JJC's President Talks Community and GSU
Stratus clouds blanket the sky outside Judy Mitchell’s window. The soft dove billows are low-lighted in a darker gray, but the newly-inaugurated president of Joliet Junior College (JJC) and Governors State alumna is all smiles. No early-spring drear dampens her mood. She stands next to her Packers memorabilia—an understandable preference (her mother is from Wisconsin) but a brave one in Chicago’s Southland—and talks about JJC’s commitment to humor.
“One of our core values is ‘Humor and Well-Being.’ We all work very hard, and there are times that you just have to relax, have fun, and celebrate all of your successes.” Her voice is earnest.
There’s no doubt that Mitchell works hard. One of two GSU graduates leading a community college in Chicago's Southland, she sits at the helm of a community college that serves nearly 35,000 students each year via 186 credit and non-credit programs. JJC’s territory includes suburban pockets, rural towns, and Joliet itself—a small city sprawl with all of the pitfalls and boons of any other urban hub.
“The diversity of our student body keeps us all engaged,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell's story mirrors that of so many others who have graduated from GSU. She was a returning adult student; she had children; her time was not her own.
A mother of two, Mitchell said she started working in the front office of her children's elementary school in New Lenox just to get out and make a little extra money.
"Then I saw working parents with careers, and I started wondering what I wanted to do. So I took a few classes here at JJC, and I picked up a part-time job on campus. I graduated with two associate's degrees: one in microcomputers for business and another in computer programming," she said.
Mitchell’s department chair saw a spark in her and urged her to continue.
“I looked into Governors State—and I was very fortunate that most of my credits would transfer—and transferred. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Business and Technology," Mitchell said.
That program has since been incorporated in the Business and Applied Science program at GSU. As technology has diversified and expanded, the University has reorganized its approach to teaching technology, and although the Dual Degree Program was still decades in the future, GSU has always worked to create smooth pathways from community colleges to upper-division learning.
Six months later, degree in hand, Mitchell applied for a job in the Business Services Office at Joliet Junior College. During the interview, she said the director asked the standard "Where do you see yourself in five years" question.
Southland moxie shining through, Mitchell replied, "In your chair."
"My director told me that I needed to go on for my Master's degree then, so I came back to Governors State," she said.
She graduated that time with a Master's in Business Administration.
"By that time my son was in college. He was a freshman, and I would drive home from night classes at 10:30 and I’d call him, and we’d compare college stories. We had a lot of great conversations."
GSU has deep roots in its services to adult learners. Along with a commitment to affordability, Governors State has always insisted on being a place of opportunity for all. Evening classes, flexible schedules, faculty and staff who are dedicated to students—this is the GSU formula. GSU is the No. 1 place for adult learners in Illinois and is currently ranked No. 26 nationally by Washington Monthly.
“I look back in hindsight and see how certain things helped me to grow at JJC," Mitchell said, "and I had the same experience at Governors State. I wasn't working at GSU, but as a student you created those relationships and you talked to counselors and advisers, and if you had some question, they were there to support you. Everybody was always warm and welcoming. They opened the door. It just seemed right. Everything fit."
As president of one of the largest feeder colleges in the GSU region, Mitchell said she focuses JJC's mission on community and philanthropic outreach.
“I’ve been very lucky. When you talk about the institutions in our community—JJC, GSU—they both mean a great deal to me. They’ve provided the support I’ve needed throughout and it’s worked. I want to give back to both colleges," she said. "If you are not willing to embrace the community, you’re going to have more challenges. It’s very important. The community is instrumental.”