Dr. Theresa B. Felder (Courtesy Photo)

By Jannette J. Witmyer
Special to the AFRO

When Dr. Theresa B. Felder officially began serving her appointment as president of Harford Community College (HCC) on Jan. 1, she stepped into a position for which she’d been acquiring knowledge and experience throughout the past 20 years. Additionally, she unknowingly stepped into the historic role of being the college’s first Black president.

Felder’s professional career began in corporate accounting. But, when she found she needed more flexibility after starting her family, she altered her path and started a consulting firm focused on workforce development and customized workforce training. Clark State Community College was one of the first clients to hire her firm.

Over time, with encouragement from the school’s president, she began to meet students, understand the mission of the college and get more involved. As a first-generation college graduate, she recognized herself in many of the students, and it struck a chord. 

She thought, “This is me. Some of these students stumbled their way here just like I did, and if I can make an impact and help students that were just slightly struggling, not sure about the process, not sure they can do it, didn’t know anybody that did it… If I can help those students, that would be meaningful.”

So, she went back to school, got a master’s and a doctorate, and moved through the ranks of Clark State. As she tells it, “I just dove in. Passionate is the word. I got passionate about the work. And it was reflected in my work ethic and my willingness to just get it done.”

Felder taught classes, worked in a college access program, delivered training, ran the school’s largest branch campus, became a vice president, and then moved into a senior position (second to the president) responsible for the strategic plan for the college. In addition, she was an active community partner and served on several boards: workforce and economic development-related boards, as well as social services and nonprofit boards. 

A friend’s suggestion that she could advance to a presidency, along with an offer of mentorship, led Felder to pursue that goal and, ultimately, land the position at HCC.

Felder says she found the opening at HCC as she began her search and was immediately drawn to the college. “Not only was the location perfect, but also the college is very close to the demographic of Clark State. This school is very similar — the size, even the location itself, as far as how the county is situated,” she says.

“I had experience advocating for programs, services, and locations in parts of the county that we served in Ohio that were underserved, where the population wasn’t as educated, and had lower educational attainment rates. Before I left, I was able to start a location… I could see that Harford Community College was doing the same thing.”

Having written her dissertation on dual enrollment (students pursuing college credits while still in high school) for underserved populations (first generation, low income, minority students), she was equally encouraged by the developing partnership between the college and county’s public school system around dual enrollment. 

“I saw so much alignment with the work I had done. And not only that, my own mission, and vision and values, really aligned with the college. I felt that I could step into this institution and not feel like I was starting over. It’s kind of a continuation of the work that I had already been doing,” she says.

As the first African-American president, a distinction of which she was unaware before reading it in an article, all eyes will be on Felder, to which she says, “I’m so proud to be that person. As I interviewed, I made it clear that my mission, my passion is to make college accessible to those that don’t think that it is, because that was my story.”

Felder’s commitment to her mission is fueled by her personal experience as the first of her siblings to attend college. “While my two older brothers did not go to college, I did, and my sister behind me followed me. Now, all of our nieces and nephews are expected to go to college. I was that one in my family who changed the expectations around getting a college degree,” she explains.

“So, that’s my life’s work, to make education accessible to those who don’t think that it is. And, I know the impact that it has. Not just on the individual, not just on their family, but their extended family and generations to follow… So, if by being the first Black president… if that message is, ‘Look what she did, and maybe I can too,’ that’s exciting to me.”

Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO