Michelle Grimes-Hillman became Orange Coast College’s vice president of instruction in early January. She replaced Pamela Walker, who became the interim vice president of instruction when Kevin Ballinger retired in June of last year.
The vice president of instruction is responsible for the administrative oversight of all instructional programs at OCC. Grimes-Hillman and a team of deans work closely with OCC faculty, who have the responsibility of designing the programs and writing curriculum.
“Everything has to be looked at through a student lens,” Grimes-Hillman said. “How are we serving students? And how do we best leverage our resources to support students in their educational endeavors? It sounds like a really big job and it is, but I'm really blessed to have such a good team.”
Grimes-Hillman has spent her life on and around Southern California community college campuses. She grew up in Walnut, California, across the street from the local community college, Mount San Antonio College.
“I literally grew up on a California community college campus,” Grimes-Hillman said.
At 17, right after graduating high school, she attended the college she had grown up next to, Mt. SAC. She went on to transfer to Cal State Fullerton where she received both a bachelor's degree in General Psychology and a master’s degree in Experimental Psychology.
After graduating, Grimes-Hillman worked as a market researcher for a few years before returning to community college, but this time to teach.
“I just didn't find it emotionally satisfying,” Grimes-Hillman said of her time in market research. “So I started teaching part time, and just fell in love with it. Working with students is the best feeling in the world, watching students grow and achieve. I have students who are all over the place and I stay in touch with them. Some of them and I'm sure all of them have gone on to do great things.”
After teaching for four years at a few different community colleges, she returned to Mt. SAC as a tenure-track faculty member, where she stayed for about 15 years. While teaching, she also held leadership positions, including was a senate president, curriculum chair, and representative for the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges.
Grimes-Hillman was then recruited by Long Beach City College to become the dean of Academic Affairs, where she served for five years. In January 2021, Grimes-Hillman left LBCC to start her new job at OCC.
Starting a new job mid-pandemic comes with challenges.
“Getting to know a group of people and how the college operates, the culture of the college, has been more challenging,” Grimes-Hillman said. “Those hallway chats are now replaced by Zoom sessions. And Zoom can be fatiguing. I think it's taken its toll on everybody.”
As challenging as the pandemic has been, Grimes-Hillman believes there are lessons to be learned.
“I think we're going to learn a whole bunch of new things from having to do things differently because of a pandemic,” she said. “We get to learn from those experiences and make our campus community more efficient and more open. We don't have to necessarily do things the way we used to do them. We have a whole set of new tools we've learned.”
A closed campus and distance learning have changed the college dynamic, but Grimes-Hillman is not new to online learning.
“I actually was one of the early pioneers in online teaching,” she said. “I started teaching in the late 90s, way before there was a canvas. I taught problem solving online and really loved the experience.”
In her new position, Grimes-Hillman’s number one priority is reopening campus in a safe way that will keep faculty and students protected.
“Leaving the college to go remote was really hard on everybody,” she said. “It's been a hard year. And I think coming back may present its own unique challenges.”
Grimes-Hillman has also prioritized OCC’s ongoing equity initiatives. She wants to ensure that all students have the resources and opportunities they need and that the campus community is welcoming to everyone.
“We just have to make sure that our students and potential students know they are college material,” Grimes-Hillman said. “There are people that grow up in ways where they don't see themselves as college going. To me it's really important to reach out to those potential students and make sure that they know that we're here for them and we welcome them.”