cod.
Dr. Douglas earned her Bachelor of Arts in social welfare from the University of Southern Maine in 1982, with a vague plan of becoming a social worker.
“But in the early 1980s, there were very few jobs; the U.S. economy was in terrible shape… I ended up getting a job in Japan,” she said.
Although she studied Spanish in high school and studied a semester in Mexico in college, she took a position as a visiting professor of English and American Culture at Niigata University and Niigata Junior Women’s College in Japan in 1983.
“They said, ‘How’d you like to go to Japan?’ I said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong person; I speak Spanish. They said, ‘If you can speak Spanish, you can probably learn Japanese,’” she recalled.
With the high-potency optimism held only, perhaps, by newly minted 22-year-old college grads, “I said to myself: ‘I don’t know anything about Japan, but here in the U.S., I have no car, no home, no job. So let’s do this!’” she said.
And she did. For over two years, she instructed Japanese students in English and American culture.
“It was a very challenging time in my life. Here I am 22, alone— I’m one of very few Americans, so I was extremely noticeable to everyone. I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall,” she said with a laugh.
“It was hard to make friends; it was lonely. It was really hard. I remember at night thinking, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do this?’ Then I had an epiphany: ‘You know Laura, you have to make this happen on your own. You can’t wait for people to knock on your door.’ I learned a lot about myself, and about Japanese society.”
The can-do attitude propelled her to take another foreign post. In 1986, Dr. Douglas took a job in Thailand as a project consultant for the Japan Sotoshu Relief Committee.
“The work was to help refugees in the largest refugee camp, resettling Cambodian refugees. We were providing work-training programs, helping refugees develop work-readiness skills,” she said. “We provided ways for people to learn their own language, otherwise, they had no literacy. I was also the liaison to the Education Committee of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Bangkok because I spoke English — that was a big deal at 24.” (You can say that again.)
“But what I really liked about my Thailand experience — it opened my eyes to the politics of refugee camps — refugees are really at the mercy of their host countries,” she said. “These people had two kilograms of rice and one chicken for a family for a month. We would often bring lunch into camp to share with the little kids. This one group of little boys would jump in the back of my truck and hang out with me all day. They had no mother and no father. At night, the camp wasn’t a safe place for kids or women or even men.” In Thailand, Dr. Douglas had another aha moment.
Education — the bettering of lives and minds and eventually ecumenic situations — was not far off from her original life goal of social work. And it was a field she now wanted to pursue with vigor.
Dr. Douglas eventually decided to go for her Master of Arts in international administration, graduating from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., in 1990. Soon after, a relative, knowing her background in Japanese, mailed her a newspaper clipping from Waterbury, Conn.
“It was about Post College, which was soon going to affiliate with a private university in Japan. So I wrote a letter to the president of the college, telling her why she needed to hire me,” Dr. Douglas said with a laugh. “She called me in for an interview and decided to hire me.”
She soon began work as an international coordinator for Teikyo Post University (now Post University) in Waterbury, Conn., serving as liaison to Teikyo University in Japan, and she developed study-abroad programs in Japan, England, The Netherlands, and Germany, among other duties.
Then in 1994, Dr. Douglas returned to Japan to take a position as campus dean and head of campus at the State University of New York’s Toyama, Japan, campus. The school was affiliated with New York’s Sullivan County Community College System.
It was in Japan that she also met her husband, Gregg Johnson, a New York state native, who was also working at the State University of New York campus as a business professor. (“He’ll tell you that he’s still working for me,” Dr. Douglas joked.) She also had another epiphany. She wanted a career in community colleges.
“I fell in love with the community college mission. It was the perfect marriage between social work and education,” she said. “I saw that education was so important in breaking the cycle of poverty, and community colleges draw students who might not have had a chance to go to college otherwise.”
So Dr. Douglas decided to go for a Ph.D. in higher education. She chose the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in order to study with Dr. Richard Alfred, whom she called “the guru of community college leadership.” She earned her Ph.D. in 2005.
While writing her doctoral dissertation, she worked as vice president for instructional and student services at Randolph Community College in Asheboro, N.C., where she spearheaded academics, literacy programs, workforce development, and continuing education among other initiatives.
“I was looking for a new challenge, and [Alfred] suggested Iowa. I’d never been to Iowa before; I’m an East Coast girl, and I thought, ‘Iowa? Really?’ I’m thinking corn and pigs,” she recalled.
But, never one to back down from a new place or challenge, Dr. Douglas jumped at the chance, and soon fell in love with her new community.
The campus was “in a lower-socioeconomic area, and I felt I had a lot of opportunity to do a lot of good,” she said. “I inherited a college that was ready for change. I was able to grow the college in many ways — we took student enrollment from 25 percent to shy of 50 percent students of color; and faculty and staff of color to 30 percent.”
In Iowa, Dr. Douglas once again found herself working with refugees.
“We had refugees from more than a hundred different countries that we called, ‘New Iowans.’ We developed an excellent reputation for specialized outreach,” she said. “For example, one project was to help refugees from Burma… by helping them get hotel housekeeping training and good local jobs where they earned steady wages and had opportunities to advance.” After achieving great success in Iowa, Dr. Douglas was ready to take the next step.
“I had a goal of becoming a college president — only 25 percent of college presidents are women. Being a woman in higher ed, I understand the barriers woman face in trying to be upwardly mobile in academia,” she said.
With an added goal of wanting to be back on the East Coast near her parents in Conn., she applied to Bristol. As she’s met people at Bristol and spent more time on the campus, she’s fallen in love with the school.
“It’s a really good fit. I’m so excited to work with the people at Bristol. I’m talking regularly with people here, and I’m so impressed with the passion and commitment to the students that Bristol’s faculty and staff have,” Dr. Douglas said, her voice exuding enthusiasm. “My grandfather was from Fall River, and having been born in Mass., it seemed like an ideal location to come back to,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful to be back on the East Coast, closer to family. It’s come full circle.”
Dr. Douglas' husband, Gregg, is a professor of business who has taught at both community colleges and private four-year colleges. The couple is renting a home in Somerset while they house hunt. They both plan on getting involved in many community projects, boards, and groups.
And in their free time? You’re apt to find them at a community event or enjoying the outdoors.
“We love attending local community events. We look forward to being part of the community and getting to know all of the communities in and around our campus locations in Attleboro, Fall River, New Bedford, and Taunton,” she said. “I want to go deep into the roots and get to know the many people and cultures that make up this great region. My husband and I would like to learn some Portuguese, too.”
When she wants to get away… “We love camping, kayaking, going to the beach, traveling— we try to take one international trip every year. We love to cook, and we love to entertain. We’re always doing something,” she said.