Graduation night is always meaningful for Mary S. Graham, but her first as president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College was among the most memorable. After she hugged the first student to walk across the stage, embracing the rest came naturally.
“I hugged over 1,000 people that night,” Graham recalls. “You get excited, and you get caught up in the moment.”
Graham says she loves engaging with all kinds of people — and nothing motivates her more than helping others succeed and find their purpose. A Biloxi native who grew up in Perkinston, Mississippi, she’s always been passionate about education and how it can create a framework for achievement.
“I like to ‘hold the ladder’ for other people — to ensure they have the opportunity to climb as far up as they would like…,” she says. “I have seen so many people waste opportunities because they were afraid to let go of what they have always known in order to experience what could possibly be.”
Growing up the youngest of eight children gave Graham a sense of determination, a strong work ethic and a competitive spirit that propelled her to the top of MGCCC, where she’s worked for 32 years and been president since 2011. While she takes a considered, common-sense approach to most situations, Graham tries to “work on the ‘yes’ side” — even when it’s chancy.
“I am not afraid to take risks and enjoy proving the naysayers wrong,” she says. “I don’t expect anyone to do more than I am willing to do.”
That enthusiasm has earned Graham recognition as a South Mississippi Outstanding Community Leader, Educator of the Year, Ellician Ellumination Executive award winner, Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year and a Woman of Achievement. Under its first female president, MGCCC has expanded its footprint to include new campuses, new programs and new opportunities for students.
Before Graham served as chair of the American Association of Community Colleges, which represents over 1,200 institutions nationwide, someone from Mississippi hadn’t held the position since the 1950s; the MGCCC president now is state chair of the Mississippi Association of Community Colleges. Firmly in the minority of college presidents — only 30 percent are female nationwide, according to a 2018 Forbes report — Graham doesn’t mind being a pioneer.
“I feel fortunate to serve in this role and hope that by doing so, I can inspire hope and opportunity for others to do the same,” she says. “This means I have to do my best in order to make sure that women are well represented and respected as higher education leaders.”
WORDS OF ADVICE
Men and women alike, she says, should recognize that they are always interviewing for their next position. Today’s actions and behaviors, she adds, can have implications for their future.
“I would suggest that they prepare themselves with as many tools as possible, whether it’s an advanced degree or simply learning to communicate well,” Graham says. “You never know when that opportunity will present itself, so you need to prepare in every way possible.”
To those changing or starting careers, Graham suggests focusing on passion rather than profit. If someone sticks to what she’s interested in and good at, the president adds, rewards will come — “and they won’t just be monetary.”
No matter where someone is headed in life, Graham wants to give them the tools they need to get there.
“For some, it may be as simple as getting a GED, and for (others), it’s becoming a college president,” she says. “I am also passionate about providing opportunities through scholarships, fundraising and networking.”
Jason Pugh, MGCCC executive vice president of administration and finance, describes Graham as “aggressively determined to excel at all that she does….” Having worked with Graham since 1994, and having served on her executive council since 2011, Pugh has had a front-row seat to her presidency.
“Dr. Graham brings to her role … the all-encompassing skillset of ‘leadership,’” Pugh says, “(which) with her is more than just a skill — but truly a talent.”
Graham says that decades of support, encouragement and loyalty from her husband, Wayne, made her professional success possible. Together, the couple has raised three children: Sarah, 23; Michael, 21; and Anna, 18.
“I am very proud of my children; they are well balanced, caring and thoughtful individuals,” she says. “I am proud to have had a successful marriage for the past 28 years.”
Graham views community as an extension of family and feels a responsibility to provide opportunity where there’s a need.
“Leadership is about others; everyone should take the time to participate in community organizations where they can share their gifts, talents and resources,” she says. “I have been involved in everything from Rotary to our church youth programs. We support scholarships and mission trips for students.”
In all facets of life, Graham is “an ambitious leader” who is never satisfied with mediocrity or the status quo, says Ladd Taylor, MGCCC vice president, Perkinston Campus and George County Center.
“She possesses the unique ability to see the potential for innovation where others do not,” Taylor adds. “Dr. Graham thoroughly grasps and balances the need for MGCCC to be a leader in our local district-wide communities and in the nation.”
MGCCC is recognized as a trendsetter among community colleges nationally, according to Taylor — which he attributes to Graham’s vision and her ability to sell it to the college’s board and employees.
“Complete and total support from all stakeholders is needed to positively move the needle of an institution even a little,” Taylor adds. “Through an impeccable record of unwavering support throughout her career, Dr. Graham has been able to catapult MGCCC’s needle to extraordinary heights.”
Whatever someone’s background, Graham wants MGCCC to offer “the most progressive learning environment possible” — one that readies students for tomorrow’s jobs.
“My goals in my current position are to create a learning environment at MGCCC that invites every type of student, traditional college age, retirees, military, adult students, etc.,” she says. “I want them to view MGCCC as a place they can build on their success.”
Women in education
- In the fall 2018 term, 5,398 females enrolled at MGCCC, accounting for 60.31 percent of the entire student body.
- Female graduates accounted for 58.43 percent of the graduating class of 2018-2019.
- In academic year 2018-2019, 61.94 percent of associate degrees earned were by females.
- In academic year 2018-2019, 45.39 percent of diplomas earned were by females.
- In academic year 2018-2019, 41.48 percent of certificates earned were by females.
- In the 2015-2016 academic year cohort, 653 of 1331 (49.06 percent) of female graduates enrolled at a four-year university within three years.