Steve Mills couldn’t believe the opportunity in front of him.
The year was 2004 and Mills had spent a majority of his adult life in Ardmore. He worked as an administrator and instructor in the area. After his career took him out of the state, Mills and his family had always considered returning to Oklahoma.
The opportunity to return home, little to Mills’ knowledge at the time, would be an opportunity of a life time.
“We wanted to get back home,” Mills said. “We had thought about moving back home but never would’ve dreamed about this opportunity.
“This was kind of like a dream job for me.”
In 2004, Mills took the reins of the University Center of Southern Oklahoma. Next June, 14 years after his journey with UCSO began, he will retire from his position as president. Mills submitted a retirement letter request on June 30 to the board of trustees.
Mills said when he applied for the job of president, he was already familiar with the center. While commuting to Southeastern Oklahoma State University for his doctorate degree, he would often study and research for his dissertation in the UCSO library. Mills said during that time he got to know some of the staff at the center, but never would have dreamt of becoming a part of the team.
 “I always say that I’m the first Ph.D student here (UCSO),” Mills laughed while recalling the story. “It (UCSO) has always been a place that everyone has been proud of. It has an excellent reputation and it had been experiencing a growth period.”
Mills said when he stepped in as president, a lot of questions about the future of the center were arising. From 2004 to 2010, the center experienced “an upsurge” in enrollment and incoming students, which prompted questions about expansion immediately into Mills’ tenure as president.
“There was a discussion whether we wanted to become a college,” Mills said. “That prompted our first discussions with the community.”
Wanting to determine the direction of UCSO for the future, Mills said a cross country analyzation began. Mills and several board members traveled to different university centers, colleges and institutions across the country to fully open themselves to possible directions the center in Ardmore could take.
“What came out of that was something the community had been interested in for years,” Mills said. “We’ve always looked at growing.”
After an attempt at expansion of the current building wasn’t possible, Mills said the board began looking at going a different direction: building UCSO its own campus.
Earlier this year, UCSO welcomed students into the new Health, Science and Math Building, which is the first piece in a plan of many buildings for UCSO’s campus. Mills led the institution through fundraising efforts and the construction process and, during its dedication in June, expressed excitement for the future of the new campus.
“This is where we’ve always wanted to be,” Mills said. “We’ve established the beginning of where we could go. It was the start of the dream becoming a reality.”
Mills said while many will look at the beginning of the new campus as his legacy, he has always looked at his legacy through the lens of the students.
“I hope it would be that we accomplished the mission the higher education center sought out to do,” Mills said when asked of his legacy. “We provided for the citizens of Southern Oklahoma.”
“I just think there’s a lot more opportunity than when I started. We’ve worked hard to serve the citizens and provide higher education in this area.”
Mills said throughout his time as president, the course offerings at UCSO have continued to grow. Mills said he considered the students in every decision he made as president, seeking to do what was best for the students of UCSO, who are primarily non-traditional students. Mills said that as of this year, 75 percent of UCSO’s students have a job outside of class and 50 percent of those students work a full-time job. Mills said he is proud UCSO has been able to help students become contributing members of Southern Oklahoma.
“They live here and have a family here,” Mills said. “They’re not getting a degree to move off and leave. They’re people trying to improve their quality of life here.”
Gary Farabough, UCSO chairman, said Mills has been instrumental in creating the new campus and has always acted in the best interests of the students. Farabough said the entire board was appreciative that Mills will be a part of the transition process and help his successor settle into the position.
“He always thought about students first,” Farabough said. “I appreciate all his leadership and his devoted love for UCSO and its students. The entire board and I are very grateful for Steve’s hard work and dedication.”
Mills said he doesn’t have a specific plan for his retirement at this point, but will look at that in more detail as it gets closer. For now, Mills said he is excited to complete his 14th year as president and work with the board to push toward the future of UCSO.
“I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing people,” Mills said. “Everything we’ve accomplished we’ve accomplished together. I’m thankful for the privilege to have gotten to work my dream job.”