SPOKANE — As a first-generation college student in Northern California, Kimberlee Messina changed her major three times before completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in Spanish.

So it’s fitting that Messina, who started as president of Spokane Falls Community College in June, is focused on helping students choose academic paths that suit their interests and career goals.

As president, one of her top priorities is establishing a “guided pathways” program to provide SFCC students with improved counseling and information about job options, such as salary data. The program, which SFCC began adopting before other schools in Washington, is one example of SFCC’s “willingness to embrace innovation,” she said.

“We are known as the transfer institution,” Messina said. “What I think people don’t know is that we also have great associate degrees that lead directly to employment.”

Messina, a native of Sacramento, also holds a doctorate of education from the University of California, Davis. She has 27 years of experience leading and teaching at schools in Northern California, starting as a Spanish instructor at UC Davis and Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I think languages are second only to math in terms of high anxiety for students,” said Messina, who also speaks Portuguese. “So it was really a pleasure for me to work with students, and really help students to feel comfortable and to progress in language, and to lose a lot of that anxiety.”

Messina said it was a last-minute phone call that sparked her passion for teaching at community colleges. There was an urgent need to fill a position at Santa Rosa, and a colleague asked her to take the job.

If it weren’t for that phone call, “I would have probably completed my doctorate and gone on to be a university professor,” she said. “I don’t know that I would have been as happy.”

She was later asked to fill another opening as dean of science, technology, engineering and math at Santa Rosa. She said she took the job reluctantly but ended up enjoying it.