Claudia E. Chiesi says she has been on or near a stage most of her life.
In earlier years that meant dancing ballet and performing in plays and musicals. Today her role is as head of Harford County's only accredited institution of higher learning, Harford Community College.
And the spotlight is on her as she steers the school through a time of declining enrollment and tight budgets, and into a changing world of community college education.
She took office in May as the permanent replacement for Richard J. Pappas, who left the top post at Harford in August 1994 to become president of Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich.
Dr. Chiesi was one of four finalists chosen from about 90 applicants interviewed by Harford Community College's board of trustees. Her appointment was announced in February.
Dr. Chiesi, 45, has worked in community colleges since 1976, most recently as vice president of academic affairs and student services at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, a position she held since 1990.
Though she was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., she is no stranger to Maryland, having begun her teaching and administrative career at Catonsville Community College in 1976.
During her 12 years at Catonsville, she divided her life between work and plays.
She taught classes and oversaw the college's developmental education program, a remedial program, by day and performed in college and community theater by night. "I have to say that for five years, I had all of the leading roles at Catonsville," she said. "For me as an actress, it was wonderful."
She has not ruled out a comeback, but for now, her duties at Harford Community College take up much of her time.
Sitting in her office on the second floor of Hays-Heighe House on the college's Churchville campus recently, Dr. Chiesi outlined some of the challenges the school faces, particularly financial, and her role as leader.
The $7.3 million the college received from the county this year was a slight increase from last year's contribution but still was about $1.5 million less than the college requested from the county. The college has a total budget of about $18.4 million.
Enrollment was down about 10 percent this spring compared with last spring, and the number of students is still down, by 6 percent this semester compared with last fall, according to financial reports presented to trustees.
About 5,000 students take credit classes each year, and 16,000 or so more participate in noncredit courses ranging from computer training to cooking. Founded in 1957, the college awards the associate degree in 42 majors.
Dr. Chiesi's role will be to help college faculty and staff "adjust to a new fiscal reality," she said. "We are really looking at a coming to grips, a real struggle. Some of these people haven't had raises for a very long time, and it doesn't look good for the future."
She isn't prepared yet to talk about specifics but said some "good and popular" programs offered could face replacement by more needed programs.
"The days are interesting, because in the course of a day you could be dealing with a student issue, a foundation matter, something in the community, a flat tire," she said.
On this fall afternoon, though, she was settled comfortably into an armchair in the wood-paneled room that spans the width of the nearly 200-year-old building that serves as administration headquarters for the college. "It goes from the mundane to the superb. It's always interesting."
Dr. Chiesi seems to have cultivated variety throughout her life.
She studied ballet for 18 years until she was 21 but decided against pursuing a dance career because she would have had to drop out of school as a teen-ager.
"I loved going to school," she said. "As much as I loved to dance, I just couldn't give it up."
So she entered St. Bonaventure University in New York, intending to become a physician. But her career plans changed again when a dean at the university refused to write recommendations to medical schools for her and the handful of other female students who were the first at the school.
"If that person didn't write for you, you didn't go anywhere, and he decided that the women were not going to go to medical school," she said, "because, and these are his exact words, 'We would get an M-R-S before our name before we would get an M-D after it.' "
She now has a "Ph.D." and "M.A." after her name, signifying her doctorate in social, philosophical and historical foundations and
her master's degree in humanities, literature and theater, both from the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Rejection as motivation
And though that initial rejection still stings, she said, it now drives her to push for equality.
"I don't know that I ever really got over that," she said. "My motivation for helping women students in particular is to keep all the doors open."
It was one of several rejections that have shaped who she is today, she said. The others include being laid off twice from jobs as a social worker in her 20s, and having to depend on unemployment.
"So it was after that second layoff that I did for myself what I spent today, the last 19 years, telling everybody I could talk to -- that you have to put yourself in a predicament where you are not unemployable, where you are not at the whim of the bureaucracy."