SANFORD, Fla. (June 7, 2023) – In 1990 Seminole State College of Florida was Seminole Community College with founding president Dr. Earl Weldon at the helm, a single campus in Sanford/Lake Mary and an eager English professor who had just been hired to join the faculty. That’s where Dr. Laura Ross, who rose from professor to vice president of Academic Affairs, entered Seminole State’s history. Fast forward to today, and she has retired this summer after more than 30 years at the College.
When Dr. E. Ann McGee became president in 1996, Ross was there. When the College expanded to serve the business community at the Port of Sanford, added new buildings on the Sanford/Lake Mary Campus and opened new campuses in Oviedo, Heathrow and Altamonte Springs, she was there. And when Seminole State expanded its educational offerings with DirectConnect to UCF® and the addition of its first bachelor’s degree to become a state college, Ross was there.
While Seminole State was becoming the educational powerhouse it is today, Ross was advancing through the ranks and touching countless lives along the way. But climbing the career ladder wasn’t her goal. “I just looked at where I was needed,” Ross said. “I never ever had a plan to be a vice president. I was very happy being an English professor.”
When the English department chair retired in 1995, it was Ross’ colleagues who encouraged her to take on the role. “Fellow English professors came to me and said, ‘Well, of course, you can do this,’” Ross said. “The seed was planted, and then I thought, ‘That is kind of interesting.’” So, Ross applied and became the new chair, serving in that role from 1995 to 2001.
Balancing Acts and Bold Moves
With opportunity and advancement came more work and responsibility. Ross’ years as chair of the English department coincided with a time of great expansion at the College coupled with her balancing a busy home life with a husband and teenage son. At the time, English was the College’s largest department, and the workload was building.
“Dr. [David] Harrison was VP [of Educational Programs] at the time, and I told him that I didn’t think I could do my best given the amount of work,” Ross said. “I was ready to return to the classroom. Now that I think about it, that was a bold move that could have ended my administrative career.” Instead, with that “bold move” Ross got her wish and returned to the classroom for a year.
It was during that year that the College integrated PeopleSoft, the system branded at the College as MySeminoleState. That was a major undertaking involving many departments, including much work to be done in the curriculum department. Once again, there was a need, and Ross was asked to step in as interim director of curriculum and program review. “I learned a lot about that role,” Ross said. “It was my first foray into learning about other departments and other parts of the College.”
About that time, Seminole Community College received a Title III grant to establish its Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, and Ross was tapped to lead the center. Then, she was asked to run the College’s honors center, now the Grindle Honors Institute. Not one to shy away from an opportunity, Ross agreed. “When opportunity knocks…If this is where they need help, then I’ll help,” Ross said of her decision to run the faculty center and the honors institute at the same time.
In a little over a decade and with encouragement from others along the way, Ross went from teaching in the English department, to dual leadership roles, to full-time director of the honors institute. But opportunity wasn’t done knocking. Less than a year after Seminole Community College announced its first bachelor’s degree and became Seminole State College of Florida in 2009, the dean of the Arts and Sciences Division retired, and another opening appeared. Dr. E. Ann McGee, who was president at the time, noticed that Ross had once applied to be dean of the Oviedo Campus, so she suggested that Ross go for the dean of Arts and Sciences position. Another seed was planted, and Ross became dean in 2010.
Rising to the Occasion
Just as Ross was named dean of Arts and Sciences, responsible for managing the College’s core academic courses and faculty, plans to form a faculty union were underway. Ross recalled that was a challenging time that yielded positive outcomes that are among the accomplishments she’s most proud of, not only for herself but for the many who participated in that process.
“Work with the union has been evolving,” Ross said. “What started out as an adversarial relationship moved to interest-based bargaining. We realized there’s a better way to deal with conflict. That changed the culture with faculty and administration. I feel really proud to be a part of that.”
While that piece of Seminole State’s culture was changing, more doors were opening for Ross. With the vice president of Academic Affairs (VPAA) advancing to become president at another college, Ross knew there would be a need for someone to lead Academic Affairs in an interim role. She rose to the occasion yet again, splitting academic duties with then-President McGee. “I learned a lot in my interim year,” she said. “When I joined the Executive Team, they were all there to help me and support me. I never felt alone.” In fact, it was the encouragement of her fellow Executive Team members that inspired her to apply to become full-time VPAA, a role she said she never planned to pursue.
Throughout her career, “People saw potential in me before I did,” Ross said. “There was no master plan to get this role. I just looked around and said, ‘Yeah, I can help with that.’”
That willingness to help where needed led to opportunities and accomplishments Ross considers highlights of her career, from serving on the naming committee when the College became Seminole State and offered its first bachelor’s degree to the addition of 10 more bachelor’s degrees over the years to meet community and workforce needs. “It was a huge move for us. It was hard work. I really wanted to get those education degrees,” Ross said of the College expanding its offerings in Fall 2022 to include Bachelor of Science degrees in Elementary Education K-6 and Exceptional Student Education K-12. “I was proud to be a part of that as an educator myself.”
Paying it Forward
With her own success bolstered by words of encouragement and helping hands along the way, Ross has worked to pay it forward throughout her tenure at Seminole State. As director of the Grindle Honors Institute, she recognized brilliance and determination in her students and submitted the nominations for several students who would go on to win a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, one of the nation’s most prestigious and lucrative scholarships.
As longtime supporters of Seminole State, Ross and her family also established The Ross Family Endowed Scholarship in 2016 to provide tuition and book assistance to Seminole State students in need.
With all her service and achievements during the past three decades, Ross was quick to give praise for the efforts taking place among her colleagues collegewide. “This is a great institution. We do amazing things,” she said. “We have outstanding faculty and academic leadership. We are in a great spot, and continuous improvement is important.”
As for what’s next for Seminole State, Ross noted that this is a crucial time for higher education filled with the potential to better serve students, improve graduation and persistence rates, and continue the academic excellence for which the College was named a semifinalist for the 2023 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “I think we really need to get that Aspen Prize,” Ross added with a smile. With her charge to focus on continuous improvement and her legacy of leadership and service as guidance, Seminole State is well on its way.
In recognition of Ross’ impact and dedication to Seminole State, the College honored her with the unveiling of the Dr. Laura O. Ross Reading Room during her May 3 retirement reception, where her family, friends and colleagues gathered to wish her well. Inside the reading room in the Sanford/Lake Mary Campus library hangs a plaque with Ross’ image and these words that say it best:
“Throughout her career at Seminole State College, Dr. Laura Ross served as a tireless advocate for students and the College. From English professor to vice president of Academic Affairs, she provided exemplary leadership and served as a role model, encouraging colleagues to excel and students to push their intellectual boundaries. Her legacy is one of remarkable achievement and lasting inspiration.”
About Seminole State College of Florida
Seminole State College of Florida, established in 1965, serves more than 25,000 students across six sites in Central Florida. A full-service education provider, Seminole State has thrived by adapting to and meeting the needs of an ever-changing, vibrant community. Seminole State offers 11 bachelor’s degrees in high-demand, high-growth fields; two-year associate degrees; specialized certificates; continuing professional education; adult education and guaranteed admission via DirectConnect to UCF® to the University of Central Florida for Associate in Arts (A.A.) graduates. By offering flexible, affordable, high-quality educational programs and services, the College continues to help students learn, succeed and GO Far. For more about Seminole State, visit seminolestate.edu.