Reprinted with permission from The Cullman Times
Cullman Magazine, Spring 2018
Graduating from college was an achievement Suzanne Harbin shared with a lot of people. And like a lot of people holding a diploma with degrees in history and English, she wasn’t sure of what career path to choose.
The University of North Alabama was a good experience for the Cullman native. She settled with her husband in Decatur for a while before returning home and starting a family.
And home was the beginning of more than a career. Through education’s gateway, Harbin found a passion for helping other people make their own paths in life.
A working mother in her own right, the daughter of Cullman optometrist Dr. Wayne Fuller and
Cullman County Historical Museum curator Elaine Fuller, Harbin has witnessed hundreds of students move up in grades and then graduate from Cullman High School, many joining her in Hanceville at Wallace State as college students.
Education has been front and center for Harbin for nearly two decades now. Through her position at Wallace State, she helps local students achieve their dreams by aggressively pursuing scholarship money. As a city school board member since 2004, she’s presided over the district’s rise as a top-ranked school system, with enrollment topping 3,000 at five campuses.
Cullman is particularly adept at scoring well in college prep and boasting a large number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. In recent years, CHS has partnered with Wallace State in a number of programs to better equip students with skills and qualifications for real-world careers, particularly in health care.
Today, Harbin is serving her fourth term on the Cullman City Schools Board of Education.
“I have to give credit to Jim Hoover, who asked me about serving on the school board,” Harbin said. “I was already involved in the PTO and had some ideas to share from time to time.”
Harbin had just worked on a committee trying to raise the ad valorem tax for city schools, an effort that failed but was a tremendous learning experience.
“I was hooked on education by that point,” Harbin said. “The city later passed a tax and it made a great difference for our schools. We couldn’t have done anything we’ve done over the last 12 years without it.”
Harbin is also proof that making a difference in public education doesn’t require a long, tenured
background in teaching. She was early on that living the role of a classroom instructor was not for her. But that didn’t stop her drive to help students gain the most from school.
“I found that working directly with students to help them get into school and how to make the most of the opportunity was what I could do well,” Harbin said. “I admire the work our teachers do every day and I want to support them and the students.”
“I firmly believe that Cullman City Schools are highly successful because of our teachers, who are with our students each day and our staff and administrators who are there to provide the support for them and for our students.
“I think the other key ingredient to our success is that we have exceptional families in our schools and community. Our parents are supportive, encouraging for their students, and essential to our schools’ success. Our school and system administrators work to be sure that we stay on the forefront of education initiatives and new opportunities for students whether it be academic or extracurricular. I often find that we are viewed as leaders in these and other systems come to view our teachers and schools. Success could not occur without all of these ingredients.”
Harbin sees Wallace State’s success with students in a similar way.
“Our faculty and staff are exceptional and they work diligently to prepare students for transfer to universities and for employment in their chosen field. WSCC is always on the leading edge of new initiatives our student outcomes,” she said. “Several of these – success coaching, AACC Pathways, and Achieving the Dream are national initiatives which we are a part of or a leader in from the beginning.”
Harbin said the efforts have led to higher graduation and retention rates, noting that Wallace State works collaboratively across campus departments and programs with business and industry leaders in the community to provide a workforce that is trained and prepared to fill demands.
She also said Wallace State President Dr. Vicki Karolewics has been a visionary for the college and the community.
Karolewics has long worked with Harbin and is quick to point out the trust in her work.
“Suzanne is one of the most talented and committed professionals in Alabama’s community colleges today,” Karolewics said. “She is a servant leader and an exemplary role model for millennials in our community, serving her community while also balancing the oftentimes competing demands of personal and professional lives.”
Having raised three children and married for more than three decades, it doesn’t seem Harbin has much time outside of her job at Wallace and serving as president of the school board. That may be partly true, but spending time with her family and friends is not something she ignores.
“My friends would tell you I don’t take a lot of time away,” Harbin said. “I spend most of my spare time with family and I’m always looking for a good book to read. I take a stack of books when I go on vacation.”