Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Why I Run

MVCC President Randall VanWagoner running in the 2015 Ted Moore Run/Walk.
Why I Run

I’ve always considered myself an athlete, but I never ran without a ball.

I played a wide variety of sports growing up, but when I went to my one and only day of middle school track practice, I stopped after the first half mile and left to wait for my mom to pick me up. I didn't see the fun in running. Without some kind of ball, I didn't have a “why” to run, so I didn’t.

My running world changed in 2007 when my family and I relocated to the Mohawk Valley. I was encouraged to run in MVCC’s annual Ted Moore Memorial 5K Run/Walk, so I asked my oldest daughter, who was still in elementary school at the time, to run with me. We survived it, and better yet, we had a fun time running together. As we learned about the Boilermaker Road Race, our entire family began running in the 5K each year for that event. We all enjoyed running down Court Street to the finish line with the crowds cheering along both sides of the street. It was like getting the full Boilermaker experience, but only running one-third the distance.

In 2010, Steve Zogby gave me the encouragement to run the Boilermaker 15K. He said, “C’mon, you should do it! All you have to do is make sure you can run six miles and the crowd will carry you the rest of the way.” I since have said those very words to multiple people, trying to pay it forward because I’m so glad I took Steve’s advice. I ran the 15K that year, and thought I had checked it off my bucket list. I kept running the Ted Moore and Boilermaker 5K races with my family each year, thinking that was enough for me.

But over time my “why” became abundantly clear.

We have a Wellness Council at Mohawk Valley Community College, and I attended a workshop on well-being that covered research by the Gallup organization. I made a commitment to improve my physical well-being and set a goal of running the Boilermaker 15K again in 2016. As springtime came, I found myself enjoying the reflective time to run and quiet my mind. I became more centered and focused at work and more present in my interactions with others. I also became more aware of my diet and began eating a little better, which led to lowering my weight, which led to feeling better each day.

My “why” I run became to feel better and be better.

I ran the Ted Moore 5K last spring at my best time ever. We had more than 200 people participate, and had our largest fundraising effort ever for the Ted Moore Memorial Scholarship. It was a great day for the MVCC community. Late last summer, my oldest daughter and I ran in the Crim Festival of Races 10-mile race in Flint, Mich., where I grew up. We were part of a Boilermaker Road Race group that traveled there in a show of solidarity with the City of Flint and its water crisis. The only two road races that sent people were the Boilermaker and the Boston Marathon — a pretty powerful statement.

My “why” I run gained a couple more points: to support great causes and to connect to the best of being human.

I started running every time I traveled somewhere new. I mapped out routes through parts of cities I might not otherwise see. I ran my first-ever Race to the Canal 5K along the Erie Canal.

My “why” I run now includes to see interesting sights and places.

On Boilermaker Sunday 2016, my family and I once again worked our morning routine like clockwork with all the friends, rides, pick-ups, drop-offs, and meet-ups. My wife and youngest daughter ran the 5K, as ever, and our oldest daughter and her friend ran the 15K, as did I. The local adage is true — if we could bottle the sense of community pride that’s evident on Boilermaker Sunday, the other 364 days around here would be incredible. Running down Culver Avenue, the Memorial Parkway, Champlin Avenue, and Whitesboro Street with so many friendly faces is uplifting. The views from Valley View are phenomenal and the feeling of running down a crowded Court Street through the finish line is exhilarating.

My “why” I run now is attached to something bigger than myself. It’s about being part of this community and touching a unique collective experience that can’t be replicated.

I would love to go back and tell my seventh-grade self “why” people should run. I’m forever grateful to this community for helping me discover my own “why”. This year, as the Ted Moore Run/Walk celebrates its 20th anniversary and the Boilermaker celebrates its 40th, I hope even more people discover their “why” and turn out in record numbers.

