Daria J. Willis, 34, is the new president of Everett Community College. She is the college’s fourth female and first African American president. She completed high school in three years, earned a Ph.D. and has held a number of teaching and administrative positions in higher education. Most recently, she worked in Syracuse, New York, where she served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Onondaga Community College.
Here, she talks about the challenges she has faced as a single mom and an African American in academia, and how it can be an example to EvCC students.
Tell me about your high school experience. Which course was toughest for you?
I was a good student, but the course I hated the most was chemistry. It was the time they just decided they wanted to do the Georgia High School Graduation Test. It gives me shutters thinking about it. Chemistry was the one I didn’t like. In college, we had to dissect a frog. I couldn’t do it. Being a medical doctor was never a part of my DNA.
You excelled in college. What is your message to students at EvCC, where many are working and going to school and some have families as well?
Let me correct you: I was for the most part a good student. When I made it to college, my first year my GPA dropped almost below 2.0. I was in marching band and activities, and school wasn’t a priority. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and had my daughter, that’s when I turned my studies around.
I’m very open about my experiences. I want students to know I’ve been there. I was on WIC (Women Infants and Children, a federal nutrition program) in Florida because I didn’t have enough money. I know what it’s like to raise a child by yourself. I think it’s important for students to see you raw, who you are, that they can do it, too. I hope through my story they see if she can have a kid at 19 and 2.0 GPA and still graduate with honors, what about me?
What was the toughest time for you as a single mom and student?
You know, when I divorced my first husband, that was the toughest time. It was hard for me to grapple with being a single parent and how to make it happen for my little one. Being a full-time student at the same time made it much more difficult.
I was probably about 21. (My daughter) was about 2 years when we divorced.
What kept you going in the face of so many difficulties?
The amount of people who told me I couldn’t do it. Back then when you told Daria she couldn’t do something, I made it my mission to prove that person wrong. I got tired of people telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. There were so many people who said, “No you can’t.” OK, I’ll show you, yes I can.
Your father died of an AIDS infection when you were very young.
It was a crushing moment. We didn’t really get along because we had the same personalities, but we fiercely loved each other.
He died in 1991. It had progressed to AIDS pretty quickly. He didn’t have access to medications. When he found out, he died a few months later. He was 28, I believe. I just credit my mom for being such a fighter and being so strong to deal with that. I was about 6 years old. I was barely out of kindergarten.
Growing up, my mom didn’t tell us how he died. I had thought it was a kidney ailment, which it was, related to the virus. My mom went by herself to the hospital. She and he didn’t want us to see him sick. I wish I would have been there. But I feel like I lost something because of that separation.
It’s interesting — my daughter was born on his birthday. My son was due on the day he died. I feel like he’s my guardian. I feel like my son is just like him.
The role of president of a community college is a demanding one. How do you balance those demands with being a wife and mom?
I used to be really bad at this. I was so bad, in fact — big kudos to my husband. He’s amazing. I have missed birthdays, forgotten anniversaries. One time I was in China and called him. The next day I remembered (it was his birthday). I had the commitment that would not happen again.
Now we celebrate birthdays maybe the weekend before. Or the anniversaries the weekend before. A couple’s trip once a year. Instead of Christmas with gifts, we’re trying to have vacation memories. We’re working to create memories.
Tell me about your husband and children.
His name is Isiah David Brown. We have been together for 13 years. He was teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego. (With the family’s move to Everett) they offered him an online visiting professor position. Business administration classes and leadership. He made a conscious decision to take a step back and let me pursue my dream. I tell the ladies, “Don’t come near him!”
Our oldest daughter, Lyric Joseph, 15, she’s the artist of the family. Isiah David Brown V is 7 years old. He is into all things robotics, gaming, and a sweet kid. Imani Daria Brown, 10 months, is bossy, very demanding, headstrong. She’s already started walking.
What are your hopes for your children?
I want them to see the world. I want them to make the world a better place and be better citizens for society. I want them to experience all life has for them. I want them to give back in some sort of way.
How have you been received by the community?
It’s been amazing … I want to emphasize how thankful I am to be here and the community’s and the college’s reception to me. This is literally a dream come true. I will work very hard to not let this community down.
What are your goals for yourself?
For the longest time I’ve always wanted to be a president. Now that I’m here, I haven’t thought about that yet. I want to lay some roots at the institution. I want my children to feel like they grew up somewhere. My focus for myself and the family is to become part of the community and stay put for a little bit. I’m happy here. I think we’ve found the place that fits and suits us.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.