Long bike rides are an annual tradition for Dr. John Sygielski, who spent several weeks biking from New Orleans to Nashville this summer, traveling along the Natchez Trace Parkway and passing through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Along the way, he raised close to $5,000 for his school’s emergency grant fund through a GoFundMe campaign.
Sygielski, known to most as “Dr. Ski,” is the president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, an institution serving approximately 25,000 students on five campuses in the greater Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area. The emergency fund helps students cover the unexpected — a car breaking down, a security deposit for an apartment or a medical bill. Students can apply for a one-time grant of $500.
That grant program is just one of the many ways that HACC seeks to make life easier for its students and make their educational goals more attainable. “For many of our students, if not for us, who?” Sygielski asks. “We’re often the first hope, and the second hope, and the last hope.”
HACC is the largest postsecondary institution in the Harrisburg area and serves a diverse student body, not only with regard to racial and ethnic representation, but also in terms of students’ life experiences.
“We have a huge distribution in age here,” says Warren Anderson, HACC’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “A student who graduated from high school last year might be sitting in a classroom with someone who graduated high school 40 years ago.”
The chief diversity and inclusion officer position is new to the college. Anderson, the first to hold the role, joined HACC in July 2016. As a member of the president’s cabinet, the chief diversity and inclusion officer position has a prominent role within the college’s executive leadership team. In that sense, HACC is a leader among Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges. Only a handful of HACC’s peers have a cabinet-level position dedicated to diversity and equity or are planning to create such a role.
Although Anderson has been with HACC for just over a year, he says that the institution has made impressive strides in creating an inclusive environment across each of HACC’s five campuses.
Spread across 11 counties in south-central Pennsylvania, the five campuses serve rural and urban communities, each with its own specific set of goals and needs.
“The college has really taken to heart what has to happen around diversity and inclusion,” Anderson says. “They’ve really taken up the mantle and have gone leaps and bounds beyond where I thought we would be in my tenure.”
Developing that kind of culture took leadership from the top, Anderson says, starting with Sygielski. The president began his tenure in 2011, and he committed to creating a diverse and representative leadership team and campus environment. “We have a changing student demographic, and I felt that if we were going to represent the communities that we serve, there should be people on cabinet, on the board of trustees, at the senior and junior leadership of the college that represent the community and people that we serve,” Sygielski explains.
When recruiting for jobs, the college casts a wide net across different mediums to attract a diverse pool of applicants. The commitment to diversity and inclusion applies to all hiring, whether for faculty, staff or a position in the administration, but setting the tone from the top is critical, according to Sygielski.
“At the senior level, as we’re talking about procedures, outreach, a variety of things, I think it’s important we have people from all different demographics, backgrounds, nationalities and races because that’s going to inform us on what to do as we see our populations change,” Sygielski says.
Sygielski knows the impact a community college can have from personal experience. He was born and raised in a Polish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, where life revolved around the steel mills.
“College just wasn’t a thought, because you can go to the steel mill and make a real good living,” he says.
Yet steel was not to be Sygielski’s fate. “I never really got hooked on that,” he says. Instead, he became the first and only member of his family to go to college, attending Cuyahoga Community College before moving on to a four-year school.
He has since acquired a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a doctorate, along with an honorary associate and several certificates from institutions such as the University of Virginia and Harvard. Sygielski taught at public schools in Chicago, worked in private industry and has held numerous leadership positions at community colleges across the nation.
“I came back to the community college because I knew it was the place that was centered on the community and really changed lives and destinies,” Sygielski says. “As a blue-collar kid, that was the only option I had.”
At HACC, Sygielski knew he would have a chance to make a big impact. He joined the school in 2011, a time when community colleges across the country were about to see a decline in enrollments after years of growth spurred by years of economic recession.
