Before graduating from high school, Jill Wakefield attended 17 schools around the country due to family moves. She found a permanent home in Washington while attending Centralia College. It was then that she realized that learning is more about a student’s personal experience than the place. “My community college had a motto: Start here, go anywhere. That’s exactly what happened with me,” she says. “I graduated from a community college and now I’m leading them. It’s been a dream career impacting so many people’s lives.”
Wakefield retires in June after 40 years with Seattle Colleges. Appointed chancellor in 2009, she is the longest serving and first woman to hold the position. Among her countless achievements are the colleges’ stronger partnerships with business and industry. She never took her eye off one goal: How to support the “miracles that take place daily in the classroom.”
A particular point of pride is the deepening of ties to the UW, her alma mater. Wakefield earned her master’s degree in public administration/public policy from the UW in 1983. The experience opened doors both philosophically and professionally. “My time at the UW expanded my mind and really started my career,” she says. “I’m always thinking about how I can help every student have a better experience and reach their goals.”
She knows firsthand the demands many students face. Wakefield juggled her graduate studies with working, family and raising her first son; it required seven years to finish her degree. UW mentors provided support both inside and outside the classroom—an experience she has endeavored to pass forward. “My statistics professor volunteered her time to tutor any student who needed help for two hours before class. It’s the only way I survived that class,” Wakefield recalls. “She always told me that I could do it.” Years later, Wakefield hired her mentor as director of strategic planning for Seattle Colleges. Currently, all three presidents of Seattle Colleges’ individual campuses are UW graduates: Sheila Edwards Lange, ’00, ’06, at Seattle Central College; Warren Brown, ’93, ’09, at North Seattle College; and Gary Oertli, ’70, ’72, at South Seattle College.
Seattle College students account for the largest number of transfers to the UW annually. “Maybe they’re still unsure about their major or can’t yet afford a four-year university,” says Wakefield. “We are committed to ensuring our students are prepared to hit the ground running no matter where their futures lead. My inspiration has always been graduation. When I see students walk across the platform, I am blown away by their accomplishments and what some of them have overcome,” she says. “They have such a belief in education that it will truly change their lives. I do, too.”