Amidst her journey toward leadership, Kirkwood Community College President Dr. Lori Sundberg has always found herself thrust into the role of “firsts.”
As the college’s first female president and a former first generation college student, the strategic planner has bravely navigated these roles by solidly establishing relationships, building bridges and opening doors throughout much of her career in higher education.
As the college’s fifth president, Sundberg largely attributes the success of these decisions to her collaborative approach when engaging and leading others, she said.
“It is my belief that we can create more opportunities for students and for the college when we partner with others,” Sundberg added. “Resources are scarce and so when you partner, you pool resources for a common goal.”
As such her leadership style is recognized and valued among academics in the field.
“President Sundberg was one of the first individuals to reach out to me when I arrived in Iowa City, and I have valued her from day one,” said Dr. Barbara Wilson, President of The University of Iowa. “Her leadership of Kirkwood Community College, one of the key institutions in our area has been instrumental in our collective process.”
Now nearly five years into her current role, she plans to pass the helm to a new leader as she anticipates her retirement next year – a calling that allows her to pursue interests and opportunities unattainable while simultaneously managing the day-to-day rigors of the presidency, she said.
“Personally, I have lots I want to do,” Sundberg said. “Over the years I’ve missed a lot because I had a job that was demanding and overall pretty consuming. I have a lot of interests and want the opportunity to participate in exploring them … and I’ve had to put that on hold over the years.”
Nonetheless, she recounts her current work days as long, often starting before 8 a.m., full of meetings and often ending after 5 p.m., and her work continues into the weekend. Sundberg’s role is “a 24 hour, 365-day per year job” which she said keeps her attached to her phone.
Additionally, Sundberg is active in the community through involvement on local boards, as well as three at the national level and another in an international capacity. Furthermore, in recent months her continued efforts at leveraging partnerships to strengthen the college academically has led to a [3+ 1] agreement with the University of Iowa’s College of Nursing to create a pathway for Kirkwood nursing students to obtain a BSN degree, as well as an upcoming Aviation Maintenance Technician Program in partnership with the Eastern Iowa Airport, which will begin training students in aviation mechanics in the fall of 2023.
But aside from these accolades, she recounts one of her fondest moments at the college is the instrumental work taken to help the college win several competitive grants which support TRIO program students, many from first-generation and low-income families, as well as realizing the completion and opening of the new 113,000 square foot Iowa Hall Student Center, a nearly five-year project completed this fall that now serves as a space to fully enhance the student experience, both academically and socially.
However, despite these enhancements to the student experience, Sundberg said that community colleges such as Kirkwood will continue to face challenges now and well into the future. This includes declining enrollment, the continued need for funding, as well as the rising cost of tuition.
As a result, the path to degree completion for some students is not always a linear one, she said. “There is no other type of higher education institution that does what a community college does. We provide many roads and paths to education, skills and ultimately a better way of life for those who engage with us,” Sundberg added.
“Community colleges, and Kirkwood in particular, play a huge role in the overall wellbeing of a region. Kirkwood serves as workforce developer, a keen supporter of business and industry, a cost-effective opportunity for the first 2 years of a baccalaureate program and introduction to college,” she said
As Sundberg’s role as president of Kirkwood moves closer to an end, she recounts her time as bittersweet, expressing her love for the college while realizing the need to make a personal transition in her own life, and also considering decisions she has yet to make, such as the final stages of preserving the colleges’ Iowa City Campus.
Sundberg said, “The greatest concern is that we’re not serving the community with what they need which is evidenced by the severe decline in enrollment,” she said. “[The Iowa City] facility has strictly been a liberal arts facility and liberal arts education across the country has been and is projected to continue to decline. [As a result], we have to reimagine ourselves at that location for what the community will need in the future.”
Finally, upon exiting the college, Sundberg has a message for students “to dream bigger dreams for themselves.”
She added, “When I was going back to college in my early 30s, I was not able to dream a dream this big for myself. That only happened after time and exposure to higher education.”
- Retirement Date: Oct. 29, 2023
- She is originally from Galesburg, IL
- Started as President of Kirkwood in July, 2018
- First female president at Kirkwood
- Bachelor’s in Economics and History from Knox College
- Master’s in Business Administration from Western Illinois University
- Doctorate in Business Administration from St. Ambrose