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu

Monday, March 13, 2017

John D. Plumley — A Life Well-Lived

John D. Plumley speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated John D. Plumley Complex at MVCC's Rome Campus on February 10, 2017.
John “Jack” D. Plumley passed away suddenly on March 9, 2017. The John D. Plumley Complex on the MVCC Rome Campus is named in his honor. It is a fitting tribute to a man who served as Oneida County Executive from 1982-1991 and had the vision to support a vibrant branch campus for MVCC in Rome. In the same way the Rome Campus sits in the geographic heart of Oneida County, Jack Plumley represented the heart of this area. He was open, accessible, challenging, caring, and supportive, and made people’s lives better through his manner and way.

John Plumley at the site of construction of the Plumley Complex at MVCC's Rome Campus in 1990-91.

During my ten years at MVCC, I had the good fortune to get to know Jack through several conversations, correspondence, and a few memorable lunches. He was an incredible storyteller who had a deep knowledge about this county — when it was at its best and when it wasn’t. I learned so much from him. Jack was the kind of person who could get to the heart of a subject and cut through the fluff, often finishing interesting stories with pearls of wisdom like, “there’s always more than one side to a story — remember that,” or “not everyone’s motivations are pure, but make sure yours always are.” After every encounter or exchange I had with Jack, I always found myself motivated to be a better person, work harder, or dream bigger. I imagine his imprint was that way on most others who had the good fortune to have Jack in their sphere.

As we shared some time together at the ribbon-cutting of the John D. Plumley Complex on February 10 — nearly one month to the day prior to his passing — it was great to see the twinkle in his eyes as he took in the transformed facility that began with his vision so many years ago. And just as I thought we were all good, he said, “Every president should know that a college campus is never finished — the work goes on and you can never rest.” I imagine he shared that nugget with me because that is how he lived his life. Every leader should know that a community is never finished — the work goes on and you can never rest.

The legacy of Jack Plumley will not only remain in his incredible family and the MVCC Rome Campus, but in the hearts and minds of so many friends and acquaintances that he guided, mentored, and touched so deeply, or the millions of laughs he created throughout a life worthy of a great story.

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu

Friday, January 20, 2017

Finding Strength and Value in Data

MVCC recently held its third annual Data Summit to kick off the Spring semester for faculty and staff. As we collectively paused to consider assessment results and progress made through our Strategic Plan, Catalyst 2020, I was struck at how symbolic this Data Summit is of the College living its values of encouraging excellence, inspiring confidence, modeling the way, and embracing our community.

Researcher Brene’ Brown says “excellence comes from vulnerability” so to encourage excellence is to encourage a sense of being vulnerable, allowing ourselves to really be seen, imperfections and all. This requires us — individually and collectively — to put our egos aside and open ourselves up to being vulnerable in order to be receptive to ideas and changes that can make us wholeheartedly committed to being better, as people and as an institution.

Allowing vulnerability takes great courage, and courage is a pre-requisite to inspiring confidence, as it allows us to admit that we are less than perfect. Tapping into our courage and inspiring confidence in ourselves — and others — builds on that gift of vulnerability and helps us find ways to improve.

It is the will to improve that helps us embrace our community by committing to finding new ways to be better on behalf of our students and community, all the while recognizing that the essence of a community college is to change as the community changes and reflect its needs through our programs and services.

When we accept the important work of identifying what data to collect, then collect it, analyze it, and apply it, we model the way by doing what’s right — even though doing what’s right is not always easy. As business consultant and author Jim Collins found in his research on organizations that go from good to great, they employ what he calls the Stockdale paradox — the unwavering faith that things will get better while simultaneously confronting (if not embracing) the brutal facts. Not all data tell you what you want to hear, and sometimes it can be brutal.

Having an organizational culture that is transparent enough to shine a light on critically important data — and trusts enough to collectively and productively analyze and apply it — is a special thing. Picture what can happen if we all increase our curiosity with data as a means to make things better. It doesn’t happen easily in organizations. It does, however, put us in the fortunate position to shift from our natural tendencies of finding blame and excuses to the more productive and better part of ourselves, exploring ideas and identifying solutions.

