Olive-Harvey College President Kimberly Hollingsworth: Leading By Example


Kimberly Hollingsworth is the president of Olive-Harvey College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. Situated on the southeast side of Chicago, the 67-acre community college campus houses a state-of-the-art transportation, distribution, and logistics center and an on-site cannabis greenhouse where students get hands-on learning experiences that prepare them for a wide range of in-demand careers. A comprehensive community college, students at Olive-Harvey learn English or earn their high school equivalency for free, earn career-focused certificates, and associate degrees that transfer to four-year universities. 

When I was growing up in East St. Louis, I wasn’t what you’d call “college-minded.” Most of my family was in the military, so I thought that would be my path, too. But my father helped me see that the military might not be the right—or the only—path for me. After much soul-searching, I decided to go to Eastern Illinois University for two years on an Army ROTC Scholarship. This decision proved to change the trajectory of my future in ways I had could not have anticipated.

As anyone in my family would tell you, I have always been strong minded, and I’ve always liked to be in charge at all times. With a career in business in my sights, I declared my major and even started working toward a Master in Business in Administration; but after taking a job as an admissions counselor at Eastern, I changed majors and went on to earn my Master in Education. I learned that it’s ok to change your mind—just keep moving.

Throughout my  career, this has been my mind-set– to keep moving and to keep moving forward.  Early on, I worked in advising and admissions, helping students from all backgrounds. What set many apart was that they were working toward a goal. That goal may, of course, change like it did for me. But I encourage students not to let go of one goal before they have a plan for their next step.

Whether we are talking about leading a college or earning an associate degree, there will always be barriers. I’ve always been driven, but as a first-generation college student, there was a lot to navigate. I think that being able to empathize with our students’ experiences helps me to be an effective leader—and advocate.

For example, when my high school was shut down, I had to transfer to a new one where I was only one of a few students of color. I did not feel at all supported by my counselors. At Olive-Harvey College, we work tirelessly to help our students set and reach whatever goals they are here to achieve. Walking side-by-side with our students makes us a supportive and compassionate community. As a leader, I have high standards and high expectations, and I’m always looking out for what can make us better as an institution. And I’m always ready to listen, because you never know where the next great idea will come from.

That’s why we need more women in leadership. I think we are often more likely to focus on a solution without having to be right. I don’t always try to win—I try to solve the problem. Only about one third of college and university presidents are women—and while that’s a good start, women in leadership roles break down barriers and show everyone what women can and should achieve. Our students and our communities need strong female role models, mentors, and supporters at all levels and in all industries.

One of my own role models is Zerrie Campbell, former President at Malcolm X College. She was a huge advocate of pushing the envelope, encouraging others to do more, and to do it better. Her example is something I try to emulate in my own leadership. She helped me learn that sometimes you need to fail to get the experience. Then you’ll do better next time.

I hope I’m setting an example, too. You don’t need to know what you’re going to do with your life. Your path may change. But take that first step. I’ve been at City Colleges of Chicago for 23 years, from transfer center director at Harold Washington College, to assistant dean of students at Daley College, then dean of students, to dean of instruction, and vice president of academic affairs at Malcolm X College before coming to Olive-Harvey in 2018. I clearly found the path that worked for me, and now I’m lucky enough to be able to help students find theirs. And how powerful is that?