Q&A Dr. John J. “Ski” Sygielski

Dr. John J. “Ski” Sygielski, president of HACC, has made quite an impression on the mid-state since taking over the reins of the commonwealth’s first community college just over a year ago. You’ve probably seen him on the news or read about him in the local paper because Dr. Ski, 53, has made it a priority to be accessible to students and faculty as well as administrators and community leaders.

He’s a busy man as he bounces back and forth among HACC’s five campuses, but he always finds time to listen. And, for that reason, he contradicts the clichéd college president who is hidden away in his or her office. Instead, he is a recognizable figure throughout HACC and the community as a whole.

“Harrisburg Magazine” recently sat down with Dr. Ski to chat about his first year as well as the future of HACC.

What inspired you to get involved with community college?

I grew up barely a blue-collar kid and education was not an issue for us. I was working in the steel mill. So the community college really played a role because I saw that it gave second chances. I saw that it changed people’s lives because it was the only opportunity for people to get a higher education. It’s an on-ramp to higher education. And folks like myself were able to go there and get an education. It can change lives and destinies. It was something that just really tapped into who I was. To be able to see that in my own life, education changed my possibilities, my opportunities. I see, since then, how education has changed opportunities and possibilities for everybody. You, me – you name it.

After being here for a full year, what has your experience been like? How do you think you’ve changed HACC?

HACC is probably the most amazing out of all the community colleges at which I’ve been. It’s the most amazing internally because of the faculty and because of the reputation they have earned at this college. When you travel anywhere in central Pennsylvania, people will tell you that they’ve gone to HACC, they know someone who’s gone to HACC or their kids have gone to HACC. It was the best choice; some of the best instruction – better than any four-year institution.

The other thing is the way this community supports HACC. It is the first time in my life in a community college that I have really witnessed the pride, dedication and support for this college. That has really been phenomenal.

What have I changed in a year? You know, that is tough. It’s tough because I spent the first six months listening to the college to understand the culture, understand the ways, understand our essence. That was the first six months. The next six months, I put together some committees to look at our processes, procedures and organizational structure.

What have I changed in a year? You know, that is tough. It’s tough because I spent the first six months listening to the college to understand the culture, understand the ways, understand our essence.

We’ve altered the structure of the college a bit. The second issue is re-engaging the business community and workforce training – re-engaging our foundation in ways that are somewhat new. I think it’s just really trying to bring people together to really understand the training and education needs of our community and start looking at ways that we could address it.

Case in point would be our virtual campus. I’ve re-aligned and re-organized our virtual campus. We’re now looking at the next generation, if you will, of how we incorporate the MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] and OOCs [Open Online Courses] as well as the other things that are going on in technology.

How are we incorporating that into our offerings in staying current and relevant? I think, right now, it has been a pretty general new strategic plan. There are some specifics of a new strategic plan, mission vision. There’s a variety of things that you would expect like a review of the budget, those kinds of things. So it’s now just starting to get my feet planted after review.

What’s your typical day like?

I don’t know about typical, but pretty typical is breakfast maybe at 6:30 or 7 a.m. It will be a breakfast meeting for about an hour, and then we come in here and have maybe a cabinet meeting or staff meeting.

We have meetings with donors, various people on the campus, some of our legislators, elected officials and business leaders in town. That will take me through most of the day, and then I’ll either give a speech at a Rotary or chamber of commerce.

Remember, I’ve got five campuses – Gettysburg, York, Lancaster, Lebanon and Harrisburg. My time is split throughout the whole service region, so all of those things are happening at those communities. And I will go out to the campuses once every week and spend a full day or night there as well. It’s a variety of meetings, speeches and different engagements.

What do you have planned for the future of HACC?

Well, right now, we are looking at processes, procedures and systems. We’re looking at all of that. I want to make sure we have a very firm and solid undergirding so we’re able to continue doing what we do well, and then to look at new ways, new programs and new courses that either our employers or communities need.

Our virtual campus: what we’re doing with online education through iTunes and through our online education is a critical piece. Right now, we’re finishing up our strategic plan, and we’re taking a look at that.

Over the next two to three years is what we’re looking at to try and really firm up the things that we do well and then to be able to look at offering those new courses and programs.

Going forward, we’re doing a lot of assessments on the community to try to understand more and more of what it is that our community needs. We come back, look at the courses and programs, keep those that are working well and either alter or develop new programs to meet the needs. So, right now, we’re still in a kind of a research and analyzing stage.

It seems like many colleges and universities are concerned more about increasing the number of students paying tuition rather than providing a service to the community with educated and skilled citizens.

That could very well be, but the community colleges really have a special mission, a special duty.

We are the community’s college, so therefore it is incumbent upon me to really listen and understand. That’s why I meet with so many people and then bring that information back into the college to see how we can use it.

