Dr. Lisa Rhine’s Personal Experience Gives Her the Passion to Guide Yavapai College to its Full Potential

By Hilary Dartt

Lisa Rhine has a unique, deeply personal perspective on the importance and influence of education—for individual students and for the community as a whole.

Brooklyn-born and Ohio-raised, Lisa sought the position at Yavapai College because she believed the organization “has got it going on,” in terms of the breadth of academic programming available, including some programs that are unique to just a handful of community colleges (career and technical education, gunsmithing, culinary arts, and viticulture and enology, just to name a few).

Also, she sees tremendous potential for the school to serve people who are under-educated and under-employed … and therefore, to perform as a catalyst to improve the community.

“That’s where my passion lies,” she said. “It’s my whole experience.”

Lisa is a first-generation college graduate; her father had an eighth-grade education when he joined the Navy, and he worked several jobs throughout her childhood to put food on the table for Lisa and her brothers and sisters.

“It was a chaotic home environment,” Lisa said. “I found the school to be a kind of haven. I liked being there. I felt safe there. I excelled academically and athletically. I got involved in everything because I wanted to spend more time there.”

Somehow, even from an early age, she said, she knew she needed to pursue an education in order to break the cycle.

“I knew I didn’t want to live like this. There was no question in my mind … I knew at a young age that I was going to go to college.”

She got a full-tuition field hockey scholarship, which was wonderful, but also meant she had to pay for room and board. At eighteen, she went off to college. Most days, she got up at three a.m. to take the bus across town, to the McDonald’s where she worked until nine a.m. or so. She’d ride the bus back to school, go to class, and then go to field hockey practice.

“It was extremely challenging,” she said. “But I stayed the course because I knew I needed to do that to get through this.”

She worked full-time as she earned her masters (in special education) and PhD (in educational administration).

“I always believed more education meant better opportunities to break that cycle,” she said.

Lisa’s bachelor’s degree was in rehabilitation counseling, and she worked at a prison, in a psychiatric hospital and a community mental health center.

“I don’t think I understood it at the time,” she said, “but when I look back I realized I was looking to elevate those marginalized, disenfranchised groups.”

Thinking she wanted to be a school psychologist, Lisa earned her masters degree in special education. Meanwhile, she took a job as a Learning Disability Specialist at a community college in Dayton, Ohio.

The year was 1989, at the very infancy of dedicated special education offices in colleges.

“There was a flood of students coming in,” she said, “and they put me in the counseling/advising office. I loved it. I remember going home and saying to my parents and my siblings, ‘I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to do this work.’ I was talking with students and connecting them with services.”

Shortly thereafter, Lisa got an offer for a full-time position at the college and she’s been in higher education ever since, at a variety of schools: Sinclair Community College, the University of Dayton, Wittenberg University (all in Ohio), Northern Kentucky University, and Tidewater Community College in Virginia.

Her various positions afforded her the opportunity to experience the breadth of how community colleges operate, and her interest in running one began to develop.

As the president of a community college, she said, a person has “the ability to influence the way faculty and staff and students experience the learning environment, and [is] able to lead that and move the institution in a direction that allows our students to be the most successful.”

She attended her first community college president institute and decided she wasn’t quite ready.

A few years later, she joined The Aspen Institute’s inaugural class of Aspen Presidential Fellows. According to its website (aspeninstitute.org), the institute is “a nonpartisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas.” Although it brings together thought leaders in a variety of fields, in its Presidential Fellowship for Community College Excellence, it “aims to develop a cadre of exceptional leaders who can transform community colleges to achieve higher levels of student success while maintaining broad access.”

Its year-long applied leadership executive program, delivered in collaboration with the Stanford Educational Leadership Initiative, focuses on leading for impact, leading transformational change, and partnering for collective activism.

Lisa explained that the Aspen Institute “focuses on ways [community college] presidents can transform institutions to improve not only the success of those individual students but the success of our communities. They look at, ‘How do we partner and connect with the workforce, development, and industry?’”

She walked away from the Aspen Institute experience with a whole host of new knowledge and a group of 39 close friends who are now community college presidents across the nation.

“That’s a tremendous asset for me, particularly as a first-time president,” Lisa said.

She’s also enjoyed working alongside the other community college presidents and chancellors in Arizona, through the Arizona Community College Coordinating Council.

Now, it’s her greatest hope that she’ll be able to lead Yavapai College on a path to reaching its fullest potential as a catalyst for positive change in the community she’s already come to love.

“I’m not quite sure I knew [it],” she said, “but I knew education was the key. I knew it was the thing that could break that cycle. I hope our students can leverage education the same way I did to improve their lives. That’s my goal, is to get as many students as possible to see how education can transform their lives and break those cycles.”

She knows firsthand that it can.

“That’s why this is important to me. I see myself in our students and I hope they see themselves in me. I don’t have to look far to remind myself this is why we do what we do.”

Lisa has been married to her husband, Jim, a high school math teacher, since October 1996. They have two sons, who are 20 and 21.