Rolling out the Welcome Mat

 Rolling out the Welcome Mat

Clark State’s new president hopes for a slam dunk

To understand Jo Alice Blondin, first know this: she is a fervid college basketball fan. She lists her favorite teams as Purdue, Butler and Ohio State.

She doesn’t consider herself an athlete, but she’s fascinated by the strategy of sports and coaching and sees the parallels of those strategies to leading a college.

“I find myself in meetings and talking to folks using sports metaphors,” says Blondin. “I try not to overdo it. I think about strategy and how it’s used in basketball, although I miss the 45-second shot clock. I would like a little more time.”

And she needs time. Blondin has an aggressive agenda for Clark State, where she became president in July. She’s diving in to keep the Springfield community college, which serves students in Clark, Logan, Champaign, and Greene counties, a pipeline of educated graduates for the region.

“Listening. That’s what I have been doing for the past eight months,” she says from a hotel room in Washington, D.C. where she had traveled to speak with lawmakers about higher education.

Her ears are tuned to her campus, listening to the thoughts of students, faculty and staff as they go through a formal strategic planning process to set the course for the college’s future. She’s calling on industry and economic leaders to find out how the college can align itself to the workforce opportunities in the region, including a new associate’s degree program to train students to use drone technologies in agriculture.

And she’s listening—and doing a bit of talking, as well—to legislators to let them know how important financial aid funding is for Clark State’s students. Nearly 65 percent of Clark State students get need-based Pell Grants.

“The financial aid office is the admissions office,” says Blondin. “The good news is that our legislators understand the importance of the Pell Grant.”

The New Frontier: Agriculture and Manufacturing

Researching the Dayton region and Clark State, Blondin landed on an exciting possibility—using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to cull information about crops for farmers. Agriculture is a strong program at Clark State and one of its oldest. With one-in-seven jobs in Ohio related to agriculture, Blondin dove in, hired a consultant, set up an advisory committee and brought shareholders to campus in January. The Ohio Board of Regents must approve the college’s plan for an associate’s degree. Blondin hopes for an approval in August.

“I knew that our ag [agriculture] program was a strong one; I knew that one of the emerging industries in the Dayton region is Unmanned Aerial Systems,” she says. “The application of UAS in agriculture is, in my opinion, a key component of regional economic development.”

Students will still learn traditional agriculture practices but will also learn about UAS technology. Flying over the field, a sensor detects information about the crops below and reports detailed information back , such as what crop is low in a particular nutrient in a specific location.

Students will learn to analyze the data and apply a solution, adds Blondin. The program will pull from Clark State’s strengths in agriculture, information technology and cyber security.

“Farmers right now know as much IT as almost any area,” she says. “An ag program isn’t cheap, and then you add the high level of technology,” she says. The college is currently applying for grants to fund the new degree.

Along with agriculture, Blondin is interested in continuing a strong manufacturing training component at Clark State.

“I’m a firm believer that insourcing is happening,” she says. “Training people for those jobs is key to the future of our area. Not just because it is part of the history of the Dayton region, but because those jobs are and will come back.”

A Midwest Homecoming

Coming to Ohio is a return to the Midwest for Blondin, who was born and raised in Carmel, Ind., along with her identical twin sister, Jill Blondin, who is a college professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Blondin wants to keep college affordable and to create a seamless experience for Clark State students as they navigate financial aid, registration and all the working parts of the college experience. She wants to “put out a welcome mat instead of road blocks.” At her former job, as Chancellor of Arkansas Tech University – Ozark Campus, she worked on similar student retention and success issues, and increased enrollment by 600 percent.

In fact, she first became interested in the mechanics of higher education while at Purdue University. Active in student government, she began to wonder how and why things worked the way they did. It was then she decided to pursue a career in higher education administration. She earned a Ph.D. in 18th Century British Literature, taught English and moved into leadership positions. A voracious reader, Blondin finishes two books a week, although these days she chooses mysteries over the reading lists of her Ph.D. She did step back into the classroom this semester to teach a lesson on Frankenstein.

Her passion for community colleges came as a graduate student at Arizona State University as part of a program called “Preparing Future Faculty.” She had to visit a community college and she fell in love with the culture. She wants all students to have that same feeling of belonging and opportunity she did.

“I never wanted to leave college,” admits Blondin.

But when she does leave campus, she “fires up the Kindle and turns on ESPN” to relax, and picks up a little strategy along the way.