Ely embraces chance to come home, guide GRCC
By ROBERT WHALE
Auburn Reporter News reporter
September 24, 2010 · Updated 10:45 AM
Auburn’s Lea Hill is no mountain, but as far as Green River Community College’s new president is concerned, it sits at the top of the world.
Eileen Ely gets to guide a top-rate institution, she said, with outstanding programs, first-rate instructors, on a beautiful wooded campus in the midst of a major makeover.
But Ely is also a local girl coming home. A product of the Kent school system and a former GRCC student, she has held jobs in Washington, Alaska, Wyoming and Nebraska, but always felt keenly the pain of her long absence from the Northwest and the family she loves so much.
So when the word came last spring that long-term GRCC president Rich Rutkowski was about to retire and the college would need a new top Gator, her heart skipped a beat, then she leapt up and applied.
“I almost didn’t want to hope too much that I got the job because I wanted it so bad,” Ely recalled. “It’s one of those things that you want, but you don’t want to be disappointed if you don’t get it.”
She got it. Her first day on the job was July 1.
“This institution is in excellent shape,” Ely said. “There is lots of building going on. We have the new Salish hall, which is in construction and will be finished within the next year. We also have a remodel in the pipeline for the Science, Math and Tech building. We just finished the street project out here on 124th, which is in preparation for the Trade and Industry building, when we begin work on it in 2013. That allowed us to do the land swap of the Lea Hill Park property with the City of Auburn.
“I know first hand the quality of Green River’s education because I was a student here,” Ely added. “We have an outstanding international program that numbers about 1,200 students. It provides opportunities for students to come here and experience a community college in the United States. It allows our students to interact with other students from other countries. When training a student for the global economy, you have to subject the student to other people from other countries. I think it’s a living lab for our students.”
After graduating from Kent-Meridian High School in 1969, Ely worked as a secretary for a container ship company, Matson Lines. She married, had two children and settled in Renton. She returned to school after her children began junior high and her son told her that mom could not follow him to high school.
“I decided maybe I had better find something else to do,” Ely recalled with a laugh. “And I had a fire in the belly to do more.”
In 1986, Ely earned a degree in computer programming and accounting from Peterson School of Business, now ITT Tech. She went on to work at a number of jobs, but none made her happy until she went to work for Renton Technical College, as an administrative assistant.
"That was where I really fell in love with higher education by working with the students and working with the faculty and student services," Ely said.
A mentor there encouraged Ely to finish her bachelor's degree. At that time, McChord Air Force Base offered a program for the military through Southern Illinois University, which would fly professors out over the weekend. She took advantage, earned her bachelor's degree, then she and her second husband were off to Barrow, Alaska, where he taught part time and she taught part time while working in student services with the Inupuit Eskimo population.
Their next move was to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where Ely earned her master's degree in higher education at Iowa State. Two weeks after graduation, she began her Ph.D program in higher education at the University of Texas at Austin. Then it was on to Wyoming, where she served as dean of students of the Albany County campus of Laramie Community College. Her five years with LCCC, she said, prepared her to be president of Western Nebraska Community College.
"I loved the job, I loved the people, but I loved the Northwest more, and I wanted to come home," Ely said. "All my family is here, except for my brother who lives just east of Spokane. But I also have grandchildren now, and I want to get to know them and them to get to know me. The beauty of coming back to Washington state and the Kent-Auburn area is that I grew up in the community, so I know the community. I know the roads, the shopping areas, so that really was a nice cushion for me, one more thing that I didn't have to learn."Contact Auburn Reporter News reporter Robert Whale at email@example.com or 253-833-0218, ext. 5052.