An era ends at Kenai Peninsula College this month when Ginger Steffy steps down as the college director. She has held the post for 15 years, capping a career of 31 years with the school.
She has been with the college since it was a shoestring operation run out of one room at Kenai Central High School. She helped shepherd it through the tough transition from community college to University of Alaska branch campus, through expansion and budget cuts and on into the 21st century.
Those who worked alongside her say that Ginger, in her quiet way, shaped higher education not only on the Kenai Peninsula but statewide.
When she presided at KPC's 32nd (and her 31st) commencement April 30, the UA regents conferred the honorary title of director emeritus upon her.
"We are losing 31 years of experience in one fell swoop. But she has done a great job," Chancy Croft, chair of the board of regents said. "We at the university think the world of her."
From atoms to Alaska
Ginger Steffy grew up in western Pennsylvania in a town called Indiana. As far back as she can remember, she wanted to be a teacher.
A ninth-grade class assignment set her course. Told to do a science project, she did hers on atomic physics and got hooked on the subject. She went on to study at her hometown college, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, taking a teaching degree with a specialty in physics. Then she continued on into graduate school.
Women were still rare in fields such as physics. But she said her family supported her choice to pursue science and she encountered only minor prejudice on campus. As later in life, she opted to prove herself rather than challenge sexism directly.
"I did well in college," she said. "It is a little hard to make (gender) an issue when you are demonstrating you can do (the work well)."
At Indiana University, she met Dennis Steffy; and the two classmates got married in 1968.
The following year she completed her master's degree in physics, with research in cosmic rays and high-energy particles.
Several months before finishing, Ginger went to a job interview with the superintendent from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. It was an era when Alaska schools canvassed the nation and offered fat salaries to lure young teachers north for an adventure. The superintendent was interested in Ginger, but she held out for a package deal: a job for Dennis as well.
"As long as one of us was willing to teach math, he would have jobs for us," she recalled of the conversation.
"We signed the contract that night. Then we went home and looked in the atlas to find out where Kenai was."
Shaping a career
"We came up thinking we would stay for a year or two. But we liked it so well we never left," Ginger said. "Alaska was so beautiful. We liked everything about it."
When the young couple arrived in the summer of 1969, the central peninsula was in the throes of a major forest fire near Swanson River. Campgrounds were closed, firefighters filled the hotels, and the Steffys had no place to stay. The school district fixed them up to housesit for Jim and Nedra Evenson, and their new venture was off to an auspicious start.
The couple began teaching at the new Kenai Central High School. Dennis, who had taught high school in Pennsylvania, taught physics. Ginger taught math.
"I didn't make it through the whole year," she said. "I got pregnant."
In those days, a woman in advanced stages of pregnancy was not allowed to continue teaching. She went home to be a full-time mother and gave birth to their second child 15 months after the first.
In 1972, Ginger got back into the classroom, teaching one evening class as an adjunct math instructor at what was then Kenai Peninsula Community College.
The college had opened in 1964, Ginger said. When she got involved, it consisted of Clayton Brockel in an office at the high school organizing people such as herself to teach an assortment of evening classes to interested community members. It had no building and no degree program.
In 1973, the college got its first building, the Enid McLane Building at the present campus in Soldotna.
"Once the college got space, it started developing its own programs," Ginger said.
By the time her first two children entered elementary school, she had a regular part-time job as a college instructor.
Following a six-year gap, she had her third child. By the time she had her fourth, public attitudes had changed. She worked right up to the end of her pregnancy, and her students took bets on how long she would last.
"I gave midterms Friday and had Matthew Sunday," she said.
Ginger found what she called terrific child care providers, and college teaching meshed conveniently with the children's school day and vacation schedule.
In the meantime, Dennis, too, began teaching at the college. He started doing an electronics course in the summer but soon he was dividing his time between the high school and the college.
It was Dennis and John Williams, now mayor of Kenai, who developed the college's pioneering petroleum program. That eventually led to the founding and spin-off of the Mining and Petroleum Training Service, which Dennis still heads.
Ginger took over the physics courses when Dennis got busy elsewhere. As the college developed, she grew busier, too.
"They all had as requirements math and science," she recalled. "... I was in the right place at the right time. At each phase, it's really been great to be there and watch the college grow."
From lecturer to leader
In 1980, Ginger became the chair for the arts and sciences division. The peninsula college is too small to have distinct departments for every subject, so it is grouped into divisions instead. The post split her time between teaching and administration.
The administrative part interested her, and she set her sights on becoming the academic dean eventually. To prepare, she worked on committees developing programs and interfacing with the larger university system.
As Kenai Peninsula Community College, the school was part of a statewide community college network.
Community colleges reported to university heads through an administrative hierarchy parallel to and autonomous from Alaska's larger universities in Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Kenai Peninsula College Director Ginger Steffy, third from left, shares a laugh with Suzie Kendall, Shelly Love and Karen Dorcas at a retirement reception for Steffy and other retiring KPC employees near the end of the spring semester.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
But when oil prices dropped and the state fell into a deep recession in 1986, the university system was hit with massive budget cuts. To survive, the entire system went through a massive reorganization.