As I said to people, my first six months, I am leading by my ears. It was critical for me. I use my iPad, and I have just pages and pages and pages of notes. I could probably fill up a couple of notebooks of notes from external and internal folks on what we need to do. A lot of it has already been translated back into the college, and many changes have happened because of it. I think it’s really incumbent upon me to do that.

What’s your proudest moment as president of HACC so far?

Graduation is probably my favorite opportunity because then we get to really celebrate the hard work. In front of 600 or 700 students and the thousands [of spectators] sitting in the Farm Show building, one of the things I love doing at the beginning of every commencement is asking, “All of the single parents, would you please stand? All of those who have been out of high school for 40 years, would you please stand up?”

It’s amazing to see the number of people who stand up, and it’s really quite cool. Some of these people have gone through some really hard life issues or second careers or whatever it may be. For them to be able to graduate is probably the proudest moment for all of us.

The other thing is, when I’m on every campus, I try to meet with the student government association. I will walk around. I just met with students yesterday when I was on the Harrisburg campus, and I had a meeting with some faculty. As I’m walking through, there were those areas where there are some couches and stuff, so I just stood there and introduced myself to some.

I think we need to get the word out. We need to do a better job with our high schools, with the recruiting, as well as throughout all of our communities.

I asked them, “So, what are we doing well? What would you like to see differently?”

And I’ll do that on every campus. I’ll just try to interact with students. I also do focus groups with students, and I’ll meet with the students.

I’ve even taught a class – two classes actually. I’ve been a guest lecturer in several classes. I’m teaching a human development class for first-generation students. So that’s been very exciting to be in the classroom because I really miss being in the classroom. What I try to do is make all of our administrators understand how important it is to give back in the classroom, to really understand our students.

Remember, our average age is 28, so we’re not dealing just with 18-year-olds.

How does HACC compare to other community colleges?

All are second. There’s no doubt about it.

We’re the oldest, we’re the largest and we’re probably the one that offers the highest quality education.

In all seriousness, we are all meeting the needs of our local communities. I think that what you will find in those communities is they are very proud and very supportive of their community college because they know the value. I think our employers know the value. We change economies.

So I really do think in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, from what I have heard, in interacting with the other 13 community colleges has been very good, that we have a good reputation, and we serve a real need.

What do you think of students graduating from four-year colleges and universities all over the country with enormous student-loan debt?

Well, I think it shows more value in the community college because of the quality of our education. Many graduates I have talked to since I’ve arrived have told me that even when they went on to a four-year school, more of our instructors here were more effective and almost better than any of the experience they’ve had in their junior or senior years.

I think it’s important for us to be able to get the word out on the value of the community college and what role we play for valedictorians, honors students – we have a great honors program – and for those who may have never thought about college as an option.

I think we need to get the word out. We need to do a better job with our high schools, with the recruiting, as well as throughout all of our communities.

I want people to really understand that, by getting an associate’s degree, they’re going to make more than those without a degree or with a high-school diploma. Also, I want them to realize that they can do their first two years, they can get their “gen eds” out of the way, transfer to a four-year school and then focus on what they really want to do. And if they have to accumulate any debt, it’s going to be in those last two years. So, in a sense, it’s going to slash everything in half.

At the honors convocation recently, a student brought her sister up. We were talking, and the sister said, “I really wish I would have known about HACC because I ended up going to ‘blank’ college, but now I’m saddled with $60,000 in debt. My sister, though, is going to be leaving with no debt, and she’ll be able to accumulate whatever when she goes onto those next two years.”

I am so proud and feel really privileged to have a great group of 19 board members who are very supportive and committed to this college.

It’s sad when you think about some of the students and you read about it in The New York Times; these people are going to four-year schools or out of state and accumulating $100,000 in debt, but they want to be an elementary school teacher or a journalist. We’ve got a great elementary program here and a great education program. There are so many programs that students can try out here to see if that’s what they want to do. If not, they can switch. We’re a great place to do that.

Final thoughts?

We are the on-ramp to higher education, and excellence in education is what we’re about. Responding to the community’s needs is also really part of who we are. It’s part of our fabric. I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to be able to work with these individuals who are very innovative and creative, who are always looking for what we can do to address the changing needs in education and training.

I read in the paper all the time about all the things that are changing in technology. Well, we want to be at the forefront, and we are through iTunes University and through many of our courses that you find online. We are trying to stay ahead of that curve, so that we can really look at being relevant and current going forward. It’s not only the community we serve, but also the employers who are looking for training and education quickly. And I think HACC is the place to be able to do it.

I am so proud and feel really privileged to have a great group of 19 board members who are very supportive and committed to this college. We had over 200 scholarships offered last year. So people are very committed, and they donate to the college because they believe in the mission. To be associated with that is an honor – it really is. It’s a great opportunity.