Dr. Michelle Johnston

Doubling Down on Student Success

December 2020 IssuePY MichelleJohnston1220
By Cynthia Robinson 
Photography by Nancy J Reynolds and JR Dickerson

Dr. Michelle Johnston, President of College of Coastal Georgia (CCGA), says the number one way the school is making this issue’s theme of #BeTheDifference a reality can be summed up simply—by preparing its graduates.

“We are preparing incredible graduates to go out into the world,” said Dr. Johnston, who was selected to lead CCGA in 2018 as the institution’s sixth president.” We have students that not only come from the local area, but also from 35 states and 20 countries, and they are graduating and making their mark on the world. They are the reason we are making a difference in our community and beyond. Our most recent data shows that 77 percent of our graduates choose to stay and work in this area of the state,” she said, adding that many of the graduates who have stayed in the Golden Isles come from over 100 other Georgia counties. “Instead of experiencing a brain drain, like other areas have experienced, our school has become a brain magnet.”

The college has experienced tremendous growth since 2011 when it transitioned from a community college to a four-year institution. In addition to adding four-year degree programs, the college expanded its campus and underwent major renovations, including building and opening the school’s first residence hall, Lakeside Village, the same year. This, along with the addition of Mariner Village residence hall in 2016, marked their transformation from commuter college to the full college experience.

“Our students love our residence halls, and I see us adding more of them in the future, as well as more renovations. We are really proud of our facilities. We also look at the market trends and are adding new degrees as they make sense,” she said. The College now offers a bachelor of science degree in environmental studies, a bachelor degree program in data science and Georgia’s first bachelor degree program in hospitality and tourism management.

Dr. Johnston mentioned expanding education and career opportunities for women over the last several years. “What we are seeing nationwide, is a larger number of women completing their degrees in a variety of fields. The top majors for female students are business, biology and health sciences and psychology,” she said. “One out of five college graduates in the country get a business degree, and half of them are women. Career options are wide open. Doors are being opened in every field you can think of, whether it’s teaching, lab science work, or leading a company, and we are offering programs here that will enable our females students to pursue the careers they choose.”

“The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed our progress down,” Dr. Johnston said. “Spring 2020 was a different kind of semester, no doubt,” she said. Like other colleges across the country, they shifted gears and went to all online learning for the spring and summer semesters before returning to some in person classes for the fall semester.

“We have been incredibly fortunate we haven’t had the outbreaks other colleges have seen.  A lot of the credit goes to our team. Our faculty and staff have taken this extremely seriously, not only to keep students and employees safe, but also to continue the high quality, high touch education we offer,” Dr. Johnston said. “The communication piece is so important, including our website where we provide the latest information, and all of us staying on top of it and keeping students and employees informed.”
In regards to the fall 2020 semester, Dr. Johnston explained, “We looked at every single class and made decisions for each class as to what works for each one. We have a mix of classes now. Some courses are 100 percent face-to-face, while some are a hybrid of virtual and in person learning and some are entirely virtual.

She anticipates the upcoming spring 2021 semester to look a lot like the fall semester. “We’ve had to pivot and modify some events. A lot of things have been moved outside when possible. We are also fortunate to have a large, beautiful campus, so I think we will be having even more outside events in the spring.”

“Not only has the pandemic taken a toll on physical health, it’s also taken a toll on mental health,” Dr. Johnston said. This is an issue CCGA is addressing. “We have a motto: Every student, Every time. We make sure students are not falling through the cracks, or falling off the radar not only in relation to their studies, but also to their well-being. We have mental health counseling, including tele-counseling visits and are having events whether virtual, or face-to-face, where students can come together in small groups to talk about any issues they are having. We are doubling down on our commitment to student success. Being a small college enables us to be laser-focused on meeting what our students need to be successful.”

While Dr. Johnston said she sees CCGA “continuing to be one of the best colleges as far as affordability and quality,” she downplays her role in making that continued success happen. “My role is bringing incredible people to the table. Not any one person makes the difference. It is all about working as a collective. One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ That is so true, and I try to live my life by those words.”

Up Close:
Education: Bachelor’s degree in piano performance from the University of Alabama; master’s degree in piano performance from Louisiana State University, a Ph.D. in educational leadership from Mississippi State University, and a Post Doctorate in marketing and management from the University of Florida.

Two daughters, Rae, a student at the University of Alabama, and Abi, a student at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. “They are incredible young ladies and love to visit me here.” She is also engaged to Gene Pierce.

From concert halls, to classrooms, to academic leadership:
“I love playing classical piano and performing, (Chopin is her favorite) but I always wanted to be a teacher. I started out in higher education, and over time I found a real passion for leadership.” Her career has included stints at the University of Montevallo (Alabama), the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Mississippi State University and Wood College (Mississippi).

Like Home: Dr. Johnston previously was the president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College in Ohio. “I grew up in Starkville, Miss. Going to Ohio was a great experience, but coming here was like coming home, especially in winter; I don’t’ miss winters in Ohio!”

The Bees have it:
During the pandemic, Gene and Dr. Johnston took up beekeeping. “We started in March with two hives and have already harvested honey. I have thousands and thousands of pet bees,” she said laughing, adding she also has a “traditional” pet, a Persian cat named Maggie. They love gardening and have a plot at St. Simons Island Community Garden. “We also get out on the water to fish, and like biking and running.”

Community Involvement:
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast Georgia; Coastal Georgia Historical Society and The Camden Partnership.

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