Born into a family with a four-generation legacy of teachers, Jill Stearns grew up with a distinct desire to do anything but teach. But when a last-minute unexpected vacancy left her local high school without a math teacher, Stearns was asked to fill the post—just for a year. Four years later, having expanded her classes to include science and special education, Stearns was hooked. She would spend the next two decades climbing the ladder in academia, culminating in her recent post as Cuesta College’s newest superintendent/president.
Stearns’ parents raised their two daughters in Avenal, California, where they each had long careers in education. Her father taught both kindergarten and 6th grade, also serving as librarian, vice-principal, and counselor for nearly 40 years. Her mother taught Home Ec before segueing into counseling at the high school level for the same four decades. As if that weren’t enough, they also ran two successful businesses: a retail gift shop called Pecks, and a Chevron gas station. Stearns would eventually manage both, showing an early aptitude for marketing, branding, development, and sales.
Dr. Stearns earned her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Cal Poly SLO, her Master’s in Instructional Technology from National University in La Jolla, and her Ph.D. in Education and Community College Leadership from Walden University in Maryland. After a decade running the family businesses, the invitation to teach came calling and Stearns began building her formidable educational resume. That resume includes a 12-year stint with West Hills Community College District, first as Educational Technology Specialist, then as District Director of Financial Aid. She would rise through the ranks to become Interim Associate Dean of Student Learning, and then Vice-President of Educational Services. In 2012, she earned the top job at Modesto Junior College where she served as president for six years before accepting her current position at Cuesta College in July of this year.
Along the way, Stearns would marry and raise two sons (now both grown) with her husband Keith. She would develop and implement leading-edge curricula in learning technology, distance learning, and professional training; build strong partnerships and alliances with business and community leaders alike; improve the accreditation process for community colleges in California, and strengthen the financial aid delivery system for all students. She would also serve on a variety of boards and service clubs, earning numerous honors, including the West Hills Community District Employee of the Year.
Among the most rewarding of her many achievements was the design and launch of a baccalaureate degree program in Stanislaus County, where only 16% of the adult population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. Not surprisingly, Stearns points to her family as the strongest influence in her life. “We lived in a small town that was home to both sets of my grandparents and one set of great-grandparents,” she explained. “I attended church with four generations of my family—each generation included teachers.”
Her first few months at the helm of Cuesta College have been, in her words, “A wonderful introduction to the college and its community partners.” These include the SLO County Office of Education, Cal Poly, Chambers of Commerce, the City of SLO, and numerous service clubs. “I am enjoying learning the history of the college and the role Cuesta has played in so many local lives,” she continued.
One such local life was showcased at the 20th anniversary of the North County Campus celebrated this year. Sandra Cade attended Cuesta in 1998, the year the North County Campus opened. A self-described lifelong learner, Sandra earned her AA degree, went on to Cal Poly for her Bachelor’s, and then obtained a Master’s. She’s now the proud owner of a spa management business and credits Cuesta with giving her the springboard to her success. Stearns said that Sandra typifies those who come to Cuesta with no original intent to graduate, but rather to explore an interest.
Now faced with a new funding formula for state community colleges, Stearns is seeking ways to increase enrollment through expanded dual enrollment courses wherein students can take classes for both high school and college credits, increased online course offerings, and innovative scheduling choices where students are no longer bound to start and end their classes once or twice a year. Rather they can begin courses of study every two weeks throughout the year, as it suits their working or family needs.
“Cuesta has a wonderful tradition of excellence,” Stearns declared. “The academic and career technical educational programs are outstanding, and students have access to amazing resources in support of success and completion.”
For example, the Math Lab is dedicated to providing study rooms and mathematic support that Stearns describes as transformational. Always busy, the center serves not just recently graduated high school students but a broad spectrum of re-careering adults. Support runs the gamut from basic arithmetic skills to third-term calculus problems.
And then there’s the wildly popular and impressively stocked Cougar Pantry. Stearns said that food insecurity is a surprisingly large and growing problem for many students, no matter what their age. The pantry, which is supported and run by the Associated Student Body, opened just this last May, and offers free food items for hungry students needing a boost to get through the day. Stearns has been married to husband Keith (who is the Executive Director of Information Technology at Cuesta) for 31 years. Their sons Cameron, 27, and Sam, 25, have not become teachers … yet. Cam is a software developer for Amazon, and Sam is a web application developer.
Stearns is immensely proud of the excellent reputation Cuesta has earned over its lifetime. Certainly, much has changed since the first students trudged through the mud between classes held in leaky Quonset huts and old army barracks in the fall of 1965. That year, the fledging school welcomed about 900 day students and about the same number of evening students. Today, on a campus that now includes a library, observatory, student center, art and music labs, art gallery, high tech learning center, children’s center, and performing arts center, the college serves nearly 7,000 students at the San Luis Obispo Campus alone. An additional 2,500 attend at the North County campus, and another thousand take classes at the South County instructional site in Arroyo Grande.
For a girl who once energetically rejected the notion of becoming a teacher, it’s happily ironic that Dr. Jill Stearns now leads one of the shining beacons of equal educational opportunity, unlimited career choices, and of course, great teaching. She welcomes us all to visit soon and explore all Cuesta College has to offer.