When Jane Hideko Higa arrived on campus in 1989 as a new dean, she set out to meet as many professors as possible. Once a Westmont student herself, she understood the key role faculty play in shaping students’ lives. Now, as vice president and dean of students, she sought their assistance in building effective student life programs. The partnerships she forged between faculty and student life staff have defined her career. Her legacy lives on in the students she has mentored, the staff members she has inspired and the professors who have embraced her vision of faculty and staff working together to educate students.
Jane retires Aug. 31 as the longest-serving vice president at Westmont only to face a great challenge: a diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. She has already demonstrated her mettle in dealing with adversity.
“One of the most profound ways Jane fulfilled her role as an educator was by modeling how to face life’s challenges,” says Tim Wilson, her longtime associate dean. “Realizing that life is difficult and claiming God’s promises provided through his word and his people, Jane taught the entire community—faculty, staff and students—through her transparency in dealing with cancer surgery and the sudden death of her husband, Paul. Those experiences deepened her empathy as she supported others devastated by family issues, illnesses and death in their own families.” Tim will serve as interim dean of students during a year-long, national search for Jane’s replacement.
“Jane has touched so many lives and inspired countless students,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “With her strong yet graceful leadership and wisdom, she has developed a remarkable student life program that enhances both the college’s academic and co-curricular activities. I’ve especially admired the way Jane works with her staff and with students.”
Acknowledging Jane’s Japanese heritage, President Beebe likens her leadership style to judo, which takes energy and redirects it. “Jane has a great capacity to take negative experiences and energy and turn them to positive and constructive ends, particularly for students,” he says. “Her innovative approach and readiness to work things through with people at all levels—faculty, staff, students and colleagues at other colleges—have contributed to her remarkable legacy.”
At Commencement, President Beebe announced the creation of the Jane Higa Academic and Co-Curricular Partnership Award for those who continue the productive relationship between faculty and student life staff she has cultivated over the years.
After graduating from Westmont in 1973 with a degree in social science, Jane earned a Master of Science in education with a major in college student personnel services from the University of Southern California. She served for seven years as dean for student affairs and two years as dean of women at Biola University, where she first met Westmont Provost Mark Sargent. He describes her as a deeply respected dean throughout Christian higher education, who builds bridges between the academic and student life programs.
“She has a unique capacity to draw people into conversation about the essential things, and you leave every conversation with Jane knowing she cares about you and your hopes and ideas,” Mark says. “At a time when student life and academic life were drifting into separate professional spheres in Christian higher education, Jane was a persistent voice for the possibilities of partnership. Her vision was not simply programmatic: her collaboration was always rooted in a love of ideas, of people and of possibilities.”
Heather Speirs, a former English professor at Westmont, asked Jane what student life planned to teach one year. “Jane loved that question, because she saw all of us in student life as educators,” Tim says. “Jane embodies a key phrase in our student life mission statement: ‘The student life division exists as a partner with faculty.’”
“Jane inspires me with her passion for the mission of the Christian liberal arts and Westmont College, something she articulates beautifully and personally,” says Spanish professor Mary Docter. “It lives in every fiber of her being. I’m inspired by her desire to appreciate all the good we do, yet to always strive to do better, to be better.”
Jane’s profound influence on people’s lives and college programs extends far beyond Westmont. At the national conferences of Association of Christians and Student Development (ACSD), attendees always surrounded her. “No one was more sought after for coffee breaks and meals than Jane,” Tim says.
Her student life work earned national acclaim, and she received ACSD’s prestigious Don L. Boender Award in 1998. Jane has served on the ACSD executive committee as both vice president and president-elect, spoken at numerous conferences, chaired the planning team for the annual conference and recently served as the chair of the diversity task force. In 2011, ACSD honored her with its first Jane Hideko Higa Multicultural Advancement Award, which recognizes individuals doing excellent work in advancing multicultural competency.
Barry Loy, vice president for student life at Gordon College, has worked with Higa for about 30 years through ACSD and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). He says she often provides wisdom and advice on a multitude of student life topics for her colleagues from other schools. “Her faith is authentic and contagious,” he says. “She is a tireless worker for God’s Kingdom, her family, student development and Westmont. She continues to be an inspiration to me. I’ve especially been strengthened in my own faith and work by watching Jane deal with the ups and downs of life. She is a kind and gracious person always willing to listen and put others before herself. Jane’s retirement from the profession is a great loss, but she has and will continue to inspire many others to follow in her footsteps.” Jane also worked with CCCU as former chair of the Commission of Chief Student Development Officers and as a member of the Racial Harmony Commission.
“Jane occasionally says that she found her voice at Westmont,” says Chris Call, vice president for administration and planning. “But it’s also true that Jane has helped Westmont find its voice, particularly in helping Westmont become a more diverse, multicultural community.”
Beginning with Westmont’s 1995 long-range plan, Jane has led the college’s discussion on diversity. She served for years on the Diversity Committee and gently guided Intercultural Programs, reaching out to students of color and international, missionary and third-culture students. Committed to the “thoughtful and intentional study of and interaction with multiple cultures,” she has encouraged the Westmont community to celebrate diversity as an aspect of God’s creation. In the past 11 years, student diversity has increased from 15 to 29 percent, and Jane’s desire to make Westmont a safe place and home and for all students has played a key role in that success.
While she set broad policies for student life at Westmont, Jane has also worked with students one-on-one, making time to mentor those who sought her out. “Sometimes Jane would eat five meals to meet with all the students who wanted to see her,” Tim Wilson says.
