Q & A with JJC’s New President, Dr. Debra Daniels

In March 2012, Dr. Debra Daniels became Joliet Junior College’s eighth president. Her appointment marked the end of a three-month national search which garnered over two dozen applications.
Daniels, who has over 30 years of higher education experience, was previously the president of San Bernardino Valley College in California. Before that, she served as district vice president for academics and student services for Polk State College in Florida.Q & A with JJC
 
A community college graduate herself, she holds an associate of applied science in dental assisting from Delta College; a bachelor of science in allied health education from Ferris State University in Michigan; a master of vocational and technical education and a doctorate in education, both from the University of Illinois.
 
What will you do in your first 100 days at Joliet Junior College?

In my first 100 days, I plan to get to know the college community, the communities that JJC serves, and to become familiar with the philosophy and direction of the Board of Trustees. A big part of this process is to immerse myself in the workings of the college and the community.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing community colleges?
It would be easy to say budget or the economy but I think it is more complex in that community colleges as a whole still struggle with defining their mission. Community colleges that have spent some time deciding as an institution what type of services they will offer are more successful than those who try to serve every facet. Those that have a clearly defined mission and strategic plan to achieve that mission will know automatically their priorities for resource allocation.
 
In your campus visit in December 2011, you mentioned your appreciation for JJC’s history and its place as the nation’s first public community college. Why is this important to you?
 
I remember thinking what a risk it must have been to develop this new model of education that was not high school and not university. I am sure [William Rainey] Harper and [J. Stanley] Brown endured ridicule from their peers but they proceeded anyway. I think that is what community colleges should be about—a place for people to take risks and a place that takes risks to develop new programs and ways to serve our community. It is that entrepreneurial spirit that I have tried to practice throughout my career in higher education.
 
What has been your proudest moment working in higher education?
As president of San Bernardino Valley College, I started a program for disadvantaged high school students to attend their first year of college for free called Valley-Bound Commitment. In the first year of the program, we had only one high school participating. I went to the orientation session being held at that school. At that session, three rowdy male students sat behind me and were making a lot of racket so I started talking to them about the program. They settled down a little and listened to the presentations.
 
When school started that semester, I noticed that one of the students that I talked to was in the Valley-Bound program. At the end of the two semesters, this student came to the board meeting and told the board that he never thought he would go to college. It turns out he had accidently attended the orientation session where I met him. He and his buddies were trying to skip school but while leaving campus, they saw some teachers coming their way so they ducked into the auditorium where the Valley-Bound meeting was being held. He said he met the president of the college and he listened to the presentation and for the first time in his life, he thought he could go to college. He is a first generation college student who graduated from community college in two years and transferred to a four-year institution. His sister followed him into the Valley-Bound Commitment program and will graduate this year as well. The day at the board meeting was the proudest day of my career. I never forget that what we do in education changes lives!
When you are not behind the president’s desk, what do you like to do for relaxation or recreation?
My husband and I love to travel and we also love to scuba dive. Although we cannot do those things everyday, we love to ride our bicycles as often as possible. I am looking forward to exploring the many bike trails in Illinois. When I previously lived in Illinois, I worked with the Rails to Trails Conservancy and helped develop two trails outside of Peoria.

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