From Classroom Teacher to College President
By Phyllis Jones, Speakin’ Out News, senior writer
A new chapter is being added to JF Drake State Community and Technical College’s history book. Dr. Patricia Sims is now the fourth president and the second female president of the 57 year old historically black college.
Dr. Sims is a lifetime educator. Her P-12 teaching career began at Stone Middle School, spent time at Davis Hills Middle School and ended as principal of Westlawn Middle School. When she transitioned over to the community college system, she began working at JF Drake State Community and Technical College. During a span of 12 years, Dr. Sims served in the following capacities: Director of Student Services, Dean of Students and Dean of Instructional and Student Services Division. After being employed by Athens State University for a few years, and three interim Drake State presidents later, Dr. Sims found her way back home. This time, she is working her in the position that she often dreamt of, PRESIDENT.
As a woman of faith, Dr. Sims believe that you cannot lead unless you are a good follower. On her journey, she witnessed those who were good followers and how they guided and empowered people. “Through my professional journey, I have learned the importance of loyalty and commitment. I value hard work and being a good team player.” Dr. Sims stated.
Growing up, Dr. Sims didn’t realize she was underprivileged. She expressed that she lived in a homogenous environment in Canton, Mississippi, raised in a cocoon of extended family that included aunts, uncles, cousins and community. The Lord is credited for planting people in her life who saw potential in her. One of those individuals was Mrs. Hearon, a high school counselor. Mrs. Hearon would give the high schooler college applications to complete at home. Dr. Sims always looked up to her aunts, who attended Tugaloo College and Jackson State University. So she knew she wanted to attend college and have a different life than her parents, mostly desiring to be able to “dress up” every day. Because of Mrs. Hearon’s encouragement, she received a scholarship to Livingston University (now University of West Alabama).
Going to college proved to have been one of the best decisions academically and socially for Dr. Sims, who majored in biology. Being on a Pell Grant and work study, a lot of time was spent in the biology department. Her advisor (Dr. Richard Holland), who eventually became the school’s president, and his wife (Becky) took a liking to her and “adopted” her, since they didn’t have children of their own. They guided Dr. Sims through her undergraduate studies and were responsible for her first formal dining experience. She would regularly accompany them out to dinner and on out of town trips.
After college graduation, Dr. Holland recommended a summer research project with the Department of Agriculture (Food Science) at Alabama A&M University. This is how Huntsville became home for Dr. Sims. She shared, “Being in education was the farthest thing from my mind, but I loved research and the lab. I had hopes of pursuing a career in research.” When it was time for the fall semester to begin, there was still no concrete employment plan in place. So Dr. Sims decided to attend graduate school and as she was seeking ways to support herself, she was presented with an opportunity setup and facilitate freshmen biology labs. And guess what? Dr. Sims realized that she enjoyed teaching and sharing her love of science with students. She earned her certification in secondary education with a focus in Microbiology and continued her studies earning a doctorate degree from Vanderbilt University.
Moving to Huntsville had more benefits than just academics. Huntsville, on the campus of Alabama A&M University, is where Dr. Sims met her husband (Themika) of 26 years. They are the proud parents of one daughter, Kirsten.
Dr. Sims was a classroom instructor for four years before becoming a principal. Now that she is a college president, her leadership style has remained the same. She believes in empowering people, both students and adults. “Look beyond the walls of what you see now,” Dr. Sims encourages. “You only have to complete your degree once.”
She believes in hard work and works hard along with her team. “Whatever Drake State becomes, we have to do it as a team,” Dr. Sims shared. Regarding changes at the college are concerned, she needs time to assess where they are. “Even though everyone is on the bus, I want to be certain that everyone is in the right seat for where we see the bus going. Some changes will be made, but I will make sure those changes will work for everyone.”
Community engagement was instilled in Dr. Sims from a young age. Her family always had a sense of giving back. Led by her mother (Dorothy Gordon), she and her siblings often helped the elderly in their rural Canton community. Today, Dr. Sims and her family are active members of Union Chapel MB Church. She is a member of the Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, where she serves as the Founders Day Celebration Chairman. Realizing that food and security is a big deal for seniors, her sorority raised $10,500.00 for Meals on Wheels. Other community service involvement include Women Economic Development Foundation, which provides help for young women to finish their first college degree and serving as a member of the Advisory Council for Burritt on the Mountain. Dr. Sims is also a governor appointed Board Member for Forever Wild. This organization secure land across the state for parks and outdoor recreation. She was recently elected to serve as member of the board of trustees for Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the regional accrediting agency for the over 800 colleges and universities in the southern region.
So with a schedule as busy as Dr. Sims’, she makes a point to relax ever so often. Reading is one of her favorite pastimes. She said it relaxes her. Sometimes she reads four books at a time. An audio book can be found in car so she can be read to while she drives. A hardback book is also kept in her car, in case she goes someplace and has a wait time. And of course, there is a book in her office so she can read during lunchtime, and she has a very active Audible account. Next to reading, enjoying time with her girlfriends, watching the Hallmark Channel and some occasional exercise are part of her relaxation lineup.
Dr. Sims acknowledges that she is blessed to be to have been entrusted with Drake State by the state and the citizens of greater Huntsville. The two year institution is being rebuilt from the inside. New ways to advance the institution and increase its capacity are being explored, strengthening the connections to area businesses industries is a priority. Time will also be invested in identifying programs that are strong and expanding them, as well as a more focused emphasis on advanced manufacturing.
Becoming the school’s president is Dr. Sims’ dream that has come true and she plans to do any and everything possible to help move the school to greater heights. Her 30-60 day plan is to develop listening sessions and focus groups. She is aware that people closest to the students know how to best meet their needs. “We would like to provide support services so they can reach their goals and improve their quality of life.” She is also spending time connecting with leaders throughout the community. “Drake State has a rich history of contributing to the growth and development in Huntsville/Madison County and we look forward to becoming an even stronger community partner. Our future is bright.”