ASU PhD grad will use new skills as president of Pennsylvania community college
Felicia Ganther’s higher education career spans more than a quarter century and includes a PhD degree from Arizona State University. On July 1, that career took a major step forward as Ganther became a college president.
Ganther built strong local roots and gained many memorable experiences before taking over as head of Bucks County Community College, which enrolls 7,100 students at three campuses in and near Newtown, Pennsylvania, and online.
She moved to Arizona in 2012 to serve as associate vice chancellor for student affairs for one of the nation’s largest community college systems, Maricopa Community Colleges. In 2019, she earned a PhD in community development from the ASU School of Community Resources and Development (SCRD).
Ganther credits her time at ASU for helping deepen her abilities to create and intensify connections with other people, organizations and entities.
“SCRD gave me a whole new set of skills and tools to use as I build, grow and strengthen community ties," she said. "As with any discipline, SCRD gave me both theoretical frameworks and foundational principles that will help me navigate, facilitate and address complex yet rewarding experiences centered on community development, community organizing and collective impact."
School of Community Resources and Development Professor Richard Knopf, whom Ganther calls her “forever friend,” was her mentor and doctoral committee chair. Knopf said Ganther leaves an enduring legacy at Watts College.
“Felicia is the epitome of inspirational force with a rare mix of intellect and heart. At Watts, she built our capacities for servant leadership, in advocacy for the poor, in catalyzing lives of purpose, in being advocates for equity, in rigorous pursuit of excellence, in being questioners of conventional wisdom and in recognizing the need to become street savvy by bursting out of our academic bubbles,” Knopf said. “Those who were fortunate to work side-by-side in the name of justice couldn’t help but be transformed. She grew our hearts, she grew our wisdom and she enabled us to understand the power of community.”
Read on to learn more from Ganther about her life, career and ASU journey.
Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.
Answer: I have worked in higher education for over 25 years. I started out as a program coordinator for union activities while I was a graduate student. Over the years, my career has taken me to colleges and universities in Virginia, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona and now Pennsylvania. I have worked my way up through the student affairs profession as an administrator while also teaching communication and higher ed courses at the university and community college levels.
Q: What are some things you want to accomplish as the new president of Bucks County Community College?
A: Simply put, I want every student who comes to our college with a dream, a goal or a desire to be successful. I want them to realize that dream, reach that goal and to find a high level of success in whatever they choose to do. As president, my work and collaboration with the college faculty, staff and administrators, along with our community partners, will be centered on this one goal of helping our students realize their potential.
Q: Tell us about an achievement since graduating that you are proudest of and why.
A: Becoming the board chair of the State of Black Arizona (SBAZ). SBAZ is a policy and data repository that enables corporations, community groups and interested parties to identify and address issues that impact Black Arizonans. Assuming the role of board chair, I was able to utilize what I learned in SCRD to elevate the presence and the significance of SBAZ in partnership with our executive director — another mighty Sun Devil! As of 2020, SBAZ is the premier institution to work with in addressing issues impacting Black Arizonans as well as all communities of color in our state. Our reports are riveting, and our think tank sessions are the “who’s who” of thought leaders in our state.
Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to enter the field that you did?
A: My moment came when I couldn’t find a doctoral program that was going to stretch me beyond my comfort zone and give me new skills that would press me towards a new level of excellence. That moment arrived when I met Professor Rick Knopf and he arranged for me to speak with a wide range of graduates he had mentored through the SCRD program. It was in those conversations with postdocs who came from all backgrounds that I found my next journey with the PhD program in community development.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: Given my role at Maricopa Community Colleges and my serving on several boards in the community, I have had the opportunity to work with President (Michael) Crow and his leadership team. I was and am still enamored with President Crow and his visionary approach to next-level higher education. I wanted to not only be a partner with ASU in supporting student success, I also wanted to have that ASU experience as a student, too.
Q: Were there professors who taught you still-valued lessons while at ASU? Are you still in touch with them?
A: SCRD has the best faculty; I can truly say I learned something mind-blowing from each faculty member that I took a course with. I give honor to Provost Mark Searle and professors Megha Budruk, Dale Larsen, Gordon Shockley, Dallen Timothy, Lili Wang and Dave White for depositing in me the necessary seeds to enable my growth in the academy. Foremost, I give honor to Professor Rick Knopf, who guided me and gave me the latitude to think outside the box. Professor Knopf was my SCRD mentor, my committee chair and now my forever friend.
Q: If you had your doctoral program to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?
A: Well … I don’t think I would have done anything differently. Those things that looked like a big challenge were helpful in my evolution as a writer, a practitioner and a leader. It’s tough when you work as associate vice chancellor for the largest community college system in the U.S., have appointments to boards and committees in your community, have a family with a school-aged daughter AND are a full-time doctoral student. I adapted and overcame, handled my business and didn’t get much sleep! My over-achiever self would say though, if you are not solid in (statistics), please take some stats courses prior to enrolling in a PhD program. All but one of my courses I got an A+ or an A in. That one course was stats! It was a B+.
Q: If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?
A: I have a law degree in addition to my PhD. In law school I worked with the courts doing mediations for civil suits. I also was a teaching assistant for the director of the arbitration program. So, if I had a chance to clone myself, I would be an arbitrator/mediator. While the concepts are vested in the legal world, the way in which you as an arbitrator/mediator help two parties to come to some agreement is the same way you help community stakeholders find common ground on solving issues in their communities.
Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?
A: I am a musician and a swimmer. During my youth, I received an all-city John Philip Souza Award as a bass clarinetist. I also won third place in the McDonald’s State Swim Meet for girls’ freestyle. Oh, those youthful years!
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: Spending time with family and friends. I love to cook and have people over to converse and enjoy the company of old and new friends.
Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?
A: Never let fear paralyze you, because your gift will knock down any barrier and your passion for helping others will get you in places you never imagined.