Barbara Gaba never planned to be a college president. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a teacher.
“I never wanted to be anything else but a teacher,” she said. “I love teaching. When I go to conferences and do presentations, that’s a form of teaching. When I lead meetings, that’s a form of teaching.”
She also loved to learn and had a good work ethic, volunteering for every board and committee she could get on to. People noticed. And that’s what got her the job as president of Atlantic Cape Community College in 2017.
She’s the first woman and African American to hold the position.
Gaba has an extensive career in higher education, first as a teacher and then in administration at multiple community colleges in the state. She also sits on more than five boards and local and national organizations, including the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board, the Higher Education Research and Development Institute Advisory Board and the New Jersey Council of County Colleges State and Federal Policy Committee.
“I always raised my hand to volunteer to do things because I was curious,” she said.
After growing up in New York City, Gaba obtained her bachelor’s degree in education and sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, her master’s degree in educational psychology from Rutgers University and her doctorate degree in educational psychology from Bayero University.
While serving as provost and associate vice president for academic affairs at Union County College, she volunteered to be on a budget and finance committee “because I didn’t know anything about that.”
“And guess what? When I got into this position, I have to deal with a $40 million budget, and now I know how to do that, although I never went to school for finance,” she said.
Aside from the $40 million budget, Gaba oversees about 750 employees and between 5,000 and 8,000 students in credit and continuing education classes.
While at Union, she got a call one day from a recruiter, out of the blue, who said they’re looking for a president for Atlantic Cape. But she wasn’t interested.
They called her back two weeks later and asked her to reconsider as the deadline was nearing.
She decided to apply and, out of 40 or so applicants, got the job.
“Always do your best work because you never know who’s watching,” she said. “When I got that call from the search firm, I said, ‘How do they know about me?’ Somebody recommended me, and to this day I don’t know who it was. But somebody was watching.”
Her work ethic comes from her mother, Johnnie Mae Ekpo, who after losing her husband by age 30, worked menial jobs to raise three children.
“She always wanted us to get a good education for a better life,” she said. “And in her 50s, she went back to college and got a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. One of the things my mother always taught me was, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway. Jump out there and do it.’”
As president of the college, Gaba said no two days are the same. While she spends most days in meetings with faculty, students and community members, it’s the challenges that make her job exciting.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said. “There’s so many challenges here, and it’s very different for me. The college is in a position where we’re doing a lot of things, a lot of challenging projects, so I’m here at the right time, and I’m very happy about that.”
And the learning never stops, even for her staff.
“I like that I’m always learning from her,” said Erin Mercer, public relations and social media manager for Atlantic Cape. “She definitely has the air of leadership about her, and you can tell that she is constantly educating herself.”
Mercer added that Gaba’s background is inspirational and that a lot of people can see themselves in her story.
“I think she definitely has that something where you see that if she can do it, you can do it, too,” she said.
Jean McAlister, chief of staff for the college, described Gaba as a sweet, driven and humble person.
“What you see is what you get,” she said. “She’s mission-focused and student-driven.”
But even as the president of the college, Gaba is still sometimes met with issues because of her gender.
“You can go to a meeting and say something and nobody listens to you,” she said. “And a guy says the exact the same thing and they think it’s so great. And I say, ‘Didn’t I just say that a few minutes ago?’ I call people out. Years ago, when I was young in this job, I would never do that, but now I do that.”
To advance in their careers, she believes women always have to work a little harder and be one step ahead of everything.
“Always be on top of your game,” she said. “People will remember that.”