It’s not surprising that our culture is evolving in this manner. More than 70 percent of full-time employees have taken the Gallup Strengthsfinder. The top five themes across all the employees who have taken Strengths at MVCC are Learner, Input, Empathy, Responsibility, and Achiever. My Arranger strength can’t resist the chance to “arrange” these themes. The Learner and Input themes (and all those themes connected to them) open us up to wanting to collect more information and understand it. The Empathy and Responsibility themes strike an emotional chord that makes us want to do better on behalf of those we serve. And the Achiever theme puts into action all of the passion and energy in our minds (Learner/Input) and in our hearts (Empathy/Responsibility). Now that we know our top five themes as an organization, we continue to draw on them and turn them into our strengths.

If you have any comments or questions, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The new Mandia Family Learning Commons — a special space for success

Built for success

Where do our students go to identify and find academic support on their pathway to success? It is the place where they can find experts in coping with learning — and life — obstacles to graduation, in a new, inviting space with familiar, welcoming faces.

The Mandia Family Learning Commons is the newest and coolest space for MVCC students on the Utica Campus. Located in the Information Technology Building, the Commons is a multi-functional, collaborative learning space for students to be with each other, with faculty, and with staff to help them advance on their path to success.

As it was in the former Learning Center, the heart of the Commons is the staff who inhabit the new fresh and inspiring space. With full-time professional tutoring in the Math Lab and Writing Lab, the Commons is a tremendous resource for students. Additional tutoring is available in most any discipline or program we offer, and students now have the added benefit of customized space to work with their tutors at computers, if necessary. Open computers are available for students who need to work individually or collaboratively with others.

And the Commons has much more — because of the people who are there to help. 

Four full-time faculty members have relocated their offices within the new space. Representing the disciplines of Reading, Math, English, and Physics, the faculty housed in the Commons are "all in" for student success. They are joined by three Completion Coaches from our Pathway to Graduation Project to help students with issues both in and out of the classroom. For the more complex issues, students can go to a Case Manager from the C3 (College-Community-Connection) Program who can leverage a robust network of community resources related to food, health, housing, transportation, child care, and other barriers that arise to threaten the success of students.

And that's not all! Students and faculty also will benefit from the talents of a librarian and instructional design professional who can provide tremendous resources and guidance to all. While students will draw on the "in-house" librarian talents, faculty can utilize the instructional design resources as they use the "iTeach" lab to explore new technologies and teaching methodologies, and hone their craft for the benefit of students.

While we wait for the last few pieces of furniture to arrive, the positive energy and excitement surrounding the Mandia Family Learning Commons will continue right through and beyond our ribbon-cutting, which is scheduled for Thursday, November 17, at 1:30 p.m.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Organizational Self-Study: Time to Reflect

Accreditation is the “good housekeeping seal of approval” for colleges and universities. Without it, our credits would not transfer, employers would not recognize our graduates, and the U.S. federal government would not process the millions of dollars our students receive in financial aid each year. To obtain and maintain accreditation, colleges must undergo an organizational “self-study” every 10 years and assess itself against seven standards, as defined by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). Colleges produce a self-study document that is sent to MSCHE and an evaluation team comprised of peers from other community colleges in the Middle States region (excluding our neighbors here in New York who are part of the same SUNY system). 

As one of seven regional accrediting agencies, MSCHE is under the same pressure as the other regions to demonstrate to the federal government that peer evaluation and accreditation have teeth — rigor and consequences are tangible. The self-study process is a two-year organizational endeavor involving more than a quarter of full-time employees in significant committee work; more than half in meaningful participation; and nearly all in one way or another in addition to a variety of opportunities for students and community members. Our self-study will be in complete draft form by the start of fall 2017. We'll host the evaluation team chair in the fall and receive feedback to finalize our document by the start of the spring 2018 semester. The process will be complete when the team visits us in the spring of 2018 and makes their recommendation to the MSCHE Board for action at their July 2018 meeting. 

Although accreditation, and the standards it requires, may have seemed like a "spot check" on organizational operations in the past, this is no longer the case. With a variety of external accountability forces driving change in community colleges (and higher education as a whole), the self-study process for accreditation is increasingly becoming about demonstrating how colleges are continuously undergoing self-study for institutional improvement. The accreditation standards simply provide the minimum standards and guidance for what every good institution of higher education should be and do.

