College's president will add diversity
Cynthia Azari, incoming Butler County Community College president, learned the importance of education early.
She remembers working as a youngster pulling bags of cotton through the farm fields where her parents were migrant workers.
"We would go to California and pick grapes and cotton," she recalled. She added, "I was determined not to do that the rest of my life."
By the time she was in second grade, Azari knew she wanted to become an educator.
Now 50, Azari is preparing to become Butler County Community College's first Mexican American and first female president.
She acknowledges she has "very big shoes" to fill — she replaces longtime college President Fred Bartok.
"He has really built a wonderful institution with a great reputation, and I would like to continue that," said Azari, who takes over as president Nov. 1. Bartok will remain in an advisory capacity until stepping down in December.
But Azari said she brings a new perspective to BC3 based on her work at community colleges in Texas and Washington state and her personal background.
After her parents divorced when she was in fifth grade, Azari and her brothers and sisters moved to Austin, Texas, where they lived with their mother and maternal grandparents.
"My grandfather's grandmother was born at the Alamo when it was part of Mexico," she recalled.
Azari graduated in 1974 from Huston College in Austin with a bachelor's degree in government. In 1977, she earned a master's degree in education administration and, a year later, picked up a master's in industrial relations, both from West Virginia University.
And in 1996, she earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Seattle (Wash.) University.
Ray Steffler, chairman of the BC3 board of trustees, said he was pleased with the choice of Azari as the new president.
"I'm very impressed with her credentials," he said.
Azari, who will be paid about $95,000 annually, said BC3's wide variety of programs and curricula will offer a change of pace from her current academic environs. Now the vice president of instruction at Olympic College in Bremerton, Wash., Azari said there are more than a half-dozen community colleges in the Seattle area, each focusing on one or two specialties. Olympic is a community college.
Azari, who still lives in Bremerton, would like to see BC3 work more closely with business and industry in Butler County in hopes of developing training programs that will allow county residents to find meaningful jobs in the community.
Olympic College is involved heavily in contract training programs with the U.S. Navy, as well as local businesses, she said. Courses ranging from pipefitting to fire training are offered through the college to Navy personnel, as well as civilians.
"We also do culinary arts. We have one of two programs in the country in culinary arts for the Navy," Azari said.
Thanks to such innovative programs, among other things, Azari is convinced community colleges will play an increasingly important role in the lives of students.
"I think that a lot of people want four-year degrees, but more and more people are seeing the value of community colleges," she said.
"People see that there are not only smaller classes, but it's a lot more economical."
The cost of attending a community college is typically much less than attending a four-year college or university, she said.
In addition to low costs and small class sizes, locations close to home are luring a wider variety of students, including younger students, Azari said.
"When I came here (to Olympic College) 11 years ago, our average student age was 32. (The average) is now 26. And I think that's a trend across the country," Azari explained. "Our students are getting younger and younger because people are seeing the value and the worth of the community college."
Facilities like the $17.25 million Science, Technology and Cultural Center, recently completed at BC3, should help keep the trend alive in Butler County.
"I would like to see the college be the center of cultural activity (in the county). That would allow us to really connect with the community," she said.
Her selection as BC3 president reconnects Azari and her husband, Bijan, a civil engineer, with western Pennsylvania. Both became familiar with the area while studying at West Virginia University.
That and BC3's unique location, makes the job almost a dream come true, Azari said.
"I was looking for a community college in a nice setting in a quiet area with a big city nearby, with all the amenities," she said.
Before being named vice president of instruction at Olympic College, Azari spent three years as associate dean for business, engineering and related occupations at the school.
Prior to that, Azari served as director of the education division of the Texas State Property Tax Board and technical coordinator and associate director of admissions at Austin (Texas) Community College.
She and her husband have two adult children.
Azari is eager to make the transition to her new job.
"It will certainly be a change, but I think change is good," she said.