Chris Gray, Ph.D. l Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania
As the years pass, I find myself more inclined to stop and reflect on the milestones that pass with them. Today marks a life-changing milestone in my life; it marks the day that the Board of Trustees of Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania extended me the opportunity to become its founding president. I was honored and humbled, and I gladly accepted.
That two-sentence paragraph summarizes a period of about three months of my life using sixty-two words. As is the case with most things, however, there was a lot more to it.
As I’ve explained, I was not actively on the job market, nor was I seeking a presidency. The pandemic was still in full swing, though the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines shone a beacon where there had previously been darkness and fear. My previous institution was trying to figure out the proverbial “new normal,” and I was consumed with figuring out how to return to life before everything changed.
Add to this the fact that Erie was just about five hundred miles — a drive of at least eight hours if Chicago traffic cooperates — from where my boys would be. Their mom lives in Illinois, and my youngest wanted to finish high school with his friends. I couldn’t and didn’t expect them to give up their lives for me; thus, I had more than a few qualms about being so far away from them. Amazing young men that they are, they encouraged me first to apply and then to accept.
I’ve elaborated before about how this position spoke to me, and I felt a compulsion to try to be part of such a unique endeavor. I felt prepared for the challenges ahead of me based on my decades in higher education, and when the offer presented itself, it did feel like one that I couldn’t refuse. And as they say, the rest is history. I sold my house, packed up my personal effects, and headed east.
Readers, I’m so glad that I did. To be sure, I couldn’t really imagine what was waiting for me out here. After all, Erie had just been a vacation spot in my past; I had never imagined that I’d live here. One of my favorite television shows from the 1990s was The West Wing. In an iconic episode, President Bartlett asks the White House Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg, to become the White House Chief of Staff. He says to her, “I need you to do something for me.” “What’s that?” she replies. “Jump off a cliff,” he answers. She does, and the rest is history.
On a much smaller scale, EC3PA asked me to jump off a cliff a year ago today. Together, we were to embark on a grand adventure. A year later, I’m so glad that I took that leap.
As I think back about what the last year has meant and what we’ve accomplished since we jumped off that cliff, I continue to be honored and humbled every time I see the way in which this new endeavor of ours changes students’ lives. As we add programs and reach more Erie County residents, I have every reason to believe that our grand adventure has only just begun.