Having grown up in east Texas, not far from the Louisiana border, Zelema Harris knows a thing or two about Southern hospitality, and when asked about her first impression of St. Louis, she doesn’t hesitate. “I was not aware of how warm and embracing this community is! People are absolutely so kind—it’s like a Southern hospitality I have never experienced before.”
Although she had visited St. Louis many times, Harris just moved here in 2007 after being named chancellor of St. Louis Community College (STLCC). “When I lived in Champaign, Ill., I often came to St. Louis for a few days, sometimes for a trip to the zoo when my children were growing up, or maybe a show at the Fox.”
In her role as chancellor, Harris directs four campuses and three education centers that serve more than 100,000 students annually, but her passion for learning extends beyond the students currently enrolled at STLCC. “Our No. 1 strategic initiative is increasing access to education,” she emphasizes. “In our service area there are over 300,000 individuals between 24 and 40 who have not completed college. It’s very, very important to reach those people and give them the opportunity to acquire marketable skills, because without those skills, they can’t contribute significantly to our communities. If we’re all going to have a better life, we need to invest in those who are not currently enjoying that life.” In addition to the 24 to 40 age group, Harris adds, the STLCC access initiative also targets recent high school graduates.
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Harris has been recognized for excellence throughout her career, including being named ‘CEO of the Year’ by the Association of Community College Trustees. In 2008, her first full year as STLCC chancellor, she was named a YWCA St. Louis Leader of Distinction, and also named among St. Louis Business Journal’s Most Influential Women in Business, Most Influential St. Louisans and Most Influential Minorities in Business.
Harris deflects the accolades, saying, “All of that is really recognition of the great work of St. Louis Community College. I’m the advocate for the college and that’s why I am the recipient. I do a lot of advocacy, letting people know about the lives we impact and how our graduates enrich the workforce. Without community colleges, where would our middle-class workers come from?”
“Health care is an excellent example,” she continues. “Ask the workers at any hospital or health care facility in St. Louis where they received their training, and a significant number will be graduates of STLCC. We have a broad range of health care programs in our curriculum and our state board pass rate is phenomenal.” In addition to health care, STLCC partners with many other businesses in St. Louis, Harris adds, including Boeing and Ameren UE. “We have around 40,000 students learning in the corporate environment. We also have contracts with the State Department and the Department of Economic Development—a number of absolutely excellent programs,” she notes.
Harris serves on the boards of several St. Louis organizations, including United Way of Greater St. Louis, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and Missouri Botanical Garden. “I will not serve on a board unless I feel really great about the organization,” she explains. “I take my role quite seriously and hope I am able make a worthwhile contribution.”
Describing her passion for education, Harris says she does not think of her leadership role at St. Louis Community College as a job. “My career is my passion, and I absolutely love what I do. It is wonderful to wake up in the morning and love coming to work.”