Belle Wheelan, Ph.D., has education in her blood. Her decades-long career spans classrooms, community colleges, and capitol buildings. Entering her 16th year as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), an organization that accredits institutions of higher education in 11 states across the South, the 1972 Trinity alumna has seen firsthand how leaders are made through her dedication to lifelong learning.
Born in Chicago and raised in Texas, Wheelan graduated high school at 16. She came to Trinity University, where she studied psychology and sociology with ambitions of becoming a child psychologist. After graduation, she headed for Louisiana State University to pursue her doctorate. But fate had other plans, and two years later, when her mother fell ill, Wheelan returned to San Antonio with a master’s degree in developmental educational psychology.
She found herself drawn to teach at San Antonio College (SAC). “I knew the students there were there because they wanted to make a difference in their lives,” she says. “They weren’t there because they were a legacy or because they wanted a great music or athletic program. They were there because they wanted an education and job skills that would improve their life. I just felt like, wow, that’s what I want to do. That’s as close to helping children solve their problems as I’m going to get.”
The decision would shape the rest of her career: She spent 10 years as a faculty member of SAC before moving into administration, eventually becoming a director. Meanwhile, she commuted to the University of Texas at Austin, earning her doctorate in educational administration, with a special concentration in community college leadership, in 1984.
Wheelan left Texas in the late ’80s, accepting positions of leadership at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Virginia, and then at Tidewater Community College’s campus in the nearby city of Portsmouth. In 1992, she became the first Black woman in the state’s history to serve as a college president, at Central Virginia Community College, an institution with some 4,000 students. Six and a half years later, Wheelan made a “quantum leap,” as she puts it, over to Northern Virginia Community College—one of the largest multi-campus community colleges in the country at the time, with more than 60,000 students. Despite the difference in scale, she found the two experiences similar. “The issues were the same,” she says. “There were just more people to shuffle the issues through.”
I often joke that my degrees in child psychology prepared me for dealing with legislators and college presidents.
Although Wheelan thought she would spend the rest of her career as president of Northern Virginia Community College, she received an unexpected call in 2001: Virginia’s newly elected Governor Mark Warner asked her to serve as his secretary of education. It marked a new chapter of her career—and new experience as a leader.
“For almost 15 years, I had been large and in charge as president at Central and Northern, and provost at Tidewater before that,” she says. “Suddenly, I had visibility but not authority. Secretary is an appointed position, one of leading by influence. Officially, I was in charge of nothing.”
In this role, Wheelan focused her efforts on streamlining the process for students transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions, as well as improving the performance of K-12 schools. The job also introduced her to the world of politics and governance. “I often joke that my degrees in child psychology prepared me for dealing with legislators and college presidents,” she says, “because sometimes they act like children.”
As the end of Warner’s administration approached, Wheelan left to take the reins at SACSCOC—a role seemingly tailor-made for her particular mix of education, experience, and skills. “I’ve been in the same position as the presidents of the institutions we accredit,” she says, having worked at both small and large schools. “I can not only be sympathetic, but truly empathetic to the issues they face.” These skills came in handy over the past year, when much of her time was spent offering reassurance and guidance to the leaders of colleges and universities facing unparalleled hardships due to the pandemic.
From Wheelan’s perspective, leadership—much like education—starts early and is a lifelong journey. She looks back at her own growth as a leader—from high school pep squad leader and captain of Trinity’s cheerleader team to college provost, college president, and secretary of education. Each step brought her closer to where she is today, and it’s this same mentality that she’s trying to impart to future leaders.
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow, whatever the context,” she says.