Dr. Daria J. Willis is the fifth president of Howard Community College (HCC), a public community college based in Columbia, Maryland. Willis is the first in her family to attend college. When she was 19, she became a student parent during her first year at Florida A&M University (FAMU).
She told Essence, “I struggled; I had a lot of obstacles, but I got myself back together and graduated magna cum laude.” She later earned a Master’s degree from FAMU and a Ph.D. from Florida State University.
Willis started her journey in academia at Lone Star College in Houston. She rose through the administrative ranks to become provost of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York. Later on, she was named president of Washington State’s Everett Community College, becoming the first African-American president.
Finally, in 2021, she received a call that led to her appointment as president of Howard Community College in Columbia, making history again as the first African-American president, succeeding Kathleen Hetherington, who retired after 14 years as president.
“I’m always preaching to people that if you give us a chance, then students like me will ascend to these positions as well,” Willis remarked.
As president, Willis makes every effort to interact with students, even attending dance rehearsals, taking the honorary jump ball at basketball games, and interviewing community members in her Instagram Live series, “Conversations from the Couch.”
She told The Baltimore Sun, “I want students to see that there’s a new way that a president can be and you don’t have to fit this bubble. I can get suited and booted with the best of them when it’s time to do that, but on campus, I want students to see me for who I am.”
According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, community colleges award Black students certificates at higher rates than other groups.
The mother or three emphasized the need for community colleges, saying, “We’re [community colleges are] going to be the reason why people get back to work in this country. I kind of see us as very similar to the mission and vision and values of HBCUs.”
“But when you get down to the core of why we’re here, we educate over half of the student population within the country. That is phenomenal, and then when you look at how many of our students transfer to a four-year institution, to an HBCU, to Hispanic serving institutions, they are taking the good majority of our students.”
According to the Baltimore Sun, she was honored as a living legend earlier this year in a resolution approved by the Howard County Council in recognition of her contributions to education.
Willis is in charge of managing the development of a 193,000-square-foot Mathematics and Athletic Complex, which is set to open next year, as well as a renovation of the college’s student health facility.
When finished, it will become a fully staffed clinic and be able to provide a variety of reproductive health treatments, such as gynecological and breast exams, STD testing, and contraception.
The county contributed $1 million to the wellness center project in September.