Howard County Times
Howard County

‘I want students to see me for who I am’: Howard Community College President Daria Willis reflects on first year in office

Along with the usual framed family photos and certificates, Howard Community College President Daria Willis’ office desk contains a set of less traditional decorations — a Bonsai tree, potted orchid and typewriter all made out of LEGO bricks.

Dr. Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College, on the school campus on Feb. 3.

The display continues at home, where Willis is in the process of completing a LEGO model of the Colosseum and she recently purchased a 9,000-piece scale model of the ill-fated RMS Titanic.


“I really want to display it on campus,” said Willis, 38, who lives in Columbia with her husband, Isiah Brown, and three children — Lyric, 18, Isiah, 10, and Imani, 4. “I think it’d be a good conversation piece when people come in.”

Willis’ LEGO obsession is just one example of her desire to meet students where they are, whether it’s visiting dance practices, taking the honorary jump ball at basketball games or interviewing community members in her Instagram Live series, “Conversations from the Couch.”


“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,” Willis said. “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.”

Willis celebrated her first anniversary on the job last month and has already made her mark on the Columbia-based college that enrolled nearly 23,000 credit and noncredit students last year. On Monday she was recognized as a Living Legend in a resolution passed by the Howard County Council for her contributions to education.

Willis replaced Kathleen Hetherington, who retired in October 2021 after serving 14 years as president. HCC has 2,577 employees and had a $102.9 million operating budget for fiscal 2022.

Willis is overseeing the construction of a state-of-the-art, 193,000-square-foot Mathematics and Athletic Complex, scheduled to open next year, and an expansion of the college’s student wellness center. It will become a fully staffed clinic capable of offering a range of reproductive health services, from contraception and sexually transmitted infection testing to gynecological and breast exams. In September, the county committed $1 million to the wellness center project.

Dr. Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College, speaks with Dance Company students during a class on Feb. 3.

Having had her first child at age 19 when she was an undergraduate, Willis said she recognizes the importance of giving students access to reproductive health resources, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and has championed the center’s expansion.

“She’s been like a breath of fresh air for health and wellness,” said Tara Rupp, associate director of student wellness at the college. “I know that she speaks from the heart when she talks about needing services for students.”

Dr. Daria Willis, right, president of Howard Community College, gets a quick lesson from HCC Dance Company students during a class on Feb. 3.

Willis grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a predominantly Black middle class community outside Atlanta, where she was raised primarily by her mother, a postal service worker, after the death of her father.

Willis attended Florida A&M University, a historically Black university in Tallahassee, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history education. When she arrived, Willis said she struggled academically and got further off-course after becoming pregnant.

“I remember what it was like to have to work two or three jobs, trying to get food stamps and just trying to get an existence for me and my kid,” she said.

Willis can recall the looks she received walking around campus while pregnant and later when she had to bring her child to class.

“Overall, I am happy about the direction that I took because it gave me what I needed to be in this position today,” Willis said. “When I look at my experience as a student parent, I always think about our student parents in college education, I always think about students who don’t have enough to make ends meet.”

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Willis received her master’s degree in history from Florida A&M and went on to earn a history doctorate from Florida State University before embarking on a career in academia. After teaching at colleges in Florida and Texas, Willis became provost at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York, before being named president of Everett Community College in Washington state in 2019. She moved to Howard Community College in 2022.


As the first Black president at Everett and Howard, Willis said she’s made it her goal to provide equitable access to anyone who walks through the schools’ doors.

“There’s a lot of pressure that comes along with that,” she said. “But when you remember who your ancestors are, you have no room to complain. I know where my people have come from, they were slaves, and I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

To Willis, equitable access means ensuring services to support students outside the classroom. In addition to the wellness center, HCC also runs the Fueling Dragons program, which distributes more than 2,300 pounds each month to students facing food insecurity, and recently launched a 24-hour mental health and counseling service through an outside vendor. Nearly 50% of HCC students need Pell Grants to attend college, according to Willis, further demonstrating the need for these types of initiatives.

“We want to educate the whole student,” Willis said. “If you’re hungry, if you don’t have a place to live, if you don’t have transportation, then you’re not going to be able to focus on your education.”

At the end of the day, community colleges have an obligation to serve everyone, Willis said.

“It’s a mission that honestly I never knew I’d be drawn to like this,” she said. “But it’s one that helps me fulfill my goals in life to ensure that no one experiences what I did when I was a student when they’re here at this institution.”