Dr. Portia Taylor is retiring this spring. That means farewell to her charismatic presence, her 100 kilowatt smile, and her humor, brilliance and warmth, and we will all really miss her fierce advocacy for students. Taylor leaves behind a 35-year legacy of outstanding leadership at Santa Fe College. [Photo Gallery]
Taylor began serving as Vice President of Student Affairs in 2002. Of all the positions she’s held, this one has been her favorite. When a student experiences a serious issue such as the death of a caretaker, an illness or an accident, they are directed to her office for assistance. With proper documentation, Taylor helps students withdraw or get back into school — whichever is most appropriate at that point in their academic career.
“My first experience working with Dr. Taylor was unlike working for anyone else. It blew me away,” said John Cowart, Assistant Vice President, Student Affairs. “I’d worked with a lot of people who had compassion, but not like this. With Dr. Taylor it was genuine, it was sincere, and it was definitely from the heart.”
Taylor taught Cowart how much they could do to alleviate a student’s stress during a difficult time.
“She has an attitude of, ‘the buck stops here,’ regarding the Student Affairs office,” he continued. “She walks students to where they need to go. She walks them through completely. She is going to go the last mile.”
Barbara Jessie has worked as Taylor’s assistant for the past 22 years.
“Portia remembers the first and last name of every student she works with, and all the details of their situation,” Jessie said. “It’s a gift she has. There are students in her office all day long. She never gets tired of helping them. When the last student has left, that’s when she catches up on everything. Very seldom does she go home before six o’clock.”
Taylor, 61, has worked full time all her adult life, so “hanging out at home in flip flops and a mumu,” as she likes to joke about retiring, is going to take some adjusting.
“What will I do in retirement? The plan is to make a plan,” she said.
Some of her thoughts include volunteering at the Cultural Arts Coalition with her good friend NKwanda Jah, continuing to co-chair the Women Who Make a Difference fundraiser with Penny Jones for the Girl Scouts, shopping and traveling with her BFF Cynthia Chestnut, catching up on stuff around the house, and improving her personal fitness.
“I don’t have hobbies. My job was my hobby,” Taylor said.
Taylor arrived at Santa Fe in 1976, two years after earning her master’s in social work from UNC-Chapel Hill. (She holds a bachelor’s in sociology from Hampton [Va.] University and a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Florida.)
She served first as Director of Community Education (1976-1980), and then as Assistant to the President (1980-1990) under Alan J. Robertson. He became her mentor, and Taylor said she learned her leadership skills from him.
“He was firm, compassionate and he could make a decision,” she recalls. “And President Larry Tyree encouraged me to take risks. When I would call him for guidance, he would say, ‘use your professional judgment.’ “
At that time, she was the only African American woman in a leadership position. She learned to frame everything she did in terms of what was best for students, even when terminating an employee.
“Keep that in the forefront, and you’re going to make the right decision,” she said.
Retired Vice President Guy York said he and Taylor started at Santa Fe at about the same time.
“We were all disciples of Terry O’Banion, who was one of the founders of the college,” York said. “We all got the same direction, or philosophy, and it was very clear and concise: we were to be student oriented.”
From 1988-1990 she served as Associate Dean for Academic Resources, and from 1990-1999 she was the co-project director of a League for Innovation initiative to expand the number of minorities in community college leadership.
She met her future husband, Dr. Curtis Jefferson, on a League trip to Cuyahoga Community College in 1990. She was 40 at the time. As they walked through the Cleveland airport on the way to the baggage claim, minutes after they had met, she said to him, “You look like my second husband.”
“How many husbands have you had?” he replied.
That exchange became League legend. Taylor and Jefferson have been married for 19 years.
“He’s been a great stabilizing force for me,” Taylor said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s been so patient and kind, he’s definitely my better half. I can’t imagine life without him or life before him.”
And for Jefferson, he appreciates her many gifts, her inner and outer beauty, her great compassion and love for others, her willingness to give her time and energy to people and causes.
“She has an unlimited capacity to love and care for people independent of their race, creed, color or religion,” he said. “Being out with her in the community is a ‘rock star’ experience. She is known and respected by people from all walks of life. Being home with her is truly an indescribably wonderful, loving experience.”
Taylor served as Provost for Educational Centers, 1990-1998, when she oversaw development of the Blount Center. From 1998-2002, she represented the college in the community as Vice President for College and Community Services.
Dr. Paul Hutchins worked with Taylor when he directed the Andrews Center.
“I can’t tell you what a great support she was,” Hutchins said. “She did everything to make sure that we had the resources we needed to best serve the students in Starke. I’m a better administrator, in the sense of knowing how important it is to be student centered, because of having the opportunity to work for, and to know, Dr. Taylor. I think the world of her.”
Registrar Lynn Sullivan will take over as Interim Vice President of Student Affairs in March until the college hires Taylor’s replacement.
“Portia is the epitome of a Student Affairs professional,” Sullivan said. “She lives, eats and breathes a passion for students. It’s obvious in her actions.”
Sullivan said when she and Portia cross campus together, conversation is impossible.
“You could never talk with her about anything because she is too busy saying hellos to students,” Sullivan said. “They remember Portia Taylor and her kindness and compassion, and how she helped them.”
And lastly, President Jackson Sasser agrees our students are losing their best friend, and we are losing a supportive friend and colleague.
“Portia Taylor represents all that is good about our college. She will be truly missed.”
Taylor’s last day on campus is Friday, Feb. 10. Her going away party will be held in the Fine Arts Hall lobby from 1:30-3 p.m. that day, and everyone is invited to wish her well. She will serve the college from home as necessary until Lynn Sullivan steps in as interim. Taylor’s last official day as an SF employee is May 31.
Portia Taylor’s Tips for Success
- Show up. Be on time. “If the meeting’s at 9 a.m., if you show up at 9, you’re already late.”
- Build personal relationships with your colleagues. “There’s nothing like sitting down and talking to people. Get face time: talk to people, visit with them, personalize it.”
- Be open to new ideas and new people, and don’t make judgments based on ethnicity or how someone’s dressed. “You can meet some interesting people if you’re open and nonjudgmental.”
- “The biggest thing you can do in the world of work is to be collegial. In meetings, you might not agree, but respectfully disagree. If the meeting doesn’t go your way, then go along with the program. Don’t have an attitude of, ‘I’m going to take my ball and go home.'” She said it’s also good to listen in meetings; don’t be compelled to comment on everything or have the last word. “It’s good to be quiet sometimes.”
- To be successful, you must excel at communication. “Be able to articulate your vision so you can get buy in.” Smiling and being approachable is a big help.