When Cuesta College selected Jill Stearns to serve as its next president six months ago, she made a simple pledge to begin her tenure in San Luis Obispo by listening to the campus community.
The feedback varied, she said, from high praise for the school’s performing arts programs to its recent expansion in the agriculture department. Some wanted to talk about growing educational opportunities in the South County.
Building those relationships around the Central Coast — even attending city council meetings — has made for a smooth transition, Stearns said, and she hopes to continue the legacy already established by previous administrators.
“The college holds a very special place in the hearts of much of the community,” Stearns said Friday in an interview with The Tribune.
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Stearns and her family know the SLO County community well.
Both she and her husband, as well as their two sons, are Cal Poly alumni, and they’ve lived in four cities in the county — San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach, Paso Robles and Atascadero.
Stearns and her husband, Keith, who works as the executive director of information systems and technology at Cuesta College, purchased a home in San Luis Obispo two years ago.
Stearns was “absolutely elated” when she was chosen from a group of five finalists for her current position, saying, “our forever home is in San Luis Obispo.”
With students having returned Monday for the start of classes, Stearns has been able to get a better sense of the Cuesta College atmosphere when school is in session. The college typically serves about 10,000 students each semester, according to spokeswoman Lauren Milbourne.
Though most of Stearns’ early meetings with students have been introductory, she said she’s been impressed with student leaders and their willingness to directly reach out to their peers.
“We have to be intentional about our opportunities for students to meet one another,” Stearns said, “and kind of let go of some of those high school rivalries and allow them to connect around shared interests.”
Stearns also has meet regularly with the Cuesta College faculty, which includes approximately 150 full-time members, 330 part-time, 245 classified staff and 43 managers.
Around the time Stearns was selected in March, school officials were locked in a pay dispute with the faculty union that eventually resulted in a 4 percent salary increase over two years.
Stearns reiterated the president does not negotiate on behalf of the district, and the union has representative responsibility of the faculty that goes beyond compensation. She hopes to see both sides work together moving forward.
“We have now 115 colleges in 73 districts, and they all have local negotiations, and it just brings that tension to the campus,” Stearns said. “We’re all in this business because we care about students, and we have a desire to provide the opportunity and access to higher ed that only community colleges do.”
Students who are interested in attending Cuesta College this year still have time to register, Stearns said.
Though the first week of fall semester has passed, the school has classes available starting “basically every two weeks all the way through October.”
Stearns said it’s “really exciting” to no longer be locked into a formal traditional structure that would prevent students from registering until after Christmas Break.
“People’s lives change so quickly,” Stearns said. “We really are scheduling in a way that when life points you to college, that we want to be ready and have an opportunity for you to begin.”
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