Dr. Barbara Gaba, president of Atlantic Cape Community College. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Cape Community College.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

MAYS LANDING – Being “the first” at anything can come with a lot of pressure because all eyes are on you to see what kind of impact you will make.

For Dr. Barbara Gaba, she said she did not feel any of that pressure when she was named the first woman and the first African-American to lead Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing in February 2017.

Now, 2½ years into her term as president, guiding not only the Mays Landing campus, but those in Atlantic City and Cape May, Gaba said she is enjoying her time making a difference.

“People were making a big deal about it, but I haven’t really put any pressure on myself because I’ve always wanted to be successful. In any job that I’ve taken, and this has been no different, I just took an extra job and next step, progression of my career.

“When I read about the job, I was confident that I could do it. Otherwise I wouldn’t have taken it. I’ve been in higher education for over 40 years, so I knew what I was getting into and I knew the landscape. When I first took the job, I had so many people who called me, people in higher education, people in the community who said, if there’s any way we can help you or assist you, please let us know. So I did have that support,” she added.

Gaba earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Stony Brook University, her master’s from Rutgers University and her Ph.D. in educational psychology at Bayero University. She rose the ladder in the education field, serving as dean of academic and student services at Camden County College.

Before joining Atlantic Cape, she was provost and associate vice president of academic affairs at Union County College in Cranford, N.J.

She said her biggest accomplishment at Atlantic Cape to date was making sure the institution was re-accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

“That was a big project that involved over 75 members of our faculty and our staff working together to tell our story,” Gaba said. “It was our self-study, and we were successfully re-accredited with no recommendations, which is excellent.”

Gaba also praised new marketing efforts for Atlantic Cape allowing it to connect with new students, with the new tagline, “See where the Cape can take you.”

“We have students on our bulletin boards with the capes flying and Atlantic Cape,” said Gaba, who also pointed to the redesign of the college’s website. “That was a major project. We invested in a new look which makes the website easier to navigate. We received national recognition for our service to students with disabilities and it was published in Inside Higher Education. That’s read by million people a month.

“They did a whole story on Atlantic Cape about how we’re serving students with disabilities. So we’re getting a lot of national recognition. We also established an early college high school with Pleasantville High School. These are just some of our accomplishments so far,”  she added.

While managing three campuses may sound like a headache, Gaba said she has been blessed with outstanding personnel in each location. Maria Kellett is the dean of the Cape May County Campus and associate dean of resource development. Donna Vassallo, is the dean of continuing education and Worthington Atlantic City campus.

“It’s not difficult because I have outstanding deans who oversee those campuses and it’s the teamwork,” Gaba said. “They take care of all the day-to-day preparations of our campuses in Atlantic City and Cape May. I mean I really don’t have to worry about it because there are good people who work together to serve students. Of course, I go there quite often. But these are people understand our mission. They are very, very committed to fulfilling the mission of the college.”

Gaba said each campus has a different personality and carry its own distinct students, challenges and needs. She said she enjoys meeting the students at each campus and community groups at the location, which helps her stay connected to the areas.

“It’s very, very important for me to stay connected with the community,” Gaba said. “I think it would be difficult if I didn’t have a good team there. But the people there are fantastic,” she added.

Gaba counts her late mother Johnnie Mae Ekpo as one of her greatest inspirations. She stressed education with her children while only having a high school diploma herself, encouraging them to earn higher education degrees.

Ekpo would attend college herself in her 50s to earn her own college degree. She died four years ago at 87 and Gaba named a scholarship in her honor for non-traditional students returning to school. Gaba said so far she has given out 10 $1,000 scholarships to needy students in honor of her mother.

“She had a very strong influence on my life,” Gaba said. “She always supported me and my brother and sister to embrace as much education as possible so that we could have the opportunities in life that she did not have. I get my strong work ethic from her.

“Most of my staff and others will tell me that I’m very, very organized, I write lists and I make a plan. I definitely get this from my mother. She had to struggle to raise three children alone after my father died. She was very strong about going to get an education.

“She eventually became a civil servant with the City of New York and ultimately went on to college when she was in her 50s and she graduated from Fordham University with a degree in Urban Affairs. She told people if I could put all of my kids through college, then she had to go get a degree herself,” Gaba said.

“My husband and I met when we were students in graduate school, so we’ve been married over 40 years,” Gaba said. “He’s always been very, very supportive of me. He’s always been very supportive and been one of my chief cheerleaders. Both of my daughters, who are accomplished in their own right, also been very supportive of me. And in fact, when we all get together, we talk about work and we talk about our projects, what we’re working on and how we can help each other. So I come from a very supportive family, and a very high achieving family.”

Gaba said while the lure of New York City is not far, she said she had made a home in New Jersey and has solidly planted her roots in the Garden State.

“I’ve lived in New Jersey for the past 30 years and I love the Garden State,” Gaba said. “Atlantic City is here and you’ve got Cape May. We’ve got the beaches, great, great restaurants and great entertainment. So what more can you ask for?”

Gaba said whenever she wants to see a Broadway show, New York is not far away and recently saw “Hamilton.”

Gaba touched on many other things during her interview with Front Runner New Jersey.com. Here are some of the highlights.

FRNJ: How does it feel being a role model, particularly for African-Americans who hope to aspire to where you are today?

Dr. Barbara Gaba: Yes. Well, people do tell me that I am a role model and I’m very honored by that. So I think that means that people are watching me or looking at me. And my mother always told me, “Always do your best work since you don’t know who’s watching.” So I continue to do my best work. I’m driven by the passion that I have to help students to be successful. I do give back by mentoring those coming up in higher education and others. So I try to live up to the expectations, the high expectations that people have of me.

FRNJ: When someone earns a degree from Atlantic Cape, what do you hope they walk away from beyond the degree itself?

Dr. Barbara Gaba: They’re going to walk away with a very recognized associate degree and they can go on to a four-year college. We have many arrangements so students can transfer to a four-year college and join the workforce. They can go to a four year college or go work in the workforce.

But I want them to leave here as good citizens. I want them to be civic minded. I want them to leave with a commitment to give back and serve their community. And also too, they will walk away with very little student debt because we are very, very affordable. Of course, our graduates tell us how impressed they are of the quality of instruction and the dedication of our faculty and staff. But I want them to leave here not only with the academic knowledge and the workforce skills, but with a strong civic mindedness way of looking at the world so they can pay it forward. And we can do that.

FRNJ: What do you see yourself doing in five years?

Dr. Barbara Gaba: I plan to be here at Atlantic Cape, continuing to partner with our stakeholders in the high schools, our stakeholders at the college, nonprofits, the county governments and other people that want to help students reach their educational goals. I want to continue working with them and collaborating with them to achieve their goals.

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