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Howard County Times
Howard County

New leader, new vision: Howard Community College’s fifth president shows immediate support for students

Daria Willis hopes to use her role as the fifth president of Howard Community College in Columbia to inspire students in their pursuit of higher education.

Willis began her new job Jan. 10 and is the first Black woman to lead the college in its 51-year history.

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Willis, 37, lives in Columbia with her husband Isiah and three children – Lyric, 17, Isiah, 9 and Imani, 3.

The former president Everett Community College in the Seattle metro region said she aims to lead Howard Community College with the intention of continuous improvement.

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Born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, Willis attended Florida A&M University, a historically Black university in Tallahassee, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history education. She went on to earn a master’s degree in history from Florida A&M and a doctorate in history from Florida State University.

Despite her academic achievements, she said her time in college was not easy. She balanced school and single motherhood and said she understands the challenges many students may face.

“Our students need to see leaders who are accessible and leaders who aren’t afraid to talk about the mistakes they made coming up,” she said. “I want our students to know that mistakes happen, but you don’t let your mistakes define you. You use what you’ve learned from those mistakes to help you continue to move forward.”

Since her first day on the job, Willis has made it a point to engage with the campus community. She has attended on-campus events with students, recorded video messages for employees and took the honorary jump ball before a men’s basketball game and the honorary first shot before a women’s basketball game.

Daeshawn Eaton, 21, a member of the men’s basketball team studying business administration at Howard Community College, said it meant a lot to him for Willis to show her support during the game.

“That was her first day at the school and having her at the game was just great vibes, and it was also good that we got the win for her while she was there,” Eaton said.

Kalani Corkeron, 19, a member of the women’s basketball team, is studying exercise science, said she also appreciated the new president’s support.

“She had, I’m sure, a million other things that she needed to be doing, and yet [that] she made us a priority and stayed for the entirety of both of our games showed commitment and showed that she was actually very interested in showing us support; so we intend to show her the same support,” Corkeron said.

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Mike Smelkinson, athletic director and head men’s basketball coach, said Willis’ leadership will help attract more students to the college.

“[Willis] does a good job of relating to people, and I think that our school will be recognized broadly,” Smelkinson said. “I think she will connect more students to the great programs that we have and also make those programs even better.”

Willis said she appreciates Howard Community College’s commitment to prioritizing innovation. The school is in the process of building a 193,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Mathematics and Athletic Complex, scheduled to be complete in 2024.

The complex will feature class labs, a maker space, a math learning center, a research area and a study lounge and the athletics area will feature a classroom, competition gym, fitness center, locker rooms, multipurpose gym and a strength and conditioning room, according to the college’s website.

“[The complex] will be off the charts as far as its capabilities for technology and it will really hit the demands of what our region needs as far as supporting the student experience on the campus,” Willis said. “The physical environment is just as important as what students are learning within the classroom and having the spaces that are technologically savvy and sound will help our students get there quicker.”

Recognizing her place in the college’s more than five-decade history, Willis said it is an honor to be serving as its first Black president.

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“I’m standing on the shoulders of all those who came before me and helped create the environment for me to be able to ascend to this position,” she said. “I will do everything I can to reach back and help someone else achieve their goals and dreams just like someone helped me.”


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