Dr. Ernest Lara, the current president of Estrella Mountain Community College (EMCC), is originally from Prescott, Arizona. Born the youngest of 10 children, the value of an education was always stressed in his family. His parents had only completed the 6th grade in Mexico, and it was important to them that all their kids graduate from high school. Dr. Lara describes growing up in Prescott as a small-town experience of paper routes, playing baseball, and knowing his neighbors.
For being successful in school Dr. Lara received a $50 scholarship, which he used to attend Glendale Community College (GCC). At the time, there was no tuition cost, just fees, so that $50 paid for an entire semester. Dr. Lara originally wanted to become a history teacher. Growing up in the Vietnam era, Dr. Lara was influenced by the war to want to teach history “to try to explain why people were dying over there.”
Dr. Lara ended up being drafted in the latter part of the Vietnam War, and chose to serve despite the fact he could have received a deferment. He was in the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army and spent about six months in Vietnam at the very end of the war.
While in Vietnam, he applied for graduate school, thinking he would pursue a master’s degree in History. Instead, he felt drawn to study counseling. Dr. Lara now has a total of five degrees - an associate’s degree from GCC; and a bachelor’s degree in History, a master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling, a master’s degree in Counseling, and a doctorate from the Higher and Adult Education Program with an emphasis in Student Development, all from Arizona State University.
His first professional job was at Arizona State University as a veterans’ counselor. From there, he went to the Phoenix Union High School District, also as a counselor. He began to work for the Maricopa Community College District (MCCD) in 1981, and came to EMCC in 1991.
It was part of the research project he was working on for his Ph.D. that brought him to focus on community colleges and what motivates the students who attend them. From 1981 to 1987, Dr. Lara worked at GCC, first as the director of the Learning Enhancement Center, and then in Disabled Student Resources. In 1987, he went to Paradise Valley Community College (PVCC) in counseling services. At EMCC, he has served as division chair and dean of Student Services; he became president in 2007.
Coming to EMCC “was a chance to really make a difference,” Dr. Lara said. “I remember him [Dr. Lopez, the previous president of EMCC who hired Dr. Lara] saying “If I’m going to build a college, I’m going do it right.” And you can see what’s here. I think he did.”
Dr. Lara is very focused on EMCC’s Service Strategy, “Your success is our success.” He said he never wants to hear from anyone that something is being done a certain way because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” Dr. Lara said he believes that, “if we control it, and we can improve it, let’s do it.”
On Dr. Lara’s desk he keeps Terry O’Bannon’s “Guidelines for Student Success”. The first guideline is of great importance to him: “Every student will make a significant connection with another person at the college as soon as possible.” Dr. Lara added, “That’s what we’re trying to do here – institute those [guidelines]. I think we’ll go a long way if we show people we care about them.”
When asked what advice he would give students, Dr. Lara encourages students to identify their primary goal and then set specific, smaller, more attainable goals along the path toward it. “And when you hit road blocks, go back to why you’re doing it.”
Dr. Lara said that he felt he has “been very fortunate.” And that while life itself can be hard, when difficult things happen “there’s a reason for it and it will all work out.” Dr. Lara said he doesn’t have any regrets, and that he believes “the best decisions are made with the most information. There’s no right way or wrong way. You make a decision and move forward.” His greatest source of joy in life are his three children— two daughters and a son. While he wants all his kids to follow their dreams, he has also always stressed the importance of education.
He’s looking forward to many exciting things on the agenda for EMCC, including the Performing Arts Center. Dr. Lara says EMCC needs to grow organically, based on “what the community wants” from it. He said he wants “to see more students completeing, becoming alumni, and continuing to support EMCC.” He’s also looking forward to continued growth, and being able to hire more fulltime faculty and staff—whom he credits with delivering the services the students need. Dr. Lara said, “My job here is just to try and find them the resources so they can do what they need to do for you.”