Her October 19 inauguration is now history. But Dr. Kris Westover’s leadership as the president of Mountain Empire Community College (MECC), which she assumed in July 2017, is an ongoing story of dedication and success. Her vision is “to make sure our students meet the finish line.”
Who would better know what it takes to finish than a high school dropout and manual laborer who was persuaded to take a night class that led to full-time enrollment in a community college, then to a bachelor’s degree, two graduate degrees, a high school teaching career, and 25 years in higher education?
Westover’s rise to professional life and service is the American story at its best.
She dropped out of high school because “I felt I didn’t fit in.” It wasn’t that she was a poor student but that she lacked social skills and emotional stability. “I couldn’t take the trauma of being in high school. I had a stigma attached to me that I took on because society said that of me.” After leaving school, she immediately took the GED test. “They mailed me my diploma when I was 18. I’d kind of forgotten about it.”
That’s because she was busy working various labor-intensive jobs.
“I worked in a boat factory, an oil field, road construction, a car wash, fast food - I just kept piecing jobs together, not really being able to create a career or a life or a family-sustaining wage.” While these jobs were unpromising, Westover said they did teach her a work ethic and helped her understand the business world. “They taught me how to work with others, how to show up on time. If I wanted to collect a paycheck, how to finish a job.”
Yet she recognized that as a manual laborer, “no one was taking my ideas seriously. I had some ideas and I could see how things could be better but no one would listen to me.” She realized she “wasn’t going to get anywhere without education” but was afraid to go to college, convinced she wasn’t college material.
A teacher “who’s now a good friend” hounded her to take a night class at Colby Community College in Kansas, which Westover did “to get her off my back.” She took basic English composition and “did okay,” prompting her to enroll fulltime at the school. She went on to earn a B.S. degree in math and become a math teacher. Later, she obtained an M.S. in instructional technology from Fort Hays State University and an Ed.D. in organizational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
“It took a lot of people to say, we believe in you, we encourage you and we think you can do better. I’ve always appreciated the community college. It offers the ability to meet you where are and bring you up to a certain point,” Westover said.
“Everyone deserves a chance to be successful in education - to be encouraged, regardless of where they start. Sometimes we think we’re not worthy for whatever reason or that college isn’t for us. Frankly, we owe the world more - if we have gifts we need to utilize them to the best of our abilities and share them with others.”
Students at MECC have special challenges, as many work and have children and family responsibilities. “So they have all these competing priorities. We recognize that and try to help them through those challenges so they can make school a priority to increase their earning power and not have to work so hard to be successful. They can enjoy time with their family and live life a little bit more. I don’t think people sometimes realize how much work it is to struggle and be poor and not have advantages that society might hand out to others.”
Westover says MECC is a gem in the community.
“How excited I am to be at Mountain Empire! It’s an amazing college. I’m proud of the practices we’re involved in, I’m proud of how student-centered we are, how focused on student completion.”
Besides her passion for education, the college’s seventh president is “a big motorcycle enthusiast. I ride a Harley Davidson V-Rod Anniversary edition. It’s difficult to wear a suit on the V-Rod.”
Her husband, Mark, is also an avid biker. They live in Lee County and have a daughter and son-in-law, and two granddaughters, ages 3 and 4.