COSTA MESA — Ding-Jo Currie's decision to retire as chancellor of Coast Community College District wasn't an easy one for the career educator.
She fell into the community college system "like an arranged marriage." But, in her words, it was one of love. It all started when Currie swerved off a career path in engineering, landing into the classroom as a high school math teacher.
"I can't think of a better career than the one I've had," said Currie, 57. "It's about transforming lives for students and making a difference in one classroom level when I was a teacher … to a whole institutional level."
In a Jan. 19 letter to faculty, staff and the Board of Trustees, the chancellor announced that she would retire on June 30 and spend more time with family and friends.
The Coast Community College District encompasses Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Golden West College in Huntington Beach and Coastline Community College in Fountain Valley.
Currie took the district's helm in November 2009 after serving as interim chancellor since January 2009.
Before that the Huntington Beach resident led Coastline as its president for nearly seven years.
"The District is losing a visionary educational leader," said Coastline President Loretta Adrian in an e-mail. "While it is easy to focus [on] what will be lost upon her retirement, I think we should also focus on what she is leaving behind — a legacy of leadership at all levels at Coastline, and a good beginning foundation of genuine and productive collaboration among the Coast colleges."
District Trustee Mary Hornbuckle said Currie is wonderful to work with and very talented, managing to do more with less funding and keeping the district on solid financial ground.
Although surprised to learn of Currie's resignation, Hornbuckle said she understands and respects her reasons. But she still wouldn't object if Currie decided to stay on, she said.
"If there was any way to convince her to stay, we would love to do that," Hornbuckle said.
Before Currie leaves, she said she has projects that need to be completed.
Currie wants to finish the 2020 Vision Master Plan, a blueprint for the entire district, and see the district through what looks to be the hardest-ever budget in the spring, she said.
The district is predicting that a worst-case scenario could leave it with a budget shortfall of more than $21 million, which would mean tough decisions, Currie said.
"I can't leave that to someone else to do the dirty work," she said.
Looking back on her career, Currie said she has "not one bit of regret."
As she prepares to leave her post, Currie said she is proud of how she helped bring the colleges together to collaborate and make the system more user-friendly for students taking classes at multiple schools.
"She has a wonderful way of bringing people together to focus on what the common good is," Hornbuckle said.
At OCC Currie has a reputation as a conduit for building community and moving faculty, staff and administration to serve students and their success across the district, OCC President Dennis Harkins wrote in an e-mail.
Golden West College President Wes Bryan also said she also brings with her a national outlook on community colleges.
Currie serves on the boards of directors of the American Council on Education, the Center for Global Integrated Education and as the immediate past chairwoman for the American Assn. of Community Colleges.
"From that wider view, she's able to garner good ideas and wisdom and bring that back to us," Bryan said.
Although she is retiring, Currie said she isn't walking away from community colleges entirely — just changing how she helps serve them. Instead of from the inside, Currie said she will be serving from the outside.
Community colleges, she said, are a place that mean so much to the community they serve, she said. They turn out nurses and public safety officials, contribute to the number of graduates from four-year universities and offer an affordable and accessible cultural hub, Currie said.
"We are woven into the fabric of every aspect of people's lives in the community," she said.