STEUBENVILLE - Laura Meeks came to Steubenville and Jefferson Community College in 1999 with what she describes as "a very high energy level."
That personal drive and commitment to hard work served her well as she took on the task of leading a college through a local job depression and then expanding the local community college into a four-county institution that now serves 4,338 students in Eastern Ohio.
Meeks announced plans last week to step down from the college presidency next July 31.
The board is preparing to move forward with an open and national presidential search in the coming months to select the college's fourth president. The Association of Community College Trustees will provide guidance about conducting an equitable, inclusive, transparent and fair national search that will attract a strong pool of presidential candidates, said John Gilmore, chairman of the board.
"We have changed in many ways since 1999, but our steadfast belief that a quality education empowers our students in the work force still drives our mission. Just think of the lives we have changed because our students successfully competed for and secured jobs. With the support of Jefferson County taxpayers and many partnerships with our high schools, career centers and universities, Eastern Gateway has strengthened the communities it serves. What a privilege it has been for me to see that we really do make a difference in our regional economy," Meeks said.
"For me, it is time to retire. I have no idea what I will be doing at this point when I officially retire. I do know I will pray and ask God to show me what my future plans will be. I have learned in life that when doors close other doors open," Meeks said.
"I have been very blessed with good health and energy. I have always had a high energy level. And, my work ethic came from my parents, who were very hard-working people," she added.
That work ethic helped Meeks succeed when she enrolled in college in Minnesota.
"I really didn't think I was smart enough for college. I was getting some help and I was studying very hard for a test my first year. I had decided if I didn't get a passing grade on that test I was going to quit. I was working in the library one evening and heard the professor had posted the test results. I went to check the grades and saw my friend who I studied with received a D and my heart sank. Then I saw my grade and I had a B. I knew that if I would study hard, I would make it," Meeks related.
"That was my a-ha moment. When the school PTA gave me a $250 scholarship, I knew I should go to college. I soon learned how important an affordable college close to home can be," noted Meeks.
After obtaining her bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota, Meeks moved to Pittsburg State University in Kansas to pursue a master's degree in rhetoric. She would obtain a second degree in secondary education at Pittsburg State and then served as coordinator of continuing education for the school of education there.
"I had a debate coach at the University of Minnesota Minnesota who suggested I apply for a graduate assistantship in Kansas. I wasn't that good on the debate team, but he thought I could obtain the assistantship at Pittsburg State University and continue my education. That is where I met my husband. From there, I moved to the dean of instruction at Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kan., and then served for eight years as president there before I moved to Steubenville," continued Meeks.
"Kansas was agricultural-based economy. But people in the area were losing their jobs. Their parents had lost their farms because of the recession and their children were forced to take service jobs. So, when I moved here I didn't know anything about the steel industry," Meeks said.
"I believe in giving back where you live and blooming where you go. One of the first things I did when I moved here was to ask for tours of Weirton Steel, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and TIMET. I wanted to see how the steel industry worked and to understand the work that was so important here. And I joined thousands of local steelworkers on Jan. 20, 1999, to ride the buses to Washington, D.C., for the Stand Up for Steel campaign in front of the Capitol," Meeks related.
"I have always believed if you have a strong work ethic you will find a job. It is scary to lose your job. I have a lot of empathy for our students because they were scared of an unknown future. But I told our students they could count on two things. Their family will help them and they can pray and go to work. When I came here, the college was in demand and we all hoped for the best. And, we started seeing more and more adult students," Meeks said.
"When you have good jobs like the steel mill, it is hard to move on to a new job that pays less. At Eastern Gateway Community College we have seen our student population becoming younger and more interested in transferring their credits. That's why we started getting very good at transferring our credits to a school where the student can get a four-year degree," explained Meeks.
Since she arrived in Steubenville, Meeks has sought out and listened to people in the community who have been willing to share ideas and suggestions.
"I would talk to Louis Berkman, who would give me advice on what he considered to be a smart business move. I took advice from everyone on the staff and faculty as well as our students. That has led us to move toward more online options for our students who are working jobs but also trying to take courses. That will be the next big step for us, and we made that decision on suggestions we received," said Meeks.
Other decisions made during the 15 years Meeks has served as EGCC president include expanding the local college into the four county campus that include Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana as well as Jefferson.
And, more recently Meeks was invited to participate in a White House College Opportunity event, "to highlight new and existing commitments to strengthen college remediation and to explore effective strategies to improve success for students in need of remediation with leading practitioners, researchers and higher education leaders."
Meeks told the conference the EGCC Achieving the Dream initiative and its developmental education redesign efforts have allowed the community college to assist first-generation and low-income students in preparing for college level courses and, ultimately, student success.
She reported Eastern Gateway saw retention rates increase 2 percentage points from spring 2013 to fall 2013 and another 1 percent from fall 2013 to spring 2014. And, the retention rate for fall 2012 to fall 2013 was up 6 percent.
"It was an honor for Eastern Gateway to be chosen to participate in the White House conference. It was not about me as the president. It is about the results we are seeing at Eastern Gateway," she remarked.
"Our next president will see phenomenal growth in EGCC. There may be a few tears when I am at next year's graduation ceremony in May. But I have learned over the years that my stories are the stories of our students who have made my life so beautiful," Meeks said.
Meeks will have completed 16 years of service to the college when she retires on July 31.
"I knew it was time for me. A year from now my plan is to find a calling here. I get phone calls about doing some consulting work and I have contacts across the nation, so that may lead to something. I will visit my children in Kansas. But my home is here in Steubenville and this is where I plan to stay. I have read that some people have regrets later in life about not getting enough education and not taking enough chances. But I have received more education than I ever dreamed of and I am a risk-taker. When I moved here I didn't know anyone. I came to find a new home in Steubenville, and this is home for me," declared Meeks.
"The people of the Ohio Valley remind me of people in Minnesota. There is that strong work ethic in the Ohio Valley, like in Minnesota. And, I like people here. They are not pretentious. They give you a chance to prove yourself. And people here enjoy life," Meeks said.
"I want to be remembered as the lady who took care of people. I hope our graduates will look at me and say, 'you are the woman who helped some of us.' I hope I gave a voice to the students and their stories," stated Meeks.