Leaders Driving Change: Dr. Tenisha James, Norco College

Centering equity and student voice to improve success for all students

Watch the video and keep reading below to learn more about Dr. Tenisha James

At Norco College, students are getting tailored support through the onboarding process to reach their academic and career goals. At orientation, students are asked to fill out mini-surveys and answer questions like: What are your interests? What are your goals? What do you need more assistance with? What are your perceived strengths? What programs would you like more information about? Afterwards, students receive personalized outreach based on their answers, and many students have been connected to academic support, financial aid, and career development services and resources that they otherwise might not have known about or accessed. 

“It’s been a huge step in this direction of really what it means to onboard a student with their student needs first,” says Dr. Tenisha James, Norco’s dean of student services, who led the team that developed and embedded the holistic student support survey in the onboarding process  to ensure that colleges proactively provide  a robust set of resources to support students on their paths towards degrees and good jobs.

During discussions of college services or programs, “One of the first things Dr. James will say is ‘Have we talked to our students?’ making sure students are included in everything we do,” says Dr. Monica Green, president of Norco College. 

“She leads with compassion, with a student-focused attention to detail, and with the understanding that the time has passed for waiting, the time has passed for making excuses for bad systems or things that are systemically racist or systemically just not helping,” says Melissa Bader, professor of English and James’ co-lead on Guided Pathways. “The idea that school is a gatekeeper needs to be gone. That’s one of the things that Tenisha brings to every conversation.”

Before working in higher education, Tenisha James was the lead counselor at two large public high schools in south-central Los Angeles. Her career in higher education began in federally funded TRIO programs, providing services and support to first-generation high school and college students. Working in those programs at Compton College and Riverside City College, she says, “I had the chance of really seeing what it looks like when you provide intentional, personalized, and responsive supports to students and how you can take some of the most vulnerable students and elevate them beyond even what they could have imagined for themselves.”

But, she realized that there was a need to serve students beyond the context of specialized programs.  

“That special program work is so meaningful”, she says, “but when you’re only serving 60 students, 100 students, 300 students, there’s only so much you can do to really change the narrative of how to make our college student-ready.”

This realization sparked her interest in Guided Pathways, a framework for community colleges to design and implement practices that provide appropriate structure and support for students to improve their experiences and shorten their time to degrees. By the time Dr. James started working at Norco College five years ago, the college had begun to transform how they support students to move on to the next step in their education and was deeply invested in transitioning to the Guided Pathways model. As a result, student outcomes–including transfer rates–had begun to show a slow but steady rise.

Leadership at Norco is committed to centering equity in Guided Pathways. Located east of Los Angeles in the growing Inland Empire region, Norco enrolls approximately 15,000 students per year – 75 percent  of whom are  Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Filipino/Pacific Islander students, and 41 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen qualify for Pell Grants, a key indicator that they are from low-income backgrounds. 

In 2016, Norco became one of 20 schools selected to join the California Guided Pathways Project, which provided training and support to accelerate and embed the Guided Pathways framework on their campuses. In 2020, Norco College was invited to join the second phase of the project.

“Putting my toe in the water, so to speak, of Guided Pathways really energized me and gave me a chance to see exactly what it looks like to re-envision our college to be student ready,” says James. “So that’s part of this journey – it starts from a place of racial justice and equity for all students, and then really was catapulted by this need to see the power of special programs at work, and what that looks like to provide that ‘special program’ experience to all students.”

Dr. James now leads both the Guided Pathways and student equity and achievement work at the community college – a unique position that allows her to center equity and student voice strategically and operationally throughout the campus.

In the past year, Dr. James has worked to elevate student voices beyond the student surveys during onboarding by developing Guided Pathways project teams to tackle specific challenges, an idea borrowed from American River College, another participant in the California Guided Pathways Project. Each Norco project team includes a faculty member, an administrator, a classified professional, and one or two students. On the project teams, the students have a “real voice,” says Dr. James. 

When asked to give feedback about counseling, the students spoke loudly and clearly. They wanted counselors who knew their names and their personal stories. James says that as a result of the feedback, counseling at Norco has changed. Counselors have access to the holistic student surveys, so they have more data to address the needs of students and create a plan.

“Going into Norco College, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” says Tharek Phounsavat, a recent alumnus and former project team member who has gone on to transfer to a four-year university. “While I was there, I got a lot of help from the counselors and advisors on campus, as well as other faculty members. They all just guided me to make sure that I was successful and to make sure that I stayed on track with the timeline I had planned out for myself regarding my academic future.”

While on a project team, Phounsavat says the team members would consistently ask him what he thought as a student. “I always felt very included in the discussion.” He says the effort to better understand students was important to supporting their unique needs, given that the school offers support to many students in complex situations, from working while in school, to taking care of families, to facing unstable housing.

Dr. James says the project teams have not just accelerated Norco’s progress in creating and implementing student-centered practices but advanced the institutionalization of Guided Pathways and equity throughout campus. “People have collective ownership for this work instead of just one or two key people,” she says. “It becomes this living thing on its own, where it’s not dependent upon this one person, so no one person topples the dominoes.”

“We really have to re-imagine what it looks like to be focused on the end goal for our students because they’re coming to us for a career, not just to have a degree for a degree’s sake,” says Dr. James. “So what does it look like for us to think about how we help move and provide economic mobility for these students? That’s what Guided Pathways is to me – it’s about economic mobility, it’s about racial justice, it’s about removing institutional and systemic barriers to student success for all students.”


Watch the video spotlight with Dr. James.


Through College Futures Foundation’s Leaders Driving Change recognition series, we’re lifting up leaders, institutions, and organizations committed to equitable, student-centered support and a culture of continuous improvement. We’re focusing on individuals and teams who are easing student transitions, providing holistic student supports, and prioritizing equity and inclusivity.

Topics: Leadership