“The best part of my education at Westmont has been the mentorship by my professors in the communication studies department and the building of wonderful relationships through WCSA with people like Jane Higa,” says Kristin Lo, president of the Westmont College Student Association (WCSA) and former WCSA multicultural representative.
Toya Cooper, college counsel, arrived as a student at Westmont the year Jane became dean. “Jane just touches things, and growth starts,” she says. “Jane watched me struggle as a student and grow. She watched me struggle as a law student and grow from a distance, and she’s watched me grow here at Westmont as a professional. She’s the best gardener. She tends well, she prays over things, she waters them, she makes sure that they get light and air, and she knows when to step back so they can stretch out in places that they need to—and she knows that maybe they need to rotate and see something new. She’s just been all those things to me as a mentor, a friend, a boss at one time, and a colleague.”
“She has a unique capacity to draw people into conversation about the essential things, and you leave every conversation with Jane knowing she cares about you and your hopes and ideas.”
Jane especially encountered students in the disciplinary process. “She approached student violations of college policies as redemptive opportunities to help young people grow and mature,” Chris Call says.
“She reminded us that student conduct meetings made an impact on each student’s trajectory at Westmont and, more importantly, for life,” Tim Wilson says. “She would often say to the student, ‘We are trying to help you become the person that God intends.’”
Many vividly recall their first meeting with Jane. “I was initially struck by Jane’s warmth and hospitality, as she welcomed me into her office and into our community with a wide, gracious smile that still seems to accompany her wherever she goes,” Mary Docter says.
“When I first met Jane, I thought, ‘This is a woman who makes people safe and allows them to be themselves,’” says Resident Director Shannon Balram.
“She made me feel incredibly welcome and comfortable,” Chris Call says. “In my first meeting with her I had this overwhelming sense that she would be a delight to work with.”
Jane’s warm smile immediately puts people at ease; Tim Wilson describes it as “beautiful.” Cliff Lundberg, vice president for external relations, says, “She is a person who can’t talk without smiling.” Danny Clapp, a former resident director, appreciates her love for laughter. “Jane and I have connected over some silly things,” he says. “I’ve had such a fun time with her.”
Jane showed her love for people in many ways, both on campus and in her home. She often tempted her guests with a variety of homemade desserts and connected with people who shared her love for food and hospitality.
Jane expresses her strong, enduring faith in every aspect of her work and life. Resident Director Lyndsay Grimm remembers her interview with Jane when she was applying for her job. “The second or third question she asked me was, ‘How many moments in your faith have been crises for you?’ And I remember thinking, ‘That is such an important question to be asking an RD, because you are coming alongside students.’ I think it highlighted Jane’s desire that people who come to Westmont to care for students had wrestled a lot with their faith, thought a lot about their faith, and wanted to be able to encourage and grow students in their faith. I appreciated this deep and awesome question that immediately drew my heart to hers.”
“She is a woman of vision and passion, of wisdom and humility, a woman of deep and abiding faith,” Mary Docter says. “She embodies love, joy and peace. She is kindness, goodness, faithfulness and gentleness. She is a blessing to all who know her.”
“The reason so many of us have loved learning from Jane is because she lives her life so all of us can learn from it, share in the suffering and joy, and enjoy a good relationship with her,” Shannon Balram says. “I know students have been impacted—and faculty and staff as well—by the way she has lived her life.”
“I love the pace Jane has with people, because she is so very patient with them,” says Ben Patterson, campus pastor. “They really are the most important thing to her. There’s work to be done, there are programs and tasks, but I never felt at any point that she lost the reason we have the programs and tasks: the people. Jane has always been about the people.”
Jason Cha, who directs Intercultural Programs, sought a position at Westmont to work with Jane. “I met her several years ago at a national conference, and I was drawn to her spirit and her energy—and her being rooted in the gospel,” he says. “Three years ago, I was unemployed and struggling. So I sent out a bunch of emails, including one to Westmont. I got a phone call, and it was Jane; she called me just to encourage me, and it meant so much. Jane is a person and a leader who really cares about people and is attentive to their needs.”
Basketball Coach Kirsten Moore recalls seeing Jane speak at chapel one day. “As she walked up to the podium, she grabbed a box, set it down and stood on it so she’d be tall enough to see the audience. I remember giggling to myself because, as a basketball coach, I’m not around a lot of people who have to do that. As I think about the role she’s played at the college and in my life, I’m thankful Jane has been willing to stand tall in so many things. She deals with conflict on a daily basis, but she never shrinks away from being bold in the truth while making people feel extremely loved and cared for. That’s a special gift and something I think is extremely hard to do. Through her personal journey, for her to stand on God’s promises the way that she has done has helped me do the same.”
Jane has also invested in her family, including her son, Josh ’03, her daughter, Emiko Corey ’06, and her son-in-law, Aaron. “I’m proud of how they’ve grown up and all they are and do,” she says. Together they faced the sudden death of Jane’s husband, Paul, at 52. “We shared a wonderful marriage and priorities such as helping young adults reach their potential,” she says. Paul served as chief of probation for Los Angeles County. This summer, Jane married Jim Mannoia, who taught philosophy at Westmont before serving as vice president for academic affairs at Houghton College and president of Greenville College. “I’m grateful for a rich community of friends who’ve been constant and faithful companions, sharing food and fun and being present through all the joys and sorrows of life,” she says.