Joyce Ester’s enthusiasm is contagious; after just a few minutes of conversation, it’s hard not to share the Normandale Community College president’s passion for her work and respect for the college.
“This is not a place where you come to slack off,” Ester says. “I want people to understand they need to come prepared on their first day. Students talk about community college as a place you go when you’re not ready or don’t know what you want to do. But they’re going to get the same, if not better, academic experience here as at a four-year institution.”
Now in her second year, Ester is the college’s fifth president in almost fifty years. She was president of a college in Chicago before moving to Minnesota.
President on campus
During her inaugural year, Ester focused on getting to know her school and her community.
“My primary goal was to understand this place; every school is different,” she says. “I needed to understand the institution, the community and the system. That was paramount, the lion’s share of what I needed to do when I first got here.”
So she walked around the campus, popped into meetings and talked to faculty and students, asking questions such as, “What do you like? What don’t you like? What do you hope I’ll do as a new president? What are you concerned about?”
Early on, Ester understood the importance of being a visible presence on campus. Normandale is the largest community college in Minnesota, and it’s not possible for her to individually meet 10,000 students. But to make decisions that positively affect them, she needed to “go straight to the source and talk to the students,” she says.
“Just reading something on a piece of paper won’t help me understand how it might help,” she explains. As an example, Ester points out that there are now plans to expand the student services area, but she had to witness the problem herself. “Walking around the bottleneck, watching students bump into each other, put it into context for me.”
Determined to create an open-door style of leadership in that first year, Ester hosted “Pizza with the President” each month and invited 10 students at random to share a meal and their opinions.
In just a year, Ester has become known as an approachable leader who engages with students. Some students call her Dr. Joyce; others have tried to call her Joyce. (“We have to have conversations about that,” she quips.) Clearly, she has created a welcoming environment where students feel comfortable enough to address her in a familiar way.
Ester wants Normandale students to be proud of their school. Last February she initiated Roar N’ Red Fridays; students and faculty are encouraged to wear red (the school color) or Normandale gear to display school spirit and foster a sense of unity; though they come from diverse backgrounds, Ester says, they all share Normandale in common. It’s also a way to promote the school throughout the larger community.
Her focus this year is on persistence, retention and completion. “Our challenge is to make sure students complete,” she says. The majority of Normandale students transfer to four-year institutions; Ester wants to ensure that those pathways are smooth. “Helping students get their degrees and certificates in an expeditious fashion, that’s really important for us,” she says.