After nearly 25 years working for Prince George's Community College, Charlene Dukes will retire in June with an average student enrollment of 40,000 per year. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
After nearly 25 years working for Prince George's Community College, Charlene Dukes will retire in June with an average student enrollment of 40,000 per year. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Although Charlene Dukes didn’t grow up in Prince George’s County, she blazed a few trails in the majority-Black jurisdiction, especially when it comes to higher education.

Dukes’ duties as vice president of student affairs and as president at Prince George’s Community College for the past 12½ years helped thousands of students sift through complex financial aid documents, represent the college at Maryland General Assembly sessions in Annapolis and lead several projects including the Culinary Arts Center alongside a partnership with MGM National Harbor.

On June 30, the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, native will work her last day at the school with an annual enrollment of 40,000 students who take classes at the main campus in Largo and five other sites throughout Prince George’s.

Dukes is also credited with amplifying the word “community” through programs such Back on Track, which provides first-time, nonviolent offenders to attend the college and complete constant community service. If those mainly ages 18 to 26 complete the program and earn an associate degree, they can receive certification to work and a clean record.

This program started more than three years ago when County Executive Angela Alsobrooks worked as the county’s state’s attorney.

“[Dukes] put together the curriculum for us. She was one of the first people I met with about it,” Alsobrooks said. “She has built bridges from that community college to the community and across our region.”

When Dukes took the helm as the college’s first female president in July 2007, she embarked on renovation and construction projects, including a September grand opening of the Center for Performing Arts in Largo. The nationally acclaimed Dance Theatre of Harlem, celebrating 50 years, plans to showcase its talents at the college Jan. 30-Feb. 1.

As for academics, Dukes lists nursing, allied health and business administration with a concentration on entrepreneurship as some of the college’s top majors.

She rattled off a few figures associated with the college’s student achievement: about 93 percent of the students are from the county, and between 30 percent to 40 percent graduate with an associate degree and continue their education at a four-year institution. Community college alumni received bachelor’s degrees at schools such as Bowie State University; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Stanford University in California.

During her presidency, the college partnered with the county’s public school system to establish the Academy of Health Sciences, the first high school in Maryland to open in 2011 on a college campus to offer students an opportunity to receive a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Some of the community college experience rubbed off her only child, Maurice, who attended Prince George’s and later graduated from Howard University in Northwest.

Dukes, the second oldest of eight siblings with a stepson who resides in New York, didn’t have the HBCU experience like her son where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in secondary education at Indiana University in Pennsylvania. She received master’s and doctorate degrees in administrative and policy studies from the University of Pittsburgh.

During a Nov. 25 interview at the community college, she discussed collaborations, how college leaders must think broadly and offers advice on higher education. Here are some thoughts in her own words:

Building Partnerships

What are the decisions we make about new industries coming into our community and where we can be of support and help to them as they look into an employee-base and training for their current employees? If you think about MGM, for example, we have a strong relationship with MGM. We were their training partner for many of the jobs and positions available to members of our community. Now that partnership was in collaboration with our county executive and county council. They saw the need for the community college to be involved as MGM began its quest to come to Prince George’s County. The same thing is happening with the [University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center under construction in Largo]. They are looking at their workforce and not just around nursing and allied health programs and respiratory therapy, radiation therapy, surgical technology [and] phlebotomy. They also have human resource offices. They have accounting offices. They have customer service. We have to think very broadly when we talk about partnerships and not just what I call ‘the front of the house needs.’ We need to think about the back of the house needs. Think of technology, health information management. You have to be able to manage medical records. You have to have a technology system. We are graduating people with degrees in informational technology, cybersecurity and the like. We have to think as presidents and as institutions very broadly. We have to think about legislation that’s coming out at both the state and federal levels. How does that impact our students? Where are our voices as college presidents and members of college community in ensuring that the legislation is fully supportive of students and the way they think about higher education? Maryland’s community colleges serve 52 percent of all students enrolled in higher education. We have a seat at the table as legislation is discussed that has the potential to impact all students in higher education.

Higher Ed Advice

To understand the world of higher education is changing. We can’t operate in a 21st-century environment with 20th-century practices. Many of us are recognizing that and understanding our need to be responsive to the community at large. At the same time with that change, comes the need for members of the community to really think about higher education in different ways. If you’re a family that can’t afford a $25,000-$50,000-a-year education for your child, then you should really sit down and contact your local community college and think about how two years at the community college and two years at that four-year institution might be a better financial fit for a family. Many of us have programs that transfer across the country. The issue is that it provides an opportunity. It doesn’t decrease the opportunities for young people, it actually has the potential to increase those opportunities. As the world has change in how we think about higher education and how we pay for it and finance it, I think [community colleges] serve as a bridge for a number of things. Into the workforce because there are associate degree programs, or certificates, that you can receive that take you immediately into the workforce. Even with that, sometime later you can use your employee’s tuition reimbursement programs to continue your education. It depends on what the goals and aspirations are for young people. What the goals and aspirations are for more mature individuals. People will come back to community colleges because they want to change careers. They will come back because they want to grow in the career in which they’re in. When we say community, there’s one reason why we have never changed the word community in our name because we truly believe we are connected to the community. That we are a partner with the community in terms of economic development, family growth, thinking about creating opportunities for generational wealth, and certainly generational well-being.

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Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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