In the corner of Joyce Ester’s office, hanging in plain sight, are two sets of academic robes: one signifying her Ph.D., the other her position as president of Normandale Community College in Bloomington. It’s an intentional display, said Ester, who this week begins her second year leading Minnesota’s largest community college and its more than 14,000 students.
“I keep them in sight as a conversation starter,” she said. “A lot of my students are first-generation college students. They don’t know what this all means — the academy, the regalia.” Ester wants students to view themselves as part of an educational heritage stretching back for centuries.
“I believe in the idea of the academy,” Ester continued. “I often say to people, ‘Community college is not pre-college, and it is not post-high school. It is college. It is not training wheels.’ ”
The 50-year-old Ester, who grew up in suburban Chicago, began her own academic career aspiring to become a social worker. While working as a dorm adviser in graduate school, she began to see how she could make a difference in the lives of students.
“When you live with several hundred undergrads, having those 3 a.m. conversations, you learn a lot about people,” Ester said. Later she worked as a university judicial officer, handling student discipline.
“Again, with the opportunity to engage in those conversations with students, the idea of being a college president took root,” she said. And when she arrived at Bakersfield College, a community college in California, her path really became clear.
“I had been at Whittier College and the University of California-Santa Barbara. Both very affluent, with well-prepared students. But being able to watch the growth of our students at community college — that was really, really exciting,” she said. “My career path is likely to remain in community college. I see the impact of what our faculty and staff do with the students.”
At Normandale, Ester likens her role to the conductor of an orchestra,
“I know when it sounds right and when it sounds wrong,” she said. “But I don’t know how to play the drums. It’s not my job to play the drums.” She said her energy in the first year was directed at getting to know the college, its people and its students.
“I inherited a fantastic institution,” she said. Her focus going forward is on persistence, retention and completion. She wants students to develop a clear academic direction — to look at Normandale as more than a place to “get their generals done.”
Ester is among a relative few female black college presidents; only about 2 percent of presidents fit that profile, according to Women in Higher Education. With about 35 percent of Normandale’s population composed of students of color, Ester is aware that she’s a role model. But she doesn’t make it her calling card.
“I am a woman; I am black,” she said. “I am proud of both those identities. I don’t lead with them, but I don’t hide from them.”
She doesn’t hide her school pride, either. She instituted Roar N’ Red Fridays, encouraging everyone to wear school gear or red clothing. On the day of a recent interview — a Friday — she was decked out in a red Normandale shirt.
And one of her first purchases on arrival last year: an SUV in Normandale red, with the license plate “NORMNDL.”