A Can-Do Institution

... with a can-do leader at the helm

by Will Lindner

ccv0318Joyce Judy joined Community College of Vermont in 1983 as a student advisor in Springfield. She was named president in 2009.

For many Vermonters, education is a continuum, a well-paved road they enter as kindergarteners and follow past the mile markers of elementary, middle, and high school before cruising on to college and the stable, rewarding careers that often lie beyond. The state, according to Joyce Judy, president since 2009 of Community College of Vermont, has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country.

“By contrast,” she adds, “we have one of the lowest rates of students’ continuing any form of education after high school.”

Two factors, she believes, account for the disparity: an engrained cultural belief — unfortunately becoming a fallacy — that people can fashion a satisfactory livelihood with their hands and a strong work ethic; and an income gap that’s widening as those without college or technical training confront an unwelcoming job market.

“The really disturbing piece for me,” Judy says, “is that we’re seeing a bigger and bigger divide. Right now, just 35 percent of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch [in their public schools] are continuing their education past high school, while the percentage is in the low 60s for people not on reduced-price lunch. That’s a big gap, especially when you see the numbers of kids [on lunch assistance] growing.”

What’s more, the personal plight of those who exit the education highway with a high school diploma or less has statewide ramifications.

“Last June, 7,000 kids graduated from high school,” Judy recounts. “In two years only 50 percent of them will have done any form of continuing education. That’s frightening for employers. If we want to keep Vermont’s economy strong, if we want to keep the companies that we have here and invite other companies to come to Vermont, we have to change that story.”

That’s the daily mission for Judy and CCV’s approximately 1,000 employees — some 760 faculty members, all of whom are part time, and an administrative and support staff of 165. Their tools are many, but among the most important are three:

1. Accessibility. “We take pride in saying we’re within 25 miles of 95 percent of the state’s population,” says Judy.

CCV supports 12 facilities scattered strategically throughout the state. Four — the buildings in Winooski, St. Albans, Wilder, and Montpelier — are owned, while the other sites are rented, providing flexibility for an institution that must do occasional shape-shifting to serve the irregular interests of a fluctuating student body.

Then there’s the online presence that CCV pioneered in 1996, years before the Internet was ubiquitous. Today, about a third of the college’s 800 to 900 courses per semester are available online.

“People might live in Springfield, for example, and work in Brattleboro, so they could take a course in each site, and perhaps add a third course online,” says Judy. “Students, no matter where they are, have the resources of the entire college.”

Bolstering its accessibility is CCV’s open-admissions policy. As Judy explains it, “Anybody who has the ability to benefit can come through our door.” But prospective students must first take “basic skills assessments.” If the process indicates the need, CCV starts them in “developmental skills courses” so they can develop the writing, math, and critical-thinking skills they’ll need to thrive in their desired course of study.

“We want to make sure we’re not wasting a person’s time or money by enrolling them in a class where they won’t be successful,” says Judy.

2. Affordability. When the Com­munity College took flight like an awkward, fledgling robin in 1970 to promote Gov. Deane Davis’s vision of bringing educational opportunities to an undereducated, scattered population, affordability was the critical factor.

“It started by holding classes in community locations like church basements and bank conference rooms. There wasn’t much tuition and there wasn’t much teacher pay,” says Judy, whose first job with CCV was as a student advisor in Springfield in 1983. “We served a lot of women, lots of adults over 30, and many folks who were particularly low-income. That was a very important role for us.”

It still is. However, its relative affordability has also helped transform the college’s demographics. The average student age is 27, and fully 50 percent are 18 to 25 years old.

“A student can essentially do their first two years at CCV, transfer to the University of Vermont or another school, and get their bachelor’s degree,” Judy explains. “But they’ve saved $20,000 on the front end. Our students are the largest — and the most successful — cohort of transfer students at UVM.”

3. Partnerships. Tim Donovan went to work for CCV in 1976, and became the college’s president in 2001. One of his first moves was to promote Joyce Judy, who was then dean of students, to the post of provost — “the person who got stuff done that oftentimes I got credit for,” he quips. When Donovan left the presidency to become chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system (he retired three years ago), Judy succeeded him.

“Joyce,” Donovan asserts, “is one of the most trusted educational leaders in the state of Vermont. The college has benefited from a succession of presidents who were the right person at that moment, and Joyce is certainly that. She is a main reason that CCV tends to be on people’s dance card for forming partnerships.”

Working with businesses, nonprofits, high schools, social service agencies, and other institutions is a priority for Judy and her staff. Providing specialized technical courses, or basics like accounting, helps companies “grow their own” — a phrase she uses to describe the quest of many employers to develop their workforces, reward loyal employees, and prosper in a state with educational challenges.

One of Judy’s favorite examples is an initiative launched in 2016 by CCV and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, which was struggling to find qualified medical assistants. Together, they designed an intensive, 15-credit, single-semester training program. The hospital then offered eight full scholarships, and promised jobs for those who completed the course successfully. The second of these classes graduated in January.

“For all of the students this was life-changing,” she says. “Some had been working at entry-level jobs, like in convenience stores; now they’re launched on a career path. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Mary Alice McKenzie turned to CCV when, in 2007, she was executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington and realized the organization needed to modernize its historic mission beyond providing activities and a safe space for disadvantaged children.

“We asked ourselves, What is our responsibility, as adults, for helping them get what they need to lead a decent life in today’s society?” says McKenzie. “The answer was obvious: education.”

McKenzie had known Judy since 2001, and their relationship was a good starting point. CCV participated in focus groups and helped the club create a system to inspire poor children to envision and pursue post-secondary schooling.

“We redid our program completely,” says McKenzie, who now consults for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. “Another thing we began to realize was that for many children from families without resources, their success in post-secondary education is much higher if they start at CCV. They need a culture of support, and I think that’s what CCV has in addition to the academics.”

The club has now seen its first college graduate, and has 25 more students pursuing post-secondary education. “I thank CCV, and Joyce personally,” McKenzie says, “because this kind of transition is hard.”

If perseverance is the key to such success stories, Judy knows where hers came from. She grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in Plainfield, New Hampshire. The family still owns the farm, and she and her husband, Ben, occasionally retreat there from their home in Waterbury for the renewal that robust outdoor work provides. (Ben, a California native who moved to Plainfield as a high school junior, supervises several resource centers for Vermont’s Department of Labor.)

“Farmers never have enough money,” says Judy, “so you just figure out how to make it work. I feel like that training has served me well at CCV, because with a $30 million budget we’ll never have enough money. It’s about how you deploy your resources.”

Born in 1955, Judy studied animal science at the University of New Hampshire. She and Ben married in 1977, and Judy worked at a number of jobs, including four years as an extension agent at UNH, while Ben worked on the family farm.

After joining CCV, she returned to school in 1990 as an adult working full time, taking courses off and on in pursuit of a master’s in organization and management from Antioch College. She earned her degree in 1994, the year she was named dean of students. She and Ben moved to Waterbury when she accepted Donovan’s offer to become provost in 2001.

“We hike a lot, and snowshoe, and bike,” says Judy. “And I really like to run, and do it regularly.”

Dedicated to Vermont Public Radio, she joined its board of directors last fall — this in addition to her service as a member of the UVM Health Network’s Central Vermont Medical Center board.

Closing in on 35 years with CCV, it’s not just the challenges and the college’s vital mission that keep Judy inspired. It’s also the successes — hundreds of them each year.

“We see high flyers and business people who always did well with their education,” she says. “Then we also see people who come with a GED, and others who have really struggled with their academics. But when they come they’re so highly motivated, it’s amazing how they soar!” •