Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

I’m not supposed to be here.  A kid from central Illinois from a family with no college education is not supposed to become a theatre professor and then a dean and then an upper-level academic administrator.  And he certainly isn’t supposed to become a college president.  I’m a statistical anomaly, and the road that led me here was one punctuated by bouts of imposter syndrome and a stubborn, willful perseverance despite barriers thrown in my path.  Nevertheless, he persisted?  Yes, indeed.  My story begins one fall semester when I followed a girl to my local community college, and once I got there, I just started.  And then I stayed.

So what do I tell people when they ask me how to begin the daunting task of getting a college education?  

Just start.

But how many students don’t?  And how many students can’t?  How many students have no idea even where the first step is — much less how to begin to take it?  How many students feel terrified and overmatched?  How many are paralyzed with fear and completely overwhelmed by this place that can, at times, feel like trying to navigate a foreign country without the benefit of a translator?  It’s questions like this that have me sitting today in this place where, on paper at least, I’m not supposed to be.  And it’s these questions that I’ve decided that my tenure as the founding president of Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania (ECCCPA) will be dedicated to answering.  It’s my personal mission to help all students have a just start.

The fact that I found my place in the world of community colleges is no coincidence, nor is it a matter of blind luck.  The great higher education equalizer, community colleges help all students to “just start” by giving them a “just start” — an equitable chance at success in a world where the odds are increasingly mounted against them.

Many years ago, my community college gave me a just start and a chance to do things that no one in my family had done.  It helped me realize dreams that were so far beyond me as to be unfathomable.  My teachers looked past the big chip on my shoulder and saw something else there.  And they helped me to see it, too.  That’s what a community college is supposed to do:  to provide a path for even the most economically disadvantaged and academically underprepared student to achieve something bigger.  When afforded a just start, all students have that chance.

Now that I have the opportunity to build a new community college from the ground up, I contemplate my role as ECCCPA’s founding president in light of how I can build an institution that empowers students and enables them to see beyond their extant reality.  I am working to build a place where equity is the norm and all students have the same just start, regardless of their background.  I want to create a place that helps students to chart a path and then helps them realize their dreams as swiftly as possible.  

Rather than breaking down barriers to student success, I am building a different kind of institution that has no barriers for students to overcome in the first place.  ECCCPA’s mission statement summarizes my goals as its founding president:

The mission of the Erie County Community College of PA is to provide increased access to higher education for the people of Erie County, Pennsylvania, to assist them in achieving their educational goals, to provide a competent workforce for area employers, and to increase both the baccalaureate and associate degree holders in Erie County. 

As the community’s college, we truly want to serve everyone in a just and equitable way, and that’s how we are building and designing every class, program, and degree that will be offered here. We are building the college that our students need.

Lip service about commitment to student success can ring hollow or even downright false if not supported by actual educational structures that are built with students in mind, so creating those very structures is our primary focus here at ECCCPA.  With my team, I am building that empowering place right now with our inaugural group of students, and together, we are just starting.  I invite you to join me on this exciting and new just start.