Patty Erjavec took a “giant, giant leap of faith” to become president of Pueblo Community College — and her impact after eight years in the role has been just as great.

“Dr. Erjavec encourages her faculty and staff to be creative, innovative and ambitious,” PCC Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Alexander wrote on behalf of the PCC leadership team. “This spirit has resulted in new academic programs, aggressive pursuit of funding for career training and visits by luminary figures.”

Under Erjavec’s leadership, Alexander said PCC has “received frequent recognition not only for the quality of its programs, but also for its continual willingness to give back to the community.”

Erjavec’s path to her role as PCC president was far from typical.

“I am what many would consider a nontraditional president because I didn’t start my career in education; I actually started it in business and industry,” she said. “I was appointed to the State Board for Community Colleges and Occupational Education in 2001 and I served on that board for eight years — and during that time I fell in love with the role and mission of community college. It very much aligned with the work that I was doing with at-risk students. So when the presidency here at PCC came about, I was asked if I would consider stepping into that role.”

And when Erjavec started as PCC president, she also enrolled at UCCS.

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“I knew that having a Ph.D. was going to be very important if I was going to have the credibility with the faculty,” she said.

Juggling the PCC presidency and her family with her doctoral studies for three years, Erjavec recalls “working tirelessly,” taking her textbooks and research whenever she travelled on behalf of the college, and filling every spare minute.

“It really helped me, personally, to have that additional education and to look at things differently,” she said. “Being a leader, it’s not industry-specific, but it’s being able to appreciate and understand how your leadership affects different folks. That’s where I really gained a true appreciation for the educational industry versus business and industry.”

Erjavec describes herself as a “servant leader,” saying her role is to support those around her.

“… It really is just having a passion for the role and mission of whatever it is you’re doing, and believing and surrounding yourself with great people, and then giving them the support and the resources and the vision that they need to go forward,” she said.

Mentoring is important to Erjavec, and she recalls those who were “courageous enough and caring enough to tell me when I wasn’t performing at my best, or coach me to look at things differently.

“Not everybody is willing to do that, because you don’t know how that’s going to be received. So you really do have to have some courage. … Everybody has a choice on how they receive that feedback, and what you do with that feedback.”

Erjavec approaches mentoring others the same way.

“I try to be very honest and very transparent, hold people to very high standards and accountability, and I know that’s not easy in itself. … But I think, at the end of the day, if you really care about somebody, you’re willing to invest in them [and] push them to be the best they can be.”

It’s an exciting time to be a community college president, Erjavec said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done in higher education, and I think that right now community colleges are being looked at in a totally different light than they ever have been looked at before,” she said. “The nation — business and industry — are looking at us to fill that skills gap, and it’s a real issue. So it’s almost like we’re in a Camelot period right now, where engaging students and providing them with the skills that they need is the best place to be. But having said that, access and affordability are also a challenge, so it’s not only providing education, but providing all those wraparound services that students need to persist and complete. Those are huge challenges.”

These days, Erjavec is inspired by her own students.

“I haven’t led a charmed life by any means,” she said, “but when I hear their stories and when I see what they’ve been able to achieve with very little family support or any sort of infrastructure or ecosystem around them, I feel very humbled and grateful to have the life I have — and they give me the energy just to keep going. … [I have] the passion for students’ success and the passion for my community, southern Colorado, to continue to grow and thrive. Education is just the heartbeat of that, and anything I can do to help bring business and industry and higher education and K-12, everyone together — that’s what I’m all about.”

— Helen Robinson

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Helen Robinson is a graduate of The University of Queensland, Australia, and has worked in print media in Australia and Canada as well as the United States. Her beats include cybersecurity and aerospace and defense. She joined the Colorado Springs Business Journal in 2016.