The podcast Guiding Growth: Conversations with Community Leaders from the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce, event and meeting venue Modern Moments and the Gilbert Independent/yourvalley.net explores the human journey of leaders. There are stories of humility, triumph, roadblocks, and lessons learned. This partial transcript of the most recent podcast with Yira Brimage has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Yira Brimage holds the top leadership position for Park University’s Gilbert Campus and is a member of the University’s executive leadership team.
She is responsible for leading the strategic growth and operations of the campus, including academic programming, market development, community relations, fundraising, enrollment growth, student services, student academic support, student engagement, and athletic program development and growth.
Brimage is not a stranger to higher education in Arizona. For nearly four years (August 2014 to June 2018) she served as vice president of student affairs and engagement at Pima Community College’s downtown campus in Tucson.
She also served a variety of roles with Maricopa Community Colleges for 14 years, including vice president of student affairs at Phoenix College from 2010-14, and associate dean of enrollment services (2000-05), dean of student affairs (2005-09) and acting vice president of student affairs (2009-10) at Scottsdale Community College.
Brimage began her career in higher education at Arizona State University, serving nine years in undergraduate admissions for various campuses, as well as in student affairs for the ASU East (now Polytechnic) Campus.
Let's talk about how things started in your world and what life was like back home and as a young one running around. I was born in Panama, and the first couple of years I was raised by my grandmother and I have an aunt that's 18 years older than I am. And so she was the only one at home. So I spent a lot of time with her, and she's a reader so she liked to read.
So I think my earliest memories are like falling asleep next to her while she's reading. So I was really fortunate because again, 40 years later after I had my child, she came and stayed with me for a year.
We were basically in a rural village on the Atlantic side of the isthmus. I grew up with my grandmother in a village where we had electricity from 3 to 9 p.m. so that's when you watch TV. And you didn't open the fridge because ice was making. We would go to the fountain in the middle of town and pump water, or we had a well in the back.
Once my dad came back from Vietnam, we moved to Germany, and I was 5. And so again, the memories that I have I think are mostly recollections of what we're told or pictures of that kind of thing.
So we lived overseas. Traveling, moving every 2.5 years, I think that created a resiliency and an understanding of how to fit in making a way for yourself.
I think my way of doing that was, we had a very strict dad. So we weren't allowed to do a lot. But if we were, if it was part of school. I have to go and work the door at the dance because I'm in Student Council. I have to go and stay and clean up because it's part of the club that I'm in. I'm going to be on the softball team because it's something that we do. So I think it was just kind of how to fit your way and make your way and belong.
So I think I was going into ninth grade when we moved to Arizona. And my mom said to my dad at that point, I'm not moving anymore. I'm tired of traveling all over the world with four kids because usually it was her by herself. He would go first, and then it was her and she didn't speak English. So Gloria and I just by force of default, we became the translators. We did everything because my mom didn't speak English. So she said at the point that we got to Fort Huachuca, I'm not moving anymore. Build me a house. And my parents still live in that house.
Let's talk about career path a little bit. So you went to Arizona State University. What did you study? I got a degree in Spanish communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
And how did that parlay you into what you're doing? When I was working as a work-study student at ASU, I was a Devil's Advocate, who are the tour guides on campus. And then I got a job working in undergraduate admissions, and I worked with a guy named Ken Holland and he had been at ASU for like a million years when he retired, and Ken's job was to work with early outreach primarily in the school districts that were low income. And so he worked with Murphy School District and Isaac School District and the westside school districts that had low college-going rates for students.
So he always used to bring middle schoolers and elementary school kids to campus, and I would always think they're awfully young, but it set a pathway for them. And so I started working in undergraduate admissions, going out to high schools and middle schools with the recruiters and seeing what they were doing. And I got hooked.
