Jill Stearns is the president of Cuesta College.
Stearns was raised in Avenal, Calif., and is working to help students in San Luis Obispo County. Her intent is to better Cuesta College students’ lives and education.
Stearns’ parents combined had 81 years experience working in the K-12 system. That didn’t necessarily mean Stearns wanted to be a teacher.
“I am never going to be a teacher,” Stearns recalled saying to her parents.
As an electrical engineering major at Cal Poly, Stearns came to love the area. She met and married her husband in college, both having dreams of returning to San Luis Obispo someday after they graduated.
After working in her family’s business doing event planning and floral design out of college, Stearns was offered a job as a high school math teacher for one year. The minute she stepped in the classroom, her perspective on teaching shifted.
“Okay, this is where I belong,” Stearns said.
The teaching job led to training faculty, building online curriculum and teaching online courses at West Hills College. This was her introduction to community college, and it was a good first impression.
“I fell in love with the mission,” Stearns said. “I love the idea that anyone who wanted to come, could.”
Stearns has been in a president position for eight years at multiple colleges.
Despite never being a community college student, Stearns is a huge advocate. When asked what part of Cuesta College she was most proud of, the Cuesta Promise was her number one answer.
“Our promise is for everyone (in San Luis Obispo County),” Stearns said. “It’s even available to people who get a GED or an adult ED diploma.”
Stearns said that it’s truly the community of San Luis Obispo County that makes the Cuesta Promise possible, emphasizing the “community” in college. When told that the Cuesta Promise is one of the local students’ favorite things, she responded that it’s probably the parents’ favorite thing too.
One of Stearns’ goals for Cuesta College is focused around Guided Pathways, a system of degree planning that provides a path for students to plan out what they need to take for their major while being able to be flexible with credits if they wish to switch majors. She wants to utilize the system in the students’ favor in order to make scheduling classes much easier.
When asked what motivates her to come to work everyday, Stearns responded that it’s the students. She highlighted that the chance to make one’s life different than what they grew up in is an opportunity community college brings to generations of students.
Something Stearns wants to promote about Cuesta College is the empathetic yet challenging learning experience the school provides.
“I wish more people knew about the high quality education that’s really wrapped in care,” Stearns said.
According to Stearns, the stigma around community college can lead students to believe that the courses are not as rigorous as they actually are. She thinks Cuesta College defies the stigma and prepares its students for their next educational experience.
Stearns wants the student body to view her as someone who’s in their corner. When first hearing new ideas, requesting funding, or making new decisions, her immediate thought is the impact on students.
Cuesta College is more than just a community college to Jill Stearns. She described the impact the school can have on a student’s life being as diverse as the students themselves.
“Every student has a story,” Stearns said. “And the way Cuesta fits into the story is different for every student.”
The biggest impact Stearns hopes Cuesta College will have is that the institution will be available for students during their entire experience. Some students start at College for Kids. Some then utilize the dual enrollment courses in high school or the Cuesta Promise. And later in life, if someone wants a change, they can learn new skills or take classes.
Stearns thinks about students over their lifetime, and not just when they’re first out of high school looking to get an associate degree or transfer to a four-year program. She had a message for students who might not have been in the higher education system for a while.
“You can always come back to Cuesta,” Stearns said.