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Celebrating the Legacy of President Carole A. Cowan
you really had the opportunity to influence students and set
them on a path to find their own career," Cowan said.
The mother of one son, Kevin, Cowan began pursuing
her advanced degrees in education. "I knew that in order
to advance within that profession, you had to have the
advanced credentials. But at the time, I was still at the high
school level, maybe trying for a department chair. Really, I
was thinking about trying to be a school superintendent," she
said. Why aim so high, so early? "I wanted a rank within an
organization where I would have had the ability affect change,
or influence policy making. But at that time, everyone told me
that wasn't the kind of a job they would give to a woman."
Because of those barriers, Cowan decided to bring her
teaching skills to the college level. She pursued a
Certificate in Advanced Graduate Studies at Boston State
College, where much of her coursework focused on the hot
topic of desegregation. It was then she started honing in
on higher education.
And so it was in September of 1976 that Cowan took on
the full class schedule teaching accounting and secretarial
studies for Middlesex. By the end of her first two semesters,
the student body had elected Cowan teacher of the year at
Middlesex. She was literally one of the last to know she
won the honor, though. She didn't attend the awards
dinner, but found herself receiving accolades from several
of her colleagues the next morning on her way into
her VA classroom.
At the time, Middlesex was only six years old, one of the last
to join the state's 15-member community college system. But
in its bleak VA environs, Cowan wasn't sure how much growth
was in her or MCC's - future.
Before long, Cowan was recruited to take over MCC's Faculty
Staff Administration, which would put her in a position to
work closely with the college administration. "I think other
faculty thought here's someone new, let's let her make her
mark, let her have an opportunity to lead," Cowan recalled.
At the time, the faculty and staff numbered somewhere
around 60 full-timers.
"I accepted that nomination even though I didn't fully grasp
what it was going to mean to me, because I saw it as a
leadership opportunity at the college," Cowan said. "I always
worked by the stepping-stone model, seeing opportunities to
lead and serve and doing them to the best of my abilities."
Next up for Cowan, was an elevation to chair of the college's
business department. And it was then, at the beginning of
the 1980s, that the college started eyeing an expansion to a
Burlington campus, at the Francis Wyman School. Cowan was
given the reins of that expansion by the college's first
President, James Houlihan, and she was chartered with
growing the college's business division. It was an
assignment she accepted eagerly.
Under her oversight, Middlesex became the first
community college in the state to create a workforce
development program, and began reaching out to partners
in the private sector.
"We were just responding to the needs of our communities.
Our help was welcomed by our business partners," Cowan
said. Meanwhile, cosmetic changes at the Wyman School
were underway, with Cowan applying her real estate skills to
the property, sprucing it up with flowers, fresh coats of paints
and creating a welcoming environment for its students.
As the 1980s progressed, though, Cowan wondered if she
had reached her apex with Middlesex, and thought about
seeking opportunities elsewhere - until she started hearing
murmurings that the college was considering an expansion
into Lowell, a Mill City about 15 miles north of Bedford.
"Suddenly we started hearing language on campus
Opportunity in Lowell," said Cowan. "The idea reinvigorated