“Dr. Ski came to the college at a time when the landscape was changing nationally,” says Shannon Harvey, vice president of the Gettysburg campus. “There was a need for education to be more responsive and be more aware of what our students were requiring of us. At the same time, there was a whole explosion of technology and a need to do more online. We were lucky, I think, to find a leader like Dr. Ski. He thrives on innovation and change.”
However, the past six years at HACC have not been without their challenges.
A vice president who left the college shortly after Sygielski’s arrival was found to have begun embezzling money from the college in 2009. The perpetrator, who stole $233,000 over the course of three years, was later sent to the same federal prison that housed Martha Stewart. In 2012, the school was put on warning from its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a first in the institution’s history, but by 2014 it had been restored to Middle States’ good graces.
While all of this was going on, HACC was in the process of transforming the institution, creating more online programs and reshaping academic offerings, while also going through a necessary restructuring of faculty and staff due to funding issues and declining enrollments.
“I have never worked with a leader who is so committed to students and communities and to really being engaged with all those that he comes in contact with,” Harvey says. “He has an amazing ability to listen and then to take what he hears and innovate and improve what we’re doing.”
Harvey has been with HACC since 1998 and has seen the college evolve but says that the pace of change has been particularly noticeable in recent years.
“We’re in a time now where higher education is more competitive than ever,” Harvey explains. “There are fewer traditional-age students. There are more part-time adults. So nationally and locally here in south-central Pennsylvania, we are competing for those students.” One area where HACC has seen enrollment growth is in its dual enrollment programs with local high schools.
According to Dr. Joni E. Finney, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), most Pennsylvania institutions, public or private, two- or four-year, are facing increased competition for a shrinking number of recent high school graduates.
“Everybody is competing for the few students out there,” Finney says.
This makes strengthening dual enrollment programs “a really good idea” for community colleges in terms of keeping enrollment numbers up, Finney says, but she cautions that dual enrollments alone will not solve all of the enrollment challenges that community colleges face.
“If these institutions really want to maintain enrollments, they’re going to have to use a number of strategies,” Finney says. “Another one ought to be bringing in adults with either some college or a high school diploma for postsecondary education and training.”
Sygielski invites dialogue on a whole host of issues with community members. He has a strong social media presence, posting frequently about issues of social justice, economic equality and the importance of higher education.
“It’s amazing how engaging it can be on a positive and a negative level,” Sygielski says. “I do get people in our community who come up to me and challenge me with some of the things that I may post.” He does not mind even the negative feedback, he explains, since he sees those moments as an opportunity for dialogue that might help change fixed perspectives — including his own.
Sygielski makes a point of being an active and visible member of the Harrisburg community, making appearances at organizations such as the Rotary Club and the YWCA. From the start, he has been a force of change in the local community.
The dialogue began with his inaugural speech, when he asked his partner of three decades to stand in front of hundreds of people.
Sygielski recalls fine-tuning his inaugural address for hours, only to have people take particular note of two things he had not anticipated: a passing reference to Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go! and his giving thanks to his partner, Steve.
“The reason that many people came up to me — some in tears — is that they indicated to me that three, four, five or six years ago their children had to leave the area because it was so conservative and not gay-affirming,” he says.
Amanda Arbour, executive director of the Harrisburg-based LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania, says, “It’s really important for our youth to see that it’s possible to be out and a leader in the community, to be someone that the community respects. I think it’s really crucial to be able to have those role models, and I think that Ski is definitely one of them.”
Arbour joined the LGBT Center in September but worked with Sygielski in her previous role as racial justice program coordinator with the YWCA of Greater Harrisburg. “He helped connect us with some community resources. He would come attend some of our events and was always a good contact to call if we were doing something in relation to higher ed.”
HACC is currently hosting the YWCA’s monthly forum on diversity, a series of community conversations around issues such as race, disability and sexual identity.
“From the president’s pulpit, if you will, I think it’s important for me to have a real social presence and to get word out not only about diversity and inclusion but also to talk about community colleges and the value of community colleges,” Sygielski says.
- This story also appears in the Nov. 2, 2017 print edition of Diverse.