For the past thirty-six years, it has been a labor of love, but it all started with a chance encounter with a colleague. The rest, as they say, is history.
Debbie Lea started her career as an X-Ray technologist who trained at Charity and quickly began working at Mercy Hospital recruited there by Harold Gaspard. Gaspard was laying the groundwork for a new program at then-Delgado Junior College. It was a grant-funded program that was just getting off the ground, but it allowed the mother of two to return to school and get her associate’s degree while also starting a teaching career that while possibly temporary, would span the next three decades.
In 1990, right around the time that the Allied Health programs were being expanded and reorganized into their own academic division, a merger with Charity Hospital and its Nursing and Allied Health programs greatly expanded the need for new programming and expanded course selections. Through the encouragement and support of Gaspard, Lea was able to begin her new role in program development. In the coming years, it was City Park Dean Margaret Montgomery who invited and challenged Lea to a new role: curriculum and program development for the City Park Campus. Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Katherine Sippola expanded that role to a college-wide position. She remembers the initial intimidation of the daunting task, but feels that the development was important for the ever-changing Delgado.
In 2005, one of the college’s most pivotal moments came following Hurricane Katrina. With several sites flooded or damaged and students, staff, and faculty scattered across the country, a core group of Delgado administrators and staff members assembled in a borrowed house in Baton Rouge, known as “The Red House,” to begin the rebuilding process. Through those dark and uncertain days, some of Lea’s fondest memories emerge. With campuses shut down for the fall semester and students scattered and dealing with family issues, online classes emerged for the first time, an idea that was only in its infancy prior to the storm. She remembers long days and some sleepless nights while new technology was expanded and curricula was converted over to the online portals to allow students free access to a Delgado education. She recalls the advent of distance learning being “a biggie” and perhaps one of the best innovations during her years with Delgado. Shortly after the storm, Lea answered the call once again when then-Chancellor Alex Johnson asked her to step into her new position of vice chancellor for student learning and development (now known as Academic Affairs).
Lea remembers feeling the newfound pressures associated with being a leader of such a large institution. Administration was never a step she expected to take, but one that she embraced in order to better serve the college. Lea recalls sitting in her office one day after listening to a student relay a complaint. She vividly remembers slamming her hand on her desk, saying, “They’ve got to do something about that!” It was moments later that she experienced an epiphany: “I’m the THEY.” It was a game-changer for Lea, who decided to reaffirm her commitment to Delgado’s students and do anything she and her colleagues could to improve their Delgado experience. She remembers wise words from Dr. Johnson: “He told me to always strive to make the right decisions for the right reasons and always put the college first, primarily the students.” Those words stayed with her into her next chapter at the college—the chancellor’s office.
In 2008, when Dr. Alex Johnson departed Delgado, Lea stepped into a new position as interim chancellor. She recalls standing center stage at her first commencement in the role, and feeling the intensity of the moment. “I remember standing on the stage, looking around to take in the moment and thinking, what have I done to be so lucky?” It was during those months that she recalls receiving some great advice from another local college president. When visiting the neighboring college’s campus, she saw the mission statement in large letters on the entry wall. Commenting on the decoration, the president reminded her, “Never forget your mission.” She took the advice and brought it to her leadership role at the college. “The mission statement is so much more than just a paragraph,” she said. “It’s a living reminder of what we are here for. We have to feed it, believe in it, and never change course in trying our best to accomplish that mission.” It’s a philosophy that has guided her through the good—and bad—decisions during her time in the college’s top office, a role she has filled on three different occasions following the departure of recent chancellors. Whatever her role or whatever her project, she has always been just an ask away.
This past spring, when Chancellor Monty Sullivan was named president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, Lea stepped into the college’s top position to lead the college through the completion of the 2013-2014 academic year and the arrival of new Chancellor Joan Davis in July. With Chancellor Davis now in office, Lea has officially stepped aside and begun her well-earned retirement. It’s a retirement that will include family time with her husband, Scott, two daughters and two young grandchildren, travel, and of course, volunteering at Delgado. Lea’s next role at the college will return her to her Delgado roots. She plans to assist with the Delgado Alumni Association and help former Dolphins reconnect with the college and its programs to expand the Delgado family by welcoming back past students, sharing all of the great things that are happening at the college.
For thirty-six years, Delgado has been home for Debbie Lea. The college has seen its fair share of change, that is and will be a constant, according to Lea. She shares a tremendous pride in the fact that the college has gained more respect in the local community. “The message is out—Delgado is not a last resort, it’s becoming a college of choice. It’s a journey, it’s just a shame that the college hasn’t been seen in the past as it is finally being recognized now.” She believes small class sizes, transferability of courses, affordability, and a wide variety of program offerings are all appealing to today’s student. With expanding sites, bustling enrollment, new and ever-improving programs, and new construction surrounding the college, progress is evident: “Our name reflects who we are—we are the community!” Lea sees Delgado’s best days ahead, and looks forward to what lies ahead for “Louisiana’s second largest institution of higher education” (one of her favorite bragging points).
One thing she would like to see is Delgado’s expansion to a global college, where “we continue to improve students and their appreciation and knowledge for other cultures.” She sees the excitement of in-the-works projects like the New Orleans Culinary Arts and Hospitality Institute, given the fact that industry and community leaders are recognizing Delgado’s potential. She sees such projects as indications of the bright days ahead. “The challenges are there,” she said, “but the opportunities are endless!”
Lea believes that Delgado wouldn’t be possible without those working tirelessly behind the scenes day after day, year after year. “It’s those people who make it work,” she says, describing the place that provides “Education that Works.” She remembers working with co-workers on new curricula, mergers, articulation agreements with other institutions, the late hours involved in QEPs and SACS accreditations, the dark hours following Katrina, and the celebration of realizing the college’s largest enrollment ever during its 90th anniversary a few years back. It’s the Delgado family atmosphere that makes it the place it is. “You can feel it when you walk in the door. We’re a family, all a part of the Delgado legacy.”
When reflecting on stepping away from her daily duties, she said, “I would like to leave the college with the word that describes how I feel about Delgado and that is THANKFUL. My thanks to the college and all who were a part of my time here. It is the college that allowed me to grow and learn. If I have achieved any success here at Delgado it is because of the college and their faith in and support of me.”
Since her first day at Delgado, Lea has been a teacher. It’s a role that she admits was her favorite one through the years because of her daily interaction with her students—watching them pursue their education and work towards their dreams. “The teachers teach the students, but the students also teach us. My hope is that we as an institution never stop learning.”
She’s been an associate professor, an Allied Health admissions coordinator, an interim associate dean of science and math, director of curriculum and program development, a vice chancellor, and interim chancellor. The irony is, although her title may have changed several times, she is still a teacher more than three decades later. She has taught us, through her WE not ME approach, all the value of dedication and commitment to Delgado’s mission, a mission that has been greatly realized and continues to expand thanks to Debbie Lea. For this, we’re all THANKFUL. --Tyler Scheuermann