MVCC does not shy away from this shift to continually assessing itself and striving to improve. Our self-study workgroups working very hard to ask the tough questions and distill an accurate reflection of where the college has been over the past 10 years; where we are; and clarify our challenges and opportunities for the future. As a college, we are increasingly recognizing that we need to continue developing our systems, programs, and services because we have data to inform our thinking that we're doing the right things, for the right reasons, with the right outcomes. Accreditation does indeed provide that external stamp of approval for the college but to truly thrive in these changing times of paradox and uncertainty, we need to be doing things because they're what we need to do to be a great institution well into the future.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New campus dining choices feature local products

John Lehmann, right, general manager of Sodexo Campus Services at MVCC, talks about the new dining options at MVCC's Utica Campus. Also pictured, from left: MVCC President Randall VanWagoner, MVCC Vice President of Student Affairs Stephanie Reynolds, and Carla Wevang, District Manager from Sodexo.

Everything is better with good food — including learning. That is why one of the biggest changes to our Utica Campus this fall is within our food service areas.  

Our partners at Sodexo surveyed students, faculty, and staff last spring, and the results were clear: Changes needed to be made. Based on that feedback, we've added Wholly Habanero; replaced Pizza Hut with the Pizza Joint; and replaced Zime Bistro with Sammies for great subs. 

These new choices feature local products no farther away than Syracuse, with everything made fresh daily — cooked and cut meats, fresh breads and pizza dough, vegetables, and other items prepped and chopped every morning. In addition, these eateries provide more flexibility on cost, with choices like a single taco or pizza by the slice. And the food plans are much more flexible now, with lower cost plans available through the use of HawkDollars on your student or employee ID card.

The changes are dramatic and timely to help get the new academic year off to a great start. Hopefully, everyone will take advantage of the new offerings and enjoy themselves.  After all, everything is indeed better with good food.

If you have any questions or comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ceremonies as a Tether Amid Change

Next week, we will welcome students to MVCC at our New Student Convocation. Although I imagine this may have been done in the early days of the College, a ceremony like this has not been held at MVCC in recent memory. It’s an important ceremony to anchor the college experience for new students and frame their time at MVCC to get them off to a great start. New Student Convocation also provides a perfect pairing with graduation — the most visible and significant ceremony of a college experience. 

As another start to an academic year begins for us, I am reminded of the importance that ceremonies, events, and celebrations have for our organizational culture. We live in an age of change, and MVCC, by our very nature as a community college, is constantly engaged, staying ever nimble and responsive to the changes in our community.

This summer, we’ve experienced a number of major changes — a $30 million redevelopment of the Rome Campus; a renovated bookstore and food service area at the Utica Campus; a transformation of the Utica Campus Learning Center into the new Learning Commons; a full replacement of the platform and support columns on Payne Hall; and a redesign of the Academic Affairs administrative structure that also resulted in nearly 70 full-time employees changing offices.

We’ve also recently added new academic programs like small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) Associate in Applied Science degree and Mechatronics Certificate to respond to the region’s emerging UAS and nanotechnology industries, and we’ve relocated our thINCubator and Carpentry/Masonry programs to adjacent spaces on Broad Street in Utica’s Bagg’s Square. In addition, we’ve received major programmatic grants like Title III: Pathway to Graduation Project, College-Community-Connection (C3) program, and the Advanced Institute for Manufacturing that serves manufacturers in the six counties of the Mohawk Valley region — that’s a lot of change!

With so much change in motion, ceremonies, events, and celebrations tether us and provide a certain level of consistency and community that unites us and serves as a reminder of the importance of our mission and connects us to our vision of transforming lives through learning. This week we’ll all gather for our annual Fall Opening and August Institute, which signal the start to the new academic year. Student Welcome Week, Completion Day, Phi Theta Kappa honor society induction ceremony, and other student-focused events help create a rhythm to the fall semester that closes with graduation and our bi-annual Celebration of Success. Our annual Data Summit and January Institute for faculty and staff kick off the spring semester, which winds down with an annual scholarship ceremony, athletics banquet, student honors brunch, and other events that culminate in our large graduation ceremony, Summer Institute and recognition luncheon, and year-end Celebration of Success that all then give way to the altered rhythm of summer in Upstate New York.

