Leader retires, district trembles
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Her devotion to student success has inspired communities of educators to continue to empower students on their educational path locally, statewide and nationally.
But after serving the Contra Costa Community College District for 26 years, since 1990, Chancellor Helen Benjamin is retiring and leaving the district and its three colleges — Contra Costa in San Pablo, Diablo Valley in Pleasant Hill and Los Medanos in Pittsburg.
She has been a mentor to many and unofficially to hundreds, both throughout the district and nationwide, Senior Dean of Instruction Donna Floyd said.
Dr. Benjamin took the top position in the district in Martinez in 2005, after serving as president of CCC from 1999 through 2005.
She had an impact when she was LMC’s dean of language arts and humanistic studies and related occupations from 1990 through 1992, providing educational and managerial leadership. Benjamin also served as interim president of LMC from 1995 through 1996.
CCC President Mojdeh Mehdizadeh said people who meet Benjamin want to get to know her better.
“I think that is an incredible quality in a person in general, but especially in a leader. They have faith in her ability to do what she does and also recognize that she cares about the cause — what is best for our students and genuinely recognizes the importance of education — given her own story.”
Benjamin came from a working-class family where her parents taught her that education is the most valuable thing, Mehdizadeh said.
Although growing up in two different worlds, Mehdizadeh said her parents had the same notion and experience as Benjamin’s parents did when it came to their children’s education. They ensured the children knew the importance of a good education.
Benjamin said she lived in a segregated community growing up in Texas. She attended Peabody High School, which was the only black high school in her city, and graduated in 1968.
She said they cared about student success and the educational environment was strict to ensure that students followed the rules.
Mehdizadeh said Benjamin is a kind woman, but when she needs to be tough, she can be tough.
“She is no joke when she is tough. You know it’s coming from a good place, but you recognize when she speaks in a more stern fashion, you better jump,” she said.
Benjamin’s educational path comes with many accomplishments. She graduated magna cum laude from Bishop College, a Texas historically black college, in 1983.
Before Benjamin decided she wanted to pursue education, she wanted to be a nurse.
At the age of 16 she was able to work in a hospital through a job given to her by the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a federal government program that aimed to help 16- to 21-year-olds continue their education and increase their employability.
“I knew from then on, death was not an occupation I could have as an adult,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin graduated from Bishop College and received her bachelor of science in English and Spanish in 1971. “I was in an environment in which I was fairly successful and these people mentored me,” she said.
Benjamin’s devotion to seeing students succeed carries through in her every interaction.
Mehdizadeh said, “It’s obviously based in her background and her experience. But at the same time she finds a way to make it relevant to the person that she is communicating with.”
A lot of the time she uses perspectives from what she has learned and acts based on what she believes is best for students.
Mehdizadeh said, for Benjamin, it is about the students and what can be done to make the situation right for them.
“Oh, my god, that is what it’s about — the students,” Mehdizadeh said.
Benjamin’s ability to look for commonalities with individuals and groups make her a “special person,” Mehdizadeh said.
“It didn’t matter how busy she was, she is running three huge institutions of higher learning, but every single person is important to her.”
District Communications and Relations Director Tim Leong said when he joined the district in 2008, he noticed Benjamin’s hard work and dedication right away.
“I learned within a few months that not only did I meet my match, but I was no match for her.”
Leong said Benjamin knows she doesn’t have all of the answers but surrounds herself with other smart people and gathers perspectives from them.
“She has the great ability to be able to decipher all of that and come up with the course of action to be taken,” Leong said.
He said someone who hasn’t worked with her would not understand, but those at CCC and at the district know what it is like to work with her.
Mehdizadeh said Benjamin cares about the people who surround her and ensures that they understand the work they are doing.
“One thing I admire about her is that she doesn’t pretend to understand something,” she said. “She is going to keep asking you the question in a different way until she has a deep understanding of it, because she is actually trying to help you better articulate your stance on something.”
Leong said throughout his years working at the district he has seen Benjamin’s leadership skills strengthen. He said Benjamin helped strengthen his writing and in the beginning he felt embarrassed because he thought he knew what he was doing.
“I soon realized I was woefully inadequate compared to her standards, and I think that through the years I feel that we’ve been much more on the same page and I feel like my writing had gotten stronger because of it,” Leong said.
Leong said, “Benjamin has such tremendous capacity to work and juggle the myriad of issues that a chancellor has to grapple on a day-to-day basis.”
Leong said there are a number of things that come with being chancellor and being the person to make the final decisions.
District Trustee John Marquez said Benjamin worked hard to earn her title, which is why he calls her ‘Dr. Benjamin’ instead of her first name.
“She is the top leader in the district. She earned it and deserves that respect. She works for us on the board,” he said.
Marquez has known Benjamin since she was the CCC president in 1999 and then got closer to her when he was elected as a district trustee in 2010.
He said he realized she was someone who was dedicated to the district and he supported her work.
Former CCC president McKinley Williams said Benjamin has been a great leader and her commitment to students is well-known to anyone who worked with her.
Marquez said he is sad to see her leave after working with her for so many years.
Benjamin said a piece of advice she’d like to share with students comes in a form of a poem by Langston Hughes called Dreams: “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams for when dreams go life is a barren field frozen with snow.”
She said, “I just think you need to have a dream and pursue it, but there will be obstacles and you’ll sometimes want to give up.”
Benjamin said it is easy to give up on dreams but it is also depressing, so students should continue to pursue dreams and not give up.
Williams said, “I think the college will forever be in debt to her. The district is going to miss her,” he said.
After Dec. 31, Benjamin said she plans to travel and spend time with her family.
“Good luck Dr. Benjamin and keep it rolling,” Marquez said.