When Cynthia Bioteau was 45, she was determined to receive her doctoral degree by 50 years old, but it was not an easy job for her.
“I worked full time; I was the dean at a community college in Boston at the time. I was still a mom, raising kids at home, and I was a doctoral student,” Bioteau said.
Then, seven years ago, she became the seventh president and first woman CEO of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), an institution accessible at 13 sites with approximately 60,000 students. Last year, according to her bio-sketch on SLCC’s website, she received the Outstanding Achievement Award in Education awarded by YMCA and the Salt Lake Chamber’s Athena Award. And recently the Utah Business Magazine named her as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Utah. She serves on both local and national associations, including the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Trustees, the Board of Directors for Regence Blue Cross and Blue Shield. She is also the current national President of the American Association of Women in Community Colleges.
She is a great supporter for women entrepreneurs, and this perception showed signs as early as her childhood, in which one of her favorite authors was Carolyn Keene, who wrote the Nancy Drew mystery stories.
“I was a child in the 1950s and at that time there were very few children or young adolescent books that had women as their main characters or heroines, and Nancy Drew was one of the few,” Bioteau said. “I think, you know, when I look back to what part of things intrigued me as a child, finding stories I can identify with was really important to me.”
However, despite her successful career and the many important positions she holds in the community, she only ranks her Ph.D. and being the president of SLCC as the second and third greatest achievements in life.
“I would say my biggest achievement in life has nothing to do with work,” Bioteau said. “It’s raising two children who have become young adults, who are actually better people than I am. They are contributing to not only life and society, but they are really good people. That’s my greatest achievement.”
She has once dropped out of her full-time career for twelve years to be a stay-home mom until her two children went to high school and college. But now she said she is most fortunate that she only has to balance time with her husband, since her two children are fully grown. Every few months she tries to schedule a long weekend in order to spend time out of town to relax.
“I don’t think I can do my job as a CEO or a president of an institution of higher education, if I still had little kids at home,” Bioteau said. “It’s very hard to balance because to do my job well as a president, I feel as if i need to be engaged with the community and business leaders—I mean I have my regular job as being at the college during the day and I can be out three or four nights a week interfacing with the community.”
Having been the president of SLCC for seven years, Bioteau has brought a new breath of life to SLCC by redefining its importance in the community.
She recalled when she arrived at SLCC seven years ago, people were embarrassed to be associated with the college because of the reputation it had built for itself wasn’t as great as it could be. Reconstructing SLCC’s reputation was one of her first and major tasks.
The process was like raising a child, she said, in which she had to build pride and self-respect internally before the child can exude it externally. And the key was to help SLCC’s faculty and staff, as well as students, to believe in themselves and the college first. Then she made the idea more public and helped people understand why SLCC is important not only to the community, but also to the high education system as a whole.
“I think turning the whole reputation and feel and purpose for Salt Lake Community College around both internally and externally would be my greatest achievement here,” Bioteau said.
Yet this was not her only challenge when she arrived at her current job. Being the first woman president of SLCC—she made a note that this is only her individual perception—she found herself going to every discussion and meeting “more than prepared.” She believed if she were a man, she would not have to be doubly prepared for discussion, but she also pointed out that regardless of gender, one must always be competent and prepared.
However, Bioteau is grateful for what this extra preparation has done to her.
“If you want to compete and be part of the round-table discussion or around the table, you need to understand the reality,” she said. “But then look at the reality and see how it makes you even better than what you do.”
Being a female college president was not the only thing new to Bioteau when she entered SLCC. Adapting to an environment where the majority of people are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—she is not a Mormon—was also new. However, just like her previous job at a community college in North Carolina where the majority is Southern Baptists—she is not a Baptist either—she said she approached this position by showing respect, learning the culture within which she entered and focusing on the reason she came for. In this way, she does not see it as anything different than what she would do in any other part of the country: understanding the culture and bringing the importance of education to it.
“For example, I try not to have college events on Monday nights, because I know that for many LDS families, that’s family night,” she said. “Or we have an institute of religious study on our campus. When I am asked to speak at their Friday forum or other activities, I always go.”
Bioteau also does other things to keep SLCC’s employees and students connected. She holds open forums throughout the year on all of the 13 sites and has open discussion time. Every month she holds a luncheon with her employees in which the first ten to sign up can have lunch and shares their opinions with her. With the help of technology, she is able to share her life with her college folks, but she emphasized that it is the human touch and relationship that make people feel important and keep everyone connected and stays on the same goal.
With such great efforts and hard work, Bioteau has successfully helped SLCC become one of the national premier comprehensive colleges. Last year, SLCC was the third community college in the nation for the number of associate degrees awarded. In the future, she plans to further increase the number of students who complete their goals, whether it is an associate degree, a certificate or a workforce training. She hopes to help people in Utah understand why SLCC is an important piece and partner in the higher education of the state as well.
“Here is my goal, that Salt Lake Community College is the best community college in the entire country,” Bioteau said.