The daily experience of working in a community college can be inspiring. Helping students and our community clearly presents a feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself; however, ceremonies, celebrations, and events add something special to the culture of an organization. The addition of New Student Convocation will add a distinctive element for the College and serve as yet another reminder of why change is important in the first place — to enhance the student experience and increase their chances for success.

If you have any questions or comments on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Community's Diversity as a Window to Our Future

A community college is inherently designed to mirror its community. MVCC strives to not only mirror our community but also provide a window to our collective future. The City of Utica is the urban center and largest municipality in Oneida County. With refugees comprising nearly one in four city residents (in addition to the 500 annual newcomers from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic!), our community is incredibly diverse.

MVCC has embraced this aspect of our community through a variety of signature elements that all make the college a distinctive learning environment. Our Educational Opportunity Center at Third and Elizabeth streets in Utica is a hub of community partnerships, including the incredible On Point for College program, to provide a safe and comfortable first point of contact for many refugees and newcomers. The unique one-year certificate in English as a Second Language is a key rung on the educational ladder of success for numerous students who start their educational journey at MVCC.

What continues to give me great pride about working at MVCC is the incredible combination of rigor and support that has somehow been hardwired into our organizational DNA. Anyone attending our “Honors Brunch” celebration event the morning of spring commencement in May will see an absolute rainbow of ethnic and cultural representation in honor students who achieve at the highest levels. Many of them are living examples of hard work paying off, but also of reaching out and accessing all available resources to succeed. The Learning Center at MVCC is just one of several academic supports that the College provides to support students as they raise themselves up to the rigorous standards our faculty maintain in the curriculum.

The nationally recognized Cultural Series and Diversity and Global View graduation requirement at MVCC celebrate the diversity of our area — bringing the world to our campuses, students, employees, and community. Our current challenge, as set forth in our updated Strategic Plan, MVCC Catalyst 2020, is to “advance diversity and inclusiveness” to include diversifying our faculty and staff to better reflect our student population; look for more posts about this in the future.

As we provide innovative programs like mechatronics, semiconductor manufacturing, and unmanned aerial systems that are preparing the workforce of the future for our region, we are also providing access to opportunity for aligning our outreach and support systems to reflect our community. Refugees and newcomers add a distinct richness to our classrooms and campuses that enhance learning and overall student experience — our faculty do an amazing job of making it so. Just as the immigration of the early 20th century continues to define Utica (and our country) today, the influx of newcomers here in the past few decades most certainly will go on to define the remainder of the 21st century.

To further understand the magnitude and significance of the refugee experience in our community, I have provided a great PBS news story link featuring a few of our students as well as our own Ibrahim Rosic, Director of the Learning Center at MVCC.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Organizational Resilience

I recently had the opportunity to chair an evaluation team for a Middle States Association accreditation visit. I treasure these experiences because they provide me with a chance to learn about another community college and — perhaps more importantly — reflect on my own institution, and this visit did not disappoint. 

While our primary purpose was to evaluate the institution against the 14 characteristics of excellence established by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the real challenge is to understand the "story" of the place — where has the organization been in the past 10 years, where is it now, and how well is it positioned for the future? The team and I found more than your average story during our visit. We found an institution with incredible organizational resilience. Although resilience is not an accreditation standard, it was an overarching theme that touched all the other standards because the College found its way through a very challenging period without ever losing focus on its mission of serving students and the community. 

The notion of organizational resilience is an important one for all community colleges to consider in these difficult times. Beyond the institution we were visiting, we learned from colleagues that our peers at community colleges in Pennsylvania and Illinois have been working without state budgets since last April, meaning they have not received a dollar of state aid in almost a year. If colleges don't have enough fund balance to cover expenses, some are taking out lines of credit to meet their obligations. The resilience of community colleges across the country is being tested like no other time in recent memory.

