When Laura Leatherwood ’93 MS ’96 EdD ’07 discovered what higher education could do for her, she knew she had found her calling to ensure others discovered it for themselves. As a result, she has dedicated the past 23 years of her professional life to helping Western North Carolina residents realize the power of education through the community college system.
Leatherwood began her higher education career at Haywood Community College as its first executive director of institutional advancement, foundation and alumni relations, which led to numerous other positions at HCC. She most recently served as its vice president of student and workforce development. She had been working for Haywood Regional Medical Center recruiting members to its new health and fitness center when HCC recognized her skill for developing community relationships and hired her away.
In 2017, she was appointed president of Blue Ridge Community College, a three-campus institution, which serves more than 11,000 students in Henderson and Transylvania counties. But her reach goes far beyond WNC. As president, Leatherwood is able to advocate for higher education at the local, regional and state levels, and now at the national level with the American Association of Community Colleges.
She serves on the executive committee of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents and was nominated for president of the year for the North Carolina Community College System. Her list of awards and accomplishments is extensive. In 2020, she was nominated for the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce Athena Women’s Leadership Award.
Her work doesn’t stop on campus. She is a tireless volunteer with numerous professional and social organizations throughout her community.
In recognition of her collaborative leadership and her record of forming successful partnerships with business, industry and public schools, the State Board of Community Colleges named Leatherwood as its 2022 President of the Year on Jan. 27.
Leatherwood grew up in Swain County in the shadow of Great Smoky Mountains National Park knowing she didn’t want to leave the area for college, and WCU proved a perfect fit. As a nontraditional student, she worked her way through college and never lived in a residence hall. It was these experiences that help her relate to many of her community college students who see themselves as nontraditional students, too. She loves community colleges for the diversity of degrees, programs and certificates, and educating new and potential students about redefining what it means to go to college.
“If anything can stop generational poverty, it’s what we do,” she said. “That’s essentially what higher education is about.”
And she can’t see herself doing anything else. “Once you become someone who is really all in with the profession of helping students, helping families and helping to lift others up, it becomes your life’s work,” she said. “And that’s what it did for me. It just became my life’s work.”
Working in higher education was not Leatherwood’s first thought as an undergraduate at WCU majoring in business law, however. “I thought I wanted to go to law school until I went to work for a local attorney doing an internship and quickly learned that was not a path I wanted to follow,” she said. “However, what I did learn in business law was invaluable to me.”
An early career crossroad came when she began working Haywood Regional Medical Center in the area of wellness and was part of building a new health and fitness center. She eventually was hired by the hospital to promote the fitness center and corporate wellness in the community. Four years after the opening of the fitness center, Leatherwood was approached by Haywood Community College to become the first full-time executive director of its foundation.
“That was a turning point for me,” she said. “I really loved the community college and everything it represents. The rest is history. I occupied several positions spanning more than 18 years, and the opportunity presented itself to become the fourth president of Blue Ridge Community College. This path led me to an incredibly rewarding career as a community college president. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and I cannot believe that I get to do this work. I absolutely love my work.”
Community colleges will play a major role in economic and workforce recovery in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Leatherwood said. “The need for community college education is greater than the capacity,” she said. “The opportunities ahead of us are limitless. This truly is our time to shine.”
She credits WCU as being instrumental in her career and life. “I would not be where I am today without WCU,” Leather wood said. “Western Carolina University helped me gain the confidence to know I could do better and do more, in addition to improving my business acumen. I look at leading the college as a business, which falls in line with my major, a business that needs to constantly reinvent itself, expand its markets, innovate, and support and solve community problems.”
Mitchell Williams, former director of WCU’s doctoral program in education who now teaches at Old Dominion University, said he recalls two qualities about Leatherwood that have helped her in her path toward the presidency of a community college.
“Laura had a strong understanding of the mission and purpose of the community college and the role the college plays within the community that it serves. She was focused on student success, but she also knew the community college is an important partner in economic and community development,” Williams said. “Second, Laura clearly had a dedication to people and communities in the western part of the state. She had a strong understanding of not only the traditions and history of the mountains, but she could also see a great deal of potential for the future.”
Leatherwood was recognized by the WCU Alumni Association with its 2021 Professional Achievement Award, presented as part of Homecoming weekend activities in October.
“Western Carolina University is known for producing strong educational leaders, and Laura Leatherwood is someone in whom all Western alumni can take great pride,” Williams said. “She deserves the WCU Alumni Association's Professional Achievement Award.”