The autonomous community college network was discontinued, and the 11 campuses around the state were assigned to serve as regional branch campuses to the three major universities.
The Kenai Peninsula college, with its campuses in Soldotna, Homer and outreach in Seward, became part of UAA. One of the jobs cut from the system was the dean's job Ginger had eyed.
"A lot of people did not like it. There was concern that the community college mission would be lost," Ginger recalled.
"After 15 years, I think people can stand back and see it worked."
One of those who resigned during the turmoil in 1987 was Les Vierra, then college director.
Anchorage university officials asked Ginger to serve as the interim director. When they got around to doing a director search a year later, she applied for the post and they hired her permanently.
She now is the most senior campus director in the state.
Weathering stormy times
"It was a real uncomfortable period," Ginger said of the start of her directorship.
The budget shrank. The chain of command was utterly revamped. Instructors from the college had to switch to the university system of titles and tenure and dovetail employment agreements with those for other UAA employees. People pondered the role of a branch campus, and turnover was high.
"It took a number of years for all that to settled down and sort out," she said.
Professor Dave Forbes remembers those turbulent times. He said Ginger was the right person for the job.
"She is a very clear thinker and can see many sides to any particular issue, and she makes good decisions," he said.
The staff viewed her as the first among equals, a talented administrator who was also one of their own, their former union representative, someone to trust.
"From the very beginning, she was the preferred choice for those who worked there," he said.
"We had had enough of people coming in and being managers. ... She was not management. She was leadership."
Setting the course
How did a physicist end up in administration?
"I like solving problems," Ginger said. "Physics is a problem-solving subject. This is solving problems with people."
Entering the 1990s the college ran on a more even keel, but the challenges of adapting to changing community needs and making do with tight budgets continued.
Croft said Ginger played an instrumental role within the entire university system in establishing a new role for the campuses after the reorganization. She promoted autonomy, creative programs, adult basic education and a focus on local needs.
"She has been insistent from the beginning that the campuses outside (the three main campuses) did not simply duplicate those offerings on a smaller scale," he said.
"Ginger does that without being militant or abrasive. But boy, can she be persistent. Maybe that is why she survived 31 years."
Looking back at the new ground rules she helped set, Ginger said that after the reorganization, the campus was able to keep control of its budget and programs. It was able to gain visiting university scholars, more upper level courses and easier transfers for students continuing studies elsewhere in the university system.
"We were able to determine our own identity," she said.
Part of that process was the diplomatic efforts of building relationships with UAA personnel. Just as she had years before as a physics student, she accomplished that quietly by demonstrating top-notch work.
"Over time we established a reputation, I think, for doing quality programs with quality faculty," she said.
Asked about what she considered her main accomplishments, Ginger reflected. Sitting in her modest, windowless office, she listed several: Building more diverse programs, offering advanced courses, winning voter approval for Kenai Peninsula Borough financial support and "finding ways to make things happen."
Examples she cited include the popular, evolving elementary education programs and the brand-new bachelor of liberal studies program.
But because the college has limited resources, it cannot add ambitious, permanent programs associated with larger, traditional schools. Instead, Ginger has partnered with other entities and arranged temporary programs to fulfill pent up demand.
Examples include a one-shot program that allowed 27 people to gain master of education degrees in counseling and the current two-year nursing program coordinated with Weber State University.
Course offerings require constant tweaking, she said, to keep current and address personal and economic needs.
Over the years, Ginger has seen her community of students change, too. KPC serves a wide spectrum of ages, interests and academic backgrounds.
Retirees and high school students might share a table. But the trends are toward more full-time young students of conventional college age and more one-credit classes to accommodate schedules and budgets for busy part-timers, she said.
Ginger played down her own role in the college's progress. She pointed to great staff and the foundations laid by her predecessors, calling them people of talent and vision. She cited the positive feedback from former students, who praise the college instructors and support staff for promoting a familial feel.
"They care about whether you are coming to class. They care about whether you are succeeding," she said.
"When you are working with a great group like that, neat things happen."
Ginger said she is looking forward to retiring.
"I'm excited about it. I think it is just great."
She has been carrying a little booklet around in her purse and jotting in it ideas and projects to pursue after she turns her seat over to successor Gary J. Turner.
A top priority is spending more time with her seven grandchildren living in the area. She serves on three boards: United Way, the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska and After the Bell, and intends to focus more on them.
Whatever she ends up doing, she and Dennis have no intention of moving away from their Soldotna area home, she said.
"And then there are just things I have wanted to do personally," she said.
One of those would involve returning to KPC in a new capacity: that of a student taking classes purely for the fun of learning.
"I think the college has a lot of potential," she said. "I can't imagine why it wouldn't continue to grow. There will always be multiple roles for the college in this community."
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