I actually could see the building of possibilities with these kids over the course of the four or five years that I was at ASU. When I graduated from ASU, a position opened or they created a position and they asked me to apply for it, and the position was to create an ASU office in Tucson. So I was the first person that became a recruiter for ASU in Tucson. And I got a car, and I had all of the schools in southeastern Arizona. I started working on my master's at that point through NAU.
Then I moved back to the Valley and I was still with ASU and I started working with their undergraduate admissions and outreach programs. I did that for a few years and then the opportunity arose to start the campus at ASU Poly.
And then when the opportunity came to shift to the community colleges, I kind of felt like disloyal because I was leaving where I had been raised pretty much in education and professionally. I had been with ASU quite some time, and ASU had been very good to me.
What was it that made you take the leap? I think it was understanding, I think over the course of time that although ASU was accessible, it was not accessible to everybody — you know, the entrance requirements, the financial commitment, the place where it was, how you get there, that kind of thing that there were so many students that were not being served because they could not get to it with for whatever reasons, financial, you know, psychological, physical, and that the community of college offered so much more access.
Talk about that bit. So I went into Scottsdale Community College, I think as the associate dean of enrollment management. And I think for me, what's most notable there is I had only ever worked for men. Up until that point, every supervisor that I ever had was a man and a white man. So I went to work at Scottsdale Community College and my boss was a woman and she had only ever been the only woman working there. And so it was interesting because she was in her 60s and she had worked there pretty much her whole career and she was incredible for me.
What immediately stood out for you as being different in that experience? I think for me as a woman of color, I'm usually the only one at the table, usually the only person of color and obviously the only woman of color nine times out of 10.
So going in and being in an environment where I saw Dr. (Ginny) Stahl as she was a white woman, it's being the only woman at this table with these guys. And these were men that had been there for a long time. So she knew them well and everything and to see her at the table as the only woman and not only holding her own, but being a master of her universe in her area of what she knew. It was interesting to see that and to learn from her.
I learned from her that you need to schedule individual time with your people during the day. I learned how to be gracious in every interaction that you have with people, whether you're praising them in an evaluation or you're sliding a resignation letter across to them to letting them know that they're terminated.
I mean, I learned so many, many different things from her. And one of the most important things that I learned from her was to be financially responsible. A lot of that had to do with her saying you're a single woman, you need to start taking care of yourself.
I'm curious after the community college system, is that your entrance into Park or what does that look like for you? COVID hit, and then I was like, ‘OK, now I feel like I'm really retired,’ and I just put on weight and just kind of got morose and I didn't know, just like everybody else. Like, ‘what the heck am I doing?’
So then this opportunity at Park came up, and again, I have never worked for private liberal arts institutions. And so I was like, I'm not sure that I can do this, but what they were looking is for an enrollment driver. So they were looking for building enrollment and the model that they have here is a model that I had never worked with. So it's been a learning experience by building enrollment on an athletic model and working at an institution where enrollment drives budget.
What do you think in the past two years have been some lessons learned? I think it's difficult being a satellite, a branch, a center. I think when you're beholden to the mothership, it's hard.
And I think I had that experience initially when we were out at (ASU) Polytechnic that we were so dependent on the wraparound services, the support services. So we didn't have our own admissions, we didn't have our own financial aid, we didn't have, and that's how we are here at Park, too. Everything's remote. I think one of the challenges for me is I've worked for 30-plus years with traditional students. COVID has turned that on its head. These are not traditional students.
We're three years out of COVID, but these kids have been three years in COVID, and they have a different experience and expectations. They want to be in a classroom, but then they're in the classroom, they've lost a lot of the skill set that they've needed to be successful in that environment.
So I'm curious as you work with youth today, what are some of those characteristics or traits that you see that do make you hopeful? I think that even, and in spite of going through COVID and being singularly individual and, you know, standing alone, I think that I see a lot of caring and kindness with these kids. They want to do stuff to help. There's a level of compassion that is very palatable and they talk about things that they see and how they want to make things better.