TAMPA — For Kenneth Atwater, it was what first days ought to be: excitement coupled with a chance to learn new things, meet new people and make a good impression.
Yes, there was a bit of nervousness, but that diminished with every greeting.
"I love the first day because everybody brings you gifts," said the 58-year-old Atwater, who began his tenure as Hillsborough Community College's seventh president Thursday.
Sure enough, a bouquet of yellow roses and a gift box with Tampa Bay Rays and Buccaneers T-shirts and hats greeted him when he entered his eighth-floor office on Davis Islands.
"Like is not the word," he said, settling into a sofa as a technician set up his new iPad. "I love it."
In May, the college's board of trustees chose Atwater from among 38 candidates to succeed Gwen Stephenson, who led the college for more than 12 years. He impressed the board with his energy, enthusiasm and desire to engage with the wider community.
He has been a leader at community colleges for more than 25 years, most recently as president of Arizona's South Mountain Community College.
But on Thursday, Atwater was much like a student on the first day of school.
Between remembering the location of his office and memorizing computer passwords and parking lot security codes, he had a lot of ground to cover.
"I just learned how to use the phone," he said, his easy laughter filling the room. "I'm in a learning mode probably for the next six months."
Atwater has broad goals for his tenure as president of a college with more than 45,000 students and five campuses.
He hopes to deepen HCC's relationship with K-12 schools, other colleges and universities, and the Tampa business community to produce a work force trained to meet local needs. If the need exists, he said, the college might explore offering baccalaureate degrees.
This month, Atwater's plans include visiting the college's various campuses and meeting with the head of the local United Way chapter. He is set to meet with chamber of commerce leaders and Mayor Pam Iorio in August.
Thursday, Atwater toured the new student services building on HCC's Ybor City campus, meeting dozens of staff members and students. He tried to put them at ease with jokes and laughs.
"I'm directionally challenged. … If I'm lost, could you help me?" he asked one employee.
"Let me be one of your customers," he told another at the college bookstore, selecting a red polo shirt after some deliberation.
"I want to be out and about and involved," he said to deans, teachers and student representatives at a meeting of the Ybor City campus council. "Invite me out … I want to learn the Tampa community, all of it. I need your help in doing so. … What can we do to make Hillsborough better?"
He shook hands with a security guard. He patted students on the back.
"I want to see you at graduation," he told them.
He said he is confident his experiences at community colleges in Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan and Arizona have prepared him well for his new job.
"I am excited to be here and truly looking forward to the journey," he said. "Hopefully, this will be my last stop."
Contact Nandini Jayakrishna at [email protected] or (813) 226-3383.