Asha Khemka, principal of West Nottinghamshire College, capped off a remarkable year by being appointed OBE shortly after her college earned an outstanding Ofsted rating and she picked up an Asian Woman of Achievement award.
Mrs Khemka is one of 11 college staff who will be heading to Buckingham Palace after being named in the New Year's Honours List.
Married at 14 in an isolated town in northern India, she arrived in the UK in 1978 with her husband, Shankhar, a doctor, and their three children, aged two, three and five.
Her education in India had been cut short but, with her children away at boarding school, Mrs Khemka resumed her studies, taking a degree at Cardiff University and beginning her journey in further education.
Her first contact with colleges was as a student on a secretarial course, but later she would become a part-time lecturer. By 1996, she had taken a management position at Tamworth and Lichfield College.
After a stint as deputy at nearby New College Nottingham, she took the top job at West Nottinghamshire College.
Mrs Khemka said further education had been a constant inspiration for her. "I felt it gave me life-enhancing opportunities and I wanted to give something back, to see more people coming up and gaining confidence. That's what gave me the desire to work in FE.
"I was ambitious from the start: I always wanted to teach, I wanted to be in a position where I could make a difference and to turn my vision into reality. But I never knew how far I would go."
The 55-year-old is also a board member for the Association of Colleges and the new Learning and Skills Improvement Service, which is in charge of raising the quality of further education and of college leadership.
She has also launched her own charity, the Inspire and Achieve Foundation, which aims to help white working-class teenagers - who form the bulk of her college's intake - to raise their educational and employment aspirations.
The highest accolades in FE were received by Keith Elliott, principal of City of Bristol College, and Frank McLoughlin, principal of City and Islington College in north London. Both were made CBEs along with Shirley Cramer, former national council member of the Learning and Skills Council and chief executive of Dyslexia Action.
Receiving honours is becoming routine for City and Islington College - Mr McLoughlin is returning to the palace for his CBE just a year after the college won a Queen's Anniversary Prize for its work promoting science.
Mr McLoughlin said: "This is a great honour for me and the college. It is recognition of the huge contribution that colleges make to their local communities and a tribute to the hard work and dedication of our exceptional staff."
A product of the FE system himself, Mr McLoughlin studied A-levels at evening classes before going on to teacher training.
Mr Elliott earned his honour after a year in which his college won a beacon award and was praised by Jim Knight, the schools minister, for its work with Bristol schools in helping to teach the new diploma, along with dozens of other courses.
Honours went to staff at all levels, with an MBE awarded to John Teal, a caretaker at Hartlepool Sixth Form College.