Meet BC Presidential Candidate Finalist: Dr. Tonya Drake

Portrait of Dr. Tonya Drake
Image Courtesy of Western Governors University

Dr. Tonya Drake, a candidate for the president position at Bellevue College, answered questions at her Presidential Finalist Open Forum on March 14. Drake shared her biography, resume and diversity statement prior to the forum, allowing the community to learn about her values, background and experiences. 

When asked what strategies she would use to mend campus culture and bring the community together after the COVID-19 pandemic, Drake said she wants to be “student obsessed” by “creating pathways to opportunity, ensuring a culture of belonging and building collective impact”. She recognizes that the culture of the college is focused on the students, and she’s dedicated her career to higher education because of students. Her response emphasized healing and reflecting in order to emerge stronger after three years of isolation. 

Drake wants to build trust and unite the campus after feelings of division. Her goal is to create a campus that is inclusive, thriving and results-driven. She emphasizes that people create the culture and everyone’s experiences create beliefs that influence actions which produce results. She says, “I think in order to change the culture and change the game, we need to reevaluate what those results are and refocus on those student learning outcomes, to refocus on that student access and success.” She believes the results will drive actions, moving the community in the same direction. Those actions will cause our “belief systems [to] change about how we interact with one another and our experiences change”. 

Her tactics for mending culture at Bellevue College include clear communication, intentional connections, focused feedback and public recognition. With her conversations with students, faculty and leadership, Drake believes that “the best thing I could do as your leader and president is to raise a mirror up and say, you are Bellevue College, you are amazing, you’re innovative, and you are the beacon of the community college system in Wasington”. Her mission for higher education is to “shine a spotlight on student success” and act “as a catalyst and collaborator for a vibrant region.”

Her plans to create a collective impact and build culture and trust are as follows: 

  • Ensure the campus is results-driven
  • Provide relevant programs for our workforce to support the region
  • Create clear pathways to success
  • Build strategic partnerships externally 

Drake also refers to the cultural competency model, which focuses on “having self understanding about yourself and awareness of where you fit in this world around power and privilege and the intersectionality of that”. It also includes understanding and valuing others, understanding systemic oppression and being an effective ally. She believes that understanding systemic oppression is “vitally important because we’re never going to change the results unless we start dismantling systems of oppression and rebuilding them to have an equitable outcome for all”. 

When asked to share more about “how shared decision making fits within [her] leadership style and how [she] would ensure it becomes an institutional practice across the college”, Drake responded that the college currently has a strong governance model and she “tends to listen and learn” because organizations differ in culture. She believes that if the direct impact on people is broad, then we also need broad input for decisions. She concludes her answer with, “Those that are directly impacted should also be directly involved with the decision making”, including students and faculty. 

Using what she’s learned from her time as a special assistant for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Edmonds College, she would recognize and address gaps in diversity at Bellevue College. For students, she would “ensure that we’re meeting the needs of our local students [and] doing intentional outreach to those communities”. In relation to employees and recruitment, she understands “that there is an intentional need to reach in the recruitment process to diverse communities” and create a structure where the hiring process is vetted so they understand “that most of us tend to have a mirroring effect of who we bring on”. This would be done by having a diverse hiring committee and driving outreach in the community. Drake also currently supports the diversity and work of the trustees, including their current strategy for bringing on additional trustees. 

Drake was asked to share an example of how she’s worked with staff and faculty to improve student access and success, and how she would bring about systemic change in our college culture to achieve this. She responded with her belief that the college has done a great job providing access and shared that she would want to ensure students know how to navigate the BC process. She also said that she’d focus on increasing student success as an industry and higher education because of the current criticism student success at community colleges is receiving from employers. During her time at Edmonds College, she analyzed gaps in student success surrounding male students and students without access to financial aid and different racial entities, then found they were systemic problems happening across Washington. She addressed the differences in different BIPOC populations and looked at finding different solutions for each student success measure.

Drake further elaborated on treating BIPOC communities differently from one another because they have different experiences when asked how a community college can address anti-Blackness. She responded with, “The experiences of our BIPOC community are very different and we can’t treat those students the same if we want them to feel welcomed or belong”, and continued to detail how the generational trauma and inequities of the Black community need to be addressed. She would do this by surrounding students, staff and faculty with a “community of care” to support them as an individual, not just having conversations about diversity, inclusion or anti-Blackness. 

When asked about her background and what actions she would take as president in addressing issues and impacts of environmental and climate justice in the campus community, Drake reflected on her experience at Edmonds with talking about environmental equity and collective responsibility. As President, she would be a strong advocate for BC’s plans to do more and acknowledge through her research that sustainability is important to people at Bellevue College and the broader region. 

The next question regarded the faculty struggle to provide all methods for learning and taking classes (online, in-person and hybrid) and students feeling like their needs are unmet: “What do you think about student choice and modality, and how do you plan to meet faculty needs in this regard?” She responded that she would do more to create a sense of community for people on campus and still provide opportunities for those seeking online learning for students and faculty. Further explaining, she said, “I am confident that it can be done and we just need to emerge out of this pandemic with opportunities and structures that meet the needs of both the communities.” 

Data has shown more than 60% of college students have at least one mental health problem and almost 75% of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress in 2020 to 2021. To respond to the mental health and wellness needs of students, Drake shared her daughter’s experiences with mental health and how she felt privileged to have resources like counseling and medical attention. She continued saying, “It is imperative that we provide [resources] for our students and our community and ensure our employees know how to direct either students or their family members or coworkers to the resources that we need during this time.” She would continue to show her support for mental health resources by advocating for them at the state level and introducing more resources at the college. 

Drake would continue to promote education for low income, immigrant, refugee and historically underrepresented student programs, regardless of their lack of profit, as she has seen “some strong successes in investing in programs like ABE (Adult Basic Education) or English language learning that in the long run produces students who come to the college and thrive and are successful.” 

She would use her experiences from traditional higher education like the University of Washington, ASU, Edmonds College and the community college system to advocate for resources and a stronger higher education budget. Drake also shares her experiences as a Title IX coordinator at Edmonds and Vice President for Student Success at Shoreline Community College in regards to carrying out federal regulation and understanding equity on a college campus. She would “love to change the narrative” that federal regulations are making people provide accommodations and resources because it is “something that should be natural to us anyways.”