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Mar 27

Remembering Grace Mitchell

Grace Mitchell prepares to lead the faculty and graduates of Cuesta College into the gym for commencement ceremonies Friday night. ©Tribune photo by David Middlecamp

Grace Mitchell was so popular she was named 1995 Citizen of the Year in San Luis Obispo even though she lived in Morro Bay. Her work in the community in addition to being president of Cuesta College led to more nominations than anyone in the previous 24-year history of the program. She was Cuesta College’s third president from 1989 to 1999. Mitchell died March 19, age 78.
Services will be held April 14 (her birthday), at 1 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church on Marsh Street in San Luis Obispo.

From the Tribune, May 22, 1999

Grace Mitchell: Last Graduation for Cuesta President
Commencement one for the ages
Leader sees last of her graduates get diplomas

By Matt Lazier
The Tribune
We’re marching out together, these students and I,” said Dr. Grace Mitchell on the eve of her final graduation ceremony at Cuesta College.
A bittersweet tone hung in the air as Cuesta’s president added, “It is really special, but also a little sad. I will miss the students, and the people I work with. But I am ready for retirement and excited about new adventures.”
Mitchell has held the reins of Cuesta for the past decade, guiding student opportunities as the college has grown in numbers and facilities.
Now, if she had to sum up her career, “I guess my two bywords have been access and success,” Mitchell said, counting down the days to her retirement June 30.
“The point is to broaden your offerings and support services, in addition to building more classrooms to house students,” Mitchell said. “Then, once the students are here, you have to focus on helping them get through, to find their goals and then reach them. It is really very satisfying, and it’s the reason I pursued this career.”
Mitchell, 65, has worked for 35 years in the California Community College system, culminating with her decade-long tenure at Cuesta. She took that post in 1989, after a stint as vice chancellor of student affairs and community services at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, and a handful of other administrative positions and teaching posts.
Mitchell took the reins of Cuesta College from Frank Martinez, becoming only the third president in the history of the then-25-year-old school, and the first woman to hold the job. She said she was attracted to the school both for its reputation in the state system and also its physical location.
“I had told people if I were to apply for a presidency, Cuesta would be on my short list,” Mitchell said. “It’s not too big, but not too small. It is in a single-college district, which I feel is more functional, and the location is wonderful. I was fortunate enough to be at the right point in my career when the job opened.”
Since Mitchell assumed the captain’s chair in March 1989, Cuesta College has seen its student population increase by about 23 percent (from a low of 7,435 in 1993 to 9,156 in 1999), its staffing increase from 260 to 400 and its annual budget jump from $20 million to about $35 million.
Mitchell said she has overseen several projects on the way to her goal of making the school more accessible to residents of all ages and educational backgrounds in the area.
“I am leaving behind a number of programs and steps we have taken in the last 10 years that will serve students for many more years,” Mitchell said. “Things like the North County Campus, the Bridge program for at-risk high school students and our college reentry program all provide access. Those are the things I am most proud of from my time here.”
But Mitchell said her role since 1989 has been one not only of educator, but also student as every day on the job has presented her with challenges.
“In a job like this, you learn about everything from the roofs to the sidewalks — things I never thought I would have to know about,” she said. “I have also learned that I am more a results person than a process person. I am so concerned with getting results that I get impatient with the process.”
Mitchell said this outlook was helpful in many of her achievements since 1989, chief among them her decision to pursue the North County Campus plans with community donations and volunteer efforts during a time of scarce state funding for community colleges.
“Many people were wondering why we were planning this and going ahead without the money,” Mitchell said. “But I once had a boss who said work with the green lights and don’t worry about the red ones. You have to take risks if you have things you want to get done and people who are willing to do them.”
Mitchell’s future will includespending more time with her grandchildren and traveling with her husband, Ernie Berg, after her retirement. But, she will stay in the community, and hopes to keep close ties with Cuesta College, both through volunteer efforts and as an honorary member of the Cuesta College Foundation board of directors.
“I have had a wonderful friendship with Frank Martinez, my predecessor,” Mitchell said. “He has always been here, cheering us on. I hope I can do the same.”

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