LAFAYETTE — Natalie Harder, who became South Louisiana Community College’s chancellor in February 2012 and oversaw its merger with the eight-campus Acadiana Technical College, has seen firsthand how education empowers and changes lives.

After she was invested as SLCC’s fifth chancellor Thursday at the Cajundome Convention Center, Harder expressed gratitude for her appointment and said she is dedicated to improving educational outcomes and the quality of life for residents in the region.

“One of the joys in being in South Louisiana Community college is the diversity of our campuses and the communities they serve,” Harder said. “We have a college campus in one of the poorest parishes in Louisiana.”

“Every time I go there, I go to the welding lab and talk to those young men because I love to look in their eyes and not just see soon-to-be welders but the end of multigenerational poverty, 15 to 20 families with every graduating class,” she said.

“So, I’m here to thank you because this is the greatest gift I could ever have to be the chancellor of South Louisiana Community College,” Harder said. “And in return, I promise you that I will dedicate every day to working hard to change as many lives as I can in this community, to increase educational attainment and improve the quality of life for every citizen in Acadiana that so desires it.”

Harder replaced Phyllis Dupuis, a longtime administrator of the Acadiana Technical College who had served as SLCC’s interim chancellor since late 2010. The college has had three other chancellors since it first offered classes in 1998: Ned Doffoney from 1998 to 2002; Doris Chretien as interim chancellor in 2002; and Jan Brobst from 2002 to 2010.

Harder previously worked as vice president of institutional advancement at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Va. She earned her doctorate in Community College Leadership from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., a master’s degree in public policy and management from The Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Harder and her husband, Cian Robinson, have two sons, Tucker and Rory.

With the Acadiana Technical College merger, SLCC has expanded its general education course options, as well as its outreach to high school students through dual enrollment programs where students can earn credit hours toward associate’s degrees while in high school.

Some aspects of the merger have been “more seamless than others,” however, Harder’s commitment to expanding educational options to students in outlying areas has been encouraging, said Tiffany Daigle, a student of SLCC’s Acadian campus in Crowley who spoke during Thursday’s ceremony.

The merger has given students across Acadiana the opportunity to pursue an associate’s degree closer to home, Daigle said.

Several speakers recognized Harder for her energy, vision and ability to collaborate and forge partnerships within the community and with business and industry.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley credited SLCC faculty and Harder for the countless students they’ve encouraged in their careers and told Harder there are countless more who will be touched by her leadership.

Woodley, the inauguration ceremony keynote speaker, shared her own experiences as a community college student working full-time as a mother of two at the age of 20 and overcoming obstacles such as time, money and not being college-ready for courses such as algebra.

Woodley said her teacher encouraged her and told her words that still stick with her: “You are smart enough.”

“I believe without her encouragement I would have dropped out,” she said.

Harder said her first job on a community college campus opened her eyes to “versions” of herself and the access community colleges afford those seeking to create a better life for themselves.

“I saw versions of me all over the campus,” Harder said. “Me as I was and me as I could have been. ... I saw first-generation college students taking out loans because they thought financial aid wasn’t for them. …. I saw me had I made different choices after high school…I saw spouses who never thought that they’d have to be the breadwinners in their family.”

“I’m so appreciative that all those versions of me were being taken care of,” she said.