A talkative little sister raised to aim high and be heard
In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Seward County Community College is featuring the women who help make our Saints family remarkable. Celeste Donovan is the only female member of the executive team, and has worked in higher ed since she graduated from college. We talked about her journey to leadership and how much has changed since she began.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your leadership journey?
A: Ever since I was young, I was always competitive. In my baby book, my nickname was “Suzy Doesn’t Shut Up.” (laughs) With my big brothers, I think I had to be that way. I was the oldest daughter. I was always out front, wanted to be sure I was heard.
Q: Did your family support this aspect of your personality, or did they see you as bossy?
A: My father has always pushed me to be the best I could be. When I was in high school, I came home and said I was going to run for vice president of the student government, and my dad said the VP was kind of a layman position. He said, “If you want to make a difference, run for president.” At first, I’d been willing to sit back and let one of the guys in our class be president, but after my dad spoke to me, I thought, “Why not?” I didn’t want to disappoint him.
Q: And you grew up in a small town?
A: Yes, it was a population of 800, in eastern South Dakots. I’ll never forget this, it was years and years ago, it was the era when Brill Cream was popular, and I took their slogan, “A little dab’ll do ya,” and campaigned with “Celeste: A little dab’ll do ya.” It worked, and I was the first girl president for the student body at the high school.
Q: How did you end up in a leadership position, professionally?
A: I learned through a lot of my experiences in college that my strengths were working with people, and I was recognized and acknowledged for my compassion in working with people with disabilities. I was lucky to have my first leadership supervisory role when I was about 23, and then moved into higher education when I was 26.
Q: Did you encounter barriers as a woman in higher ed?
A: When I was in another state working in a highly religious community. And — this is my perception — many of the ladies would stay home to raise their families, which tended to be larger, they were homemakers with good family values. It was the men, then, that had the dominant roles. At the college where I worked, all the administrators were male and even though I had been there for 12 years, the senior student services person, they appointed someone outside of student services to lead. It was then that I realized that if I really wanted to move into administration, I had to move. In that college, I wouldn’t be able to break that barrier. I was about 35.
Q: When you look back on that, how do you see it? You sound matter-of-fact, but if it was me, I’d feel frustrated and angry and hurt.
A: I definitely was, and I had to work through it. Right or wrong, that was just how it was, so I decided that I needed to move on if I wanted to try administration. I didn’t know if I’d like that disciplinarian role. Up until that point, I’d been in the role of helping the person (student) who was in trouble. But my husband was ready to move on so I decided to look.
I learned that you can be a disciplinarian without having to be a jerk about it. Usually by the time students break the rules, they know they’ve done that. My skill set still worked in this role as much as the counselor role. I really like it, I think I’ve found my niche, and have now been a chief student affairs officer for over 25 years. I love it.
Q: Obviously, you succeeded. Did you have encouragement along the way, besides family?
A: I interviewed in Minnesota and was blessed to get a role where I was the chief student services person. There were two women presidents there, that were wonderful mentors and gave me the confidence I needed. I learned that you can be a disciplinarian without having to be a jerk about it. Usually by the time students break the roles, they know they’ve done that. My skill set still worked in this role as much as the counselor role. I really like it, I think I’ve found my niche, and have now been a chief student affairs officer for over 25 years. I love it.
Q: Over that time frame, a lot has changed for women. Do you still encounter barriers?
A: One of the most interesting things I think is when I’m greeted by males, they aren’t sure if they should shake my hand. There’s not a lack of respect, but it’s a kind of awkwardness. It’s mainly more senior men, not the 40-year-olds. That’s just one example.
Q: In terms of doing your job, do you adjust your style when managing men?
A: You have to adjust your style for every person, regardless of gender, knowing who you supervise and their style. I often give the Myers Briggs test to help me understand my people. It’s interesting though, if it’s a male who hasn’t had a female boss before. In cases like that, it takes some time for me to gain the person’s confidence.
Q: What did you take away from the women mentors you had in Minnesota?
A: Well, the main mentor was the provost for a campus. She was 15 years older than I, so her struggles had been more difficult. In fact, she would wear a suit every day with a skirt — she never wore pants. She had these stunning suits with the pencil skirt and jacket. She said, if there were men in the room, she had to make sure she looked as powerful. I didn’t feel I had to do that.
Q: Did you adopt any of her methods?
A: I always dressed professionally, but I didn’t feel the need to do it at the level she did. And, she had a little harsher approach than I, so if anything, I think we learned from each other. She softened sometimes after we discussed something.
Q: Your leadership style isn’t so much hierarchical as collaborative. I’ve noticed when you’re talking about situations, you’ll refer to other people feeling comfortable or finding the style that works for them. You’re not trying to impose a grid over the relationship.
A: I would much rather pull in the folks to be involved in whatever the project is, and get buy-in so everybody wants to be part of it. They won’t be as enthusiastic if you force it.
Q: Have you encountered people who don’t respect leadership that isn’t authoritarian? Do they mistake your style for you not being in charge?
A: I think you just have to get to know the person. It’s working with them enough for them to see yes, you do have the skills until they see it for themselves. If they think only a man can do it, they’re not going to change their mind until they see it.
Q: Does this boil down to just not letting things bother you? Having confidence?
A: Yes, you can’t convince them. You have to let them see how capable you are.
Q: With the #MeToo movement, do you see situations in your career differently?
A: Early in my career, a student told me that a male administrator had offered to “erase” her bill in return for sexual favors. She was very naive and she wasn’t sure she had actually understood it. And I was shocked because this man was very clean cut, and I would never has suspected this. So I had her come to the office in the evening, and I tape recorded their conversation, and took it to the president, I was so sickened. He was fired the next day, but they told him I was the one who had reported it. And he lived in the community for another month. They didn’t offer any protection for me, and that made me and my husband very uncomfortable. It was a small community of less than 5,000. In the end, the college did the right thing, but had it not been on tape, I don’t think they would have believed me. Other than that, I haven’t been a victim of sexual harassment, or been slighted any promotion because of that.
Q: You were aware your mentor was playing by a different set of rules. From your perspective, how does the workplace look for women now?
A: The younger generation coming in with the confidence, a mindset of what they want, at an earlier age. People are getting their doctorates at an early age. When I was growing up, getting a master’s was not common. I’m reminded that I need to be a mentor for them.
Q: What are your thoughts about family and leadership?
A: It’s all about balance. You can’t let your family suffer, because you don’t have unlimited time with your family. It’s also about finding a spouse who’s understanding. If the roles were reversed, and my husband was a principal, and he was expected to be at all the basketball games, I would know that I should be there too. But when I started my job as an administrator, I thought he and my youngest son would come to the game and this would be a family thing. And he didn’t see it that way. It took a while for him to see that it was expected of me. Now, Kevin will say, “OK, see you after the game!” And that works for me. It took a while for us to get there. We’ve been married 27 years, and we have two sons and six grandchildren.