By Luciana Chavez
Special to Merced College

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Blue Devil’s Advocate is proud to present a special Q&A with Merced College’s first woman president, E. Jan Kehoe.

Kehoe arrived at Merced College in 1990 as Jan Moser, eventually meeting her husband Michael Kehoe at Castle Air Base in Atwater. As president, Kehoe established herself as a strong and caring leader during a time when it was much less common to find women in the top jobs at educational institutions or in any other sector.

Now retired and living in Texas, Kehoe has not slowed down a bit. She continues to be active in research and in leadership development, blazing new trails and creating new knowledge while also mentoring a new generation of leaders.

Her two-pronged advice for remaining vital and relevant in retirement: “First, never lose your curiosity. Second, keep active.”

The ever-curious, ever-active former president recently sat down to answer a few questions for the Blue Devil’s Advocate.

Welcome, Jan!
When you think back on your time at Merced College, what comes to mind?

I immediately felt very much at home in Merced. Being from Texas, I was accustomed to the heat and to living in an agricultural community. The relationship between the college and the community and the school districts and the air base were all very strong. It was such a wonderful community, both Merced and Atwater — just a really nice, cohesive community. And added advantages were having Yosemite so close and the thriving Los Banos campus. It’s a lovely area of California.

Prior to the semester starting in the fall, we would have a big faculty-staff picnic. We had a faculty-staff band, and some who did not play musical instruments played the kazoo. The head of our music department had to instruct me — he said, “The operative term is to hum, not blow!” We had three accordions, a saxophone, several kazoos and a variety of other instruments. Our director would take requests, and whatever came in, we’d play the Marines’ Hymn, because that’s all we knew!

The tenor of those gatherings, just listening to people talk in that environment, showed a very supportive climate of the college. People were enthusiastic, cooperative and exchanging ideas. That one event personifies the best of the college.

I think of the supportive Board of Trustees that hired me, and their dedication to the college, and their desire to raise the college’s image at the state and national levels. I remember, fondly, our first master plan for Merced College that resulted in some of the buildings on the main campus and obtaining land and planning for the current Los Banos Campus.

Of course we had problems, and the occasional naysayer, but overall it was a very welcoming community and a supportive place for students.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman in leadership?

When I first came to California, there were only nine female presidents in the entire higher education system (about 150 colleges and universities). In the Central Valley, women weren’t really accepted well as CEOs — not so much because they didn’t want you there, but there just hadn’t been any women in CEO positions.

I joined the Rotary Club when I got to Merced. In my first meeting, I sat across from an older gentleman. He had his chin propped on his cane, and he said, “Where do you work, little lady?” I said, “At the college.” He said, “I hear they have a new woman president.” And I said, “Yes sir, we do, and you’d really like her if you met her!” It was actually just fine. Once they got to know me as a person, there were no problems. The community turned out to be very supportive of me as the president.

There was also some resentment at the college that a woman had been chosen. I saw that off and on throughout my time there. Some people had difficulty with my being president and the role expected of a president in the community and the state community college system. I did tell one gentleman who was particularly upset: “You know, it’s a career choice. Anyone willing to put in the effort and the time could become a president. It’s a choice that I made, and you could have made the same choice, if you desired to do so.” That was the only way I could approach it.

Later there were two other women CEOs in the Valley — the president at CSU Stanislaus and the chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District. We became a support group for each other; we were on the cutting edge at that time, and felt somewhat alone. In fact, the two of them came to my wedding.

It wasn’t that all men were unsupportive of us. I was especially fortunate to have very supportive male colleagues as my Merced College administrators and friends — they were in my wedding, too! But there was a very visual changing of the face of community college CEOs in the 1990s — not just more women but also men and women of color, and we helped and supported each other.

In what ways have you seen society evolve to be more equitable to women? In what ways do we still have more work to?

At that time, there was a growing consciousness of providing people the tools they needed to become leaders. National and statewide leadership seminars and teaching seminars providing leadership training for faculty, staff and new and potential administrators began to emerge. More diverse leaders have been developed at all levels throughout the state and nationwide.

I was not trained to be a leader growing up. It was not part of being raised a Southern woman. Young girls and young boys need to learn to be the best they can be and follow their passion. They must be taught to be leaders. Those of us who were in leadership positions have been cognizant that we need to spread the net wider to find our leaders. In my time, we got a chance, we broke through, and we started mentoring other people.

I don’t know if we’re there yet in terms of acceptance of others and whether the net is spread wide enough. There is still work to be done, but much depends on the institution and its culture, or the area or discipline you’re in. Leadership should start with teachers and students at the preschool and elementary school level. We need to help and support our teachers in working with students in terms of respect for others and leadership training and guidance

What advice would you give to women seeking to advance their careers?

One of the first keys is to research your field, so that you are so knowledgeable that you can speak with authority. It’s very useful to be competent in as many aspects of your field as possible. I made an effort to get certified in as many areas as I could, both in graduate school research, and in other professional fields. I was certified to be a faculty member in three different disciplines (math, sociology and criminal justice), and I spent time in the classroom. When faculty talked to me about the difficulties they’d had in the classroom, I could empathize because I experienced the classroom as well.

Secondly, seek a mentor with whom you are compatible. It doesn’t have to be a mentor in your field. It can be someone to teach you how to work efficiently and effectively: how to do the best you can do. Be observant around other leaders — those you like, those you feel an affinity for, especially if you like what you see them doing in the community, or if they’re leading in a certain field or on a certain project.

If you’re looking to move up in the system, look to other community colleges or professional groups for people who are in the same field. A mentor needs to be someone you trust who is willing to spend some time with you.

Do your homework before you talk to a potential mentor, and be confident in them and trust them enough to ask any question. There are no dumb questions. Look at yourself, do some introspection and identify what you think you need in order to be more successful. Leave your ego at the door.

What can each of us do as individuals to be better allies to women and others who have been discriminated against in the past?

I think all people need to be treated with respect, regardless of their gender or color or disability or ability or ethnicity. All need to be treated with respect, and we can continually remind others of that. We should make every effort to walk in others’ shoes, keep an open mind and be supportive of others. If possible, act as a mentor to someone who’s had problems of discrimination, or suggest they get a mentor. That goes for men and women, boys and girls. Finally, we can help assure that all children are mentored, learn respect, and have a good education and encouragement.