What gave me a sense of organizational resilience on this particular visit is that after listening to more than 100 faculty and staff speak over three days, a few themes seem to appear. Organizations are able to thrive in challenging times when people stay focused on their responsibilities; keep students as the number one priority; don't spend time in the rumor mill wondering about "what if" and "maybe"; and try to find the positive by turning every challenge into an opportunity. I learned a phrase during my years in Omaha where I heard people say, "we got pulled through the knothole in the fence backwards" but we made it through somehow — and that's kind of what I saw on this visit. It was inspiring to see an organizational culture that had the resilience to persevere and the collective will to keep pushing, keep challenging, keep stretching to serve students a little better every day. 

As we look forward to celebrating our 70th year in operation, I'm proud of the resilience I see here at MVCC, and this visit provided me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on just how important it is for us to keep that in mind during challenging times.

If you have any comments or questions on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Liberal Arts to the Rescue

As the sad and dramatic increase in frustration, anger, and hate reaches new levels through the presidential debates, I can’t help but notice it everywhere now. All the angst we collectively carry around follows us into the modern workplace — with rumors, stress, conflict, brinksmanship, and dark humor preventing many from doing their best cooperative work. It seems Stephen Covey’s famous principle, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is increasingly a lost art — which is why I believe the liberal arts are more important than ever.  

Aside from following national politics, the little television I do watch is usually for laughs – Saturday Night Live, Modern Family, The Middle, or Brooklyn 99 are all a nice release for me to laugh with my family.  

However, my odd bliss includes historical documentaries and formulaic makeover shows. I used to like Extreme Home Makeover, and now I’m hooked on the Food Network’s Restaurant Impossible — people with failing restaurants contact the star of the show to transform their restaurant in 48 hours with $10,000 and some tough love on how to make over their business. I love the formula where the star of the show comes in and finds things in shambles; from the d├ęcor and the service to the menu and quality of food, it’s all a hot mess. About halfway through the show, he surfaces that the heart of all the problems comes down to the quality of the relationships between the people working at the restaurant. The business isn’t broken, the people have just lost themselves and each other, along with perspective on the big picture. He facilitates some critical conversations, and in no time the crooked places are made straight and it all comes together beautifully. It chokes me up nearly every time.

With each passing year in my career as an educational administrator, I couldn’t be happier with my decision to have pursued a broad liberal arts undergraduate education. The perspective I gained through those classes helped me consider the variety of perspectives needed for problem solving, sparked a desire to be a lifelong learner, and created a deep appreciation for the human condition and the gifts that others bring to this world — the essence of a liberal arts education.

When I find myself in a conversation with a parent who wants their child to “just pick a career,” I often say “everyone in their own time.” The most important thing in discovering your path in life is passion, and that may take time to find. To this end, MVCC helps students discover their strengths at the very beginning in orientation. For those who discover that their passion and talents have led them to a certain career or technical field, we have a broad array of outstanding career and technical programs that lead directly to jobs in the workforce. And I’m proud to know that the liberal arts faculty at MVCC believe that liberal arts programs lead to great jobs as well. Our faculty help students understand how the cultivation of the creative process gives birth to the revolutions of design thinking and problem solving. With its broad base of education spanning a wide range of academic areas, the liberal arts help people to develop critical thinking skills and learn how to learn so that they may continue learning beyond the classroom. In today's landscape, this is more important than any skill that can be taught because technology, and the workplace in general, changes so rapidly that adaptation, understanding, critical reflection, and personal reinvention are absolutely necessary for job success.

On the simplest level, we cannot reinvent ourselves, or the world around us, if we have no understanding of these things to start. Where at one time creating workers was enough, today we need a generation of thinkers if we are ever to tackle the problems we face as a society. Additionally, these skills help foster better interpersonal relationships and develop emotional intelligence that nurture safe and understanding environments where creativity and effective problem solving flourish. With an increased influence of the liberal arts, the modern workplace — regardless of whether it’s a restaurant or a college — would have exponentially less friction and frustration, and the soul-wrenching polarization of our society would be replaced by thoughtful debate and progress. 

If you have any comments or questions on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.