Sunday, October 25

Brookdale Newsroom

From dropout to Berks community college president

On her 16th birthday, Dr. Susan Looney walked into the office at her high school in Freehold, N.J., and quit.

“I didn’t like high school, I didn’t fit in,” she explains simply.

She thought it was an end, that dropping out would finish her educational career. She was wrong.

Instead, it was the start of a winding journey that in February led to her taking the reins as the sixth president of Reading Area Community College.

Looney did something else the day she turned 16, something she had been dreaming about for as long as she can remember. On the same day she gave up on high school, she became a professional harness horse racer.

Her family was deeply entrenched in harness racing. Her grandparents, Elmer and Helen Looney, were well-known breeders and trainers, and her mother, JoAnn Looney-King, was a pioneer in the sport as one of the first female drivers.

Looney’s first memories were of horses, were of racing. It was her entire world as a child.

“As long as I can remember it was all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “So to no surprise, I followed in their footsteps.”

When she turned 12, the youngest age you’re allowed to start racing, Looney began driving as an amateur. She took to the family business quickly and was more than ready when she turned pro four years later.

As a professional, her success continued. She was named rookie of the year at Pocono Downs, was the youngest driver to ever win a race at the Meadowlands and was the first woman to win a race at Garden State Park.

Over the next few years she continued to excel, even earning the right to represent the U.S. at international harness races around the world.

She was in love, completely enthralled with the sport.

“I thought that’s what I would do forever,” she said.

But then one night in 1988 everything changed. She was 20 years old, driving in a race at the Meadowlands when she crashed.

Even though she escaped serious injury in the violent spill, it was a wake-up call.

“It was a little tap on the shoulder that I should have a backup plan,” Looney said.

The crash at the Meadowlands would be the end of Looney’s racing career.

But with the only thing she ever wanted to do behind her, what was her next step? The answer, it turns out, was education.

In the time since she had dropped out of high school, Looney had managed to earn her GED. Looking for a new path, she decided to enroll in a local community college.

It was not an easy decision.

Looney hadn’t enjoyed her previous school experience, so the idea of going back didn’t thrill her. She figured she’d just go for two years, earn an associate degree and get a job.

On her first day, Looney said, she drove in circles around the parking lot at Brookdale Community College three times, too nervous to park and go inside. She grappled with the idea to just drive away and go home.

“Change is never easy, and that was a major change in my life,” she said.

Despite her misgivings, Looney decided to give college a shot.

The first few months were difficult, she said. Having dropped out of high school she found herself starting at the school’s lowest level, just trying to catch up on the basics.

“But that was OK,” she said. “The community college built my strength in those areas.”

And she found a support system that tirelessly encouraged and pushed her.

“The faculty and staff saw things in me that I didn’t,” she said.

During her two years at Brookdale, Looney found a new passion, one that rivaled her feelings for racing.

“I fell in love with learning at my community college,” she said.

After college, Looney took a job with the U.S. Department of Defense, first for a two-year internship, then as an operations research analyst.

But the impact her college experience, particularly at Brookdale, had on her had created a spark she couldn’t extinguish.

“It had so transformationally changed my life, I knew I wanted to do something to give back,” she said.

So while working at the Department of Defense she spent two nights a week and Saturdays earning a law degree from Widener University. And when her time with the military was up, she made a beeline for the world of education.

She took a job in 1998 as an accounting professor at Mohave Community College in Arizona and in 2001 moved back east to teach business administration at Delaware Technical Community College.

She would eventually move into the administration at Delaware Technical, serving as assistant to the campus director and director of corporate and community programs. Later she would serve as assistant vice president of academic affairs, arts and sciences at Colorado Mountain College before coming to RACC in 2014 as dean of instruction.

Through each stop, Looney stayed focused on students, many of whom had jagged paths to college filled with struggles and doubt much like she had. She made it her mission to give her students the support that was so vital to her own success.

“I’ve tried to take my experience and try to build a better process for our students,” she said. “I will do everything I can to help build a community that gives them an opportunity to succeed.”

The 50-year-old Looney has only officially been RACC’s president for about three weeks.

She’s still using her old office – delivery of the furniture for her new digs has been delayed. On the door a fellow administrator has covered up her old titles with big letters cut out of red construction paper that read “PRESIDENT.”

Looney laughs at it as she unlocks the door and takes a seat at a small round table.

In many ways, it still seems that she’s trying to wrap her head around everything. That she likely has to pinch herself sometimes to make sure it’s all real.

When asked what her 16-year-old, racing-obsessed self would think about where she is now, she smiles.

“She wouldn’t believe it,” she said.

Looney said she was blown away by the news that she would be taking over for Dr. Anna D. Weitz, who retired as RACC president June 30.

“I know I have big shoes to fill,” she said. “It is a privilege and an honor to be in this new role.”

After she was named the new president in February, Looney began a listening tour, meeting with students and staff to get a pulse of campus culture and a better sense of the wants and needs of the college community.

She said as president she will focus on the four-part mission of community colleges: providing access, opportunity, excellence and hope. To do that, she said, she’ll look at three key areas.

The first is student success. She said she’ll work to improve both graduation rates and enrollment.

Looney said she also wants RACC to continue its efforts in workforce development.

“I want to make sure RACC is the leader in creating a well-trained, well-educated workforce for Berks County,” she said.

The final prong of Looney’s plan is to publicize the amazing work of her great faculty and staff.

It’s a lot of work, making sure things run smoothly for the 4,000 credit-seeking students and countless others who use RACC, but it’s a role Looney said she cherishes.

“I feel so fortunate I get to do something I love every day and have a small impact in making someone’s life better,” she said.