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Community College of Baltimore County President Sandra Kurtinitis joined Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. for a Women’s History Month discussion.

ESSEX — Sandra Kurtinitis interviewed for her first job in higher education back in 1967, and it didn’t exactly go as expected — she had arranged a 9 a.m. meeting with a dean at Prince George’s Community College, and he was a no-show. When she asked his secretary for help, they phoned him up — and woke him up.

“He was so embarrassed that he said, ‘If you want this job, you can have it,’” she recalled. “I said yes, and didn’t give him a minute to change his mind.”

That happy accident launched a 54-year career as a community college professional, she told County Executive John Olszewski, Jr. during a virtual discussion on Tuesday as part of a Women’s History Month series, including 16 years and counting as the president of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC).

Kurtinitis is a coal miner’s daughter from small town Pennsylvania, one of four girls growing up under a man she fondly described as a very patriarchal Italian. Her parents had a vision that she and her sisters would become teachers — it was seen as a secure career path for women, something they could always fall back on.

Attending Misericordia University to study renaissance literature, Kurtinitis met Sister Denise, ‘a little tiny nun’ who ‘had a brilliant mind’ and was chair of the English Department. She and her fellow students were acolytes, she said, inspired by the model Sister Denise set forth.

“From the moment that I met this woman, I was in awe,” she said. “This strong and powerful professor — as tiny as she was — just inspired each one of us with a love of literature, a love of intellect, a love of all things human.”

If Sister Denise put her on the path to becoming a teacher, and a sleepy dean at Prince George’s Community College cracked open the door, it was Kurtinitis herself who took the opportunities head-on and rose from the classroom to a series of leadership roles.

She first became president of Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts in 1995, at a time when female college presidents were few and far between, something which she noted still holds true today.

Kurtinitis joined CCBC as the chancellor at a crucial moment in 2005. The college had just merged together three independent schools in Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville to create a unified system, but she described the leadership as ‘heavy’ and lobbied the board of trustees to slim down, with Kurtinitis at the top and just a handful of vice presidents.

It was this lighter touch, she said, that allowed them to pursue a leadership style that was more in touch with the folks they were attempting to lead — namely, CCBC staff and students.

“If you’re a leader, you better be right in the midst of the people that you are attempting to lead, because on any given day, you might have to follow them,” she said. “When you draw those circles that pull people in, you empower them.”

Her longevity at CCBC plays a part in the culture of cultivating leadership, she said, as well as their commitment to keeping students first, which she hopes gives them a personal and intimate touch despite having almost 4,000 full- and part-time employees.

Nothing, she added, has challenged their leadership more than guiding CCBC through the pandemic, and yet she looks back on the last year with pride.

“We made a big bold decision to have our college open to students who needed us,” she said, noting that about 20 percent of students returned for some in-person services. “There really isn’t any other two- or four-year institution in this state that accomplished what we did.”

Meeting the needs of students is central to the school’s mission, she said, and last fall those needs included access to technology, internet and appropriate learning environments. Kurtinitis is satisfied knowing that 3,500 out of the school’s 18,000 students who might have struggled with virtual learning were able to lean on the school for support during the pandemic — and those students, she added, include many single mothers working to support their families.

When she looks back on her early years in the profession, Kurtinitis realizes that she and her colleagues were pioneers — despite the bell bottoms and granny glasses. As much as CCBC may feel like a deeply-entrenched institution in Baltimore County, there was a time not so long ago when community colleges were a novel idea.

Considering her legacy, Kurtinitis hopes to be remembered for bringing the school into the modern era. She points to her work establishing the President’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council, which she hopes will lead to institutional changes that will make CCBC more accessible to more students from different walks of life.

“We’re going to make some big differences for students who have often been governed by processes and policies that came out of the 20th century,” Kurtinitis said. “My hope is that before I leave here, we truly will be a 21st century college for 21st century students.”

But threads of history bind the present to the past, and Kurtinitis identified one such thread, a message she had on a poster in her office way back in the 1970s that still holds up today — well-behaved women do not make history.

“For me, it was sort of a declaration of independence,” she recalled — not an endorsement of bra-burning, but a commitment to setting an example of a powerful working woman. “We have steel in our backbones, just like our male colleagues.”

She ended with a simple message for young women tuned in: “Go get ‘em, girl.”

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