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Meet Christopher Gray: Community college president has a history with community education

Erie Times-News logo Erie Times-News 7/9/2021 Valerie Myers, Erie Times-News

Christopher Gray has a boyhood memory of his father earning his high school equivalency diploma at a community college in Illinois.

He remembers dressing up to go to the award ceremony and his mother crying in the back of the room.

"My father had dropped out of school and gone into the foster system and probably was in his 30s at the time he earned his GED, while working and with a family," Gray said.

But he was able to go to school, get his diploma and improve himself — for himself, his family and his work, Gray said.

"That's the kind of work we do at community colleges," he said.

Gray is the founding president of Erie County Community College. He was introduced to the community at the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership on Thursday and begins his new job in Erie next week. Gray replaces Judith Gay, who has served as the college's interim president since January.

Related: Erie County Community College hasn't held its first class, but it's already won a national award

Community colleges meet students where they are in life, whether they want to earn a high school equivalency diploma, need remedial work to prepare for college or want to learn job skills, Gray said. They offer academic courses and job training at low cost.

"Students can stay part of their family, support that family and also attain their own career goals," he said. "Not everyone wants to pack up the car and go away to college for four years, or can. We meet students where they are and help them get where they need to be."

For many students, going to a traditional, four-year college isn't a possibility or even a goal, he said.

"I grew up in a small town where no one went to college. I never thought about going to college growing up," Gray said.

Gray graduated from a community college and went on to earn a master's degree in theater and a doctoral degree in education administration and foundations. He taught college-level speech and theater for two decades and currently is vice president of academic and workforce development at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois, near Chicago.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Christopher Gray is founding president of Erie County Community College. He is shown, July 8, 2021, at a news conference introducing him to the public. © VALERIE MYERS/ERIE TIMES-NEWS Christopher Gray is founding president of Erie County Community College. He is shown, July 8, 2021, at a news conference introducing him to the public.

One of Gray's two sons graduated from community college and now is studying law.

Gray's goals

Gray said that his main goals in Erie will be making higher education affordable, accessible and adaptable to constantly changing workforce needs.

He said that he will work with local schools so that students can earn certificates or associate degrees while they earn their high school diplomas and will work with area colleges and universities so that community college students can continue their studies seamlessly if they choose.

Gray worked with local schools on similar programs at McHenry County College.

President Joe Biden visited McHenry County College on Wednesday to discuss the importance of community colleges in workforce and economic development.

He also created industry councils that share resources and advise the college on industry trends and worked with city and economic development leaders to attract new industry by providing a workforce trained to meet their needs.

"Community colleges are an economic driver in our communities," Gray said. "We will be at the table when (Erie County) is working to attract new businesses to tell them about the training we will provide."

Forging partnerships: Pact allows Erie County Community College students to transfer credits to Edinboro

Erie County Community College's main mission will be preparing students for jobs available in the community, Gray said.

"We're going to measure success by jobs, not degrees," he said. "Our job is to prepare folks for work, whether immediately or after they go on to obtain higher degrees."

'A good fit': Erie County Community College gets temporary home, new president

From $3 to $20 million in the bank, and classes this fall

Gray's hiring as Erie County Community College's president is the latest in a series of "wins" for the college and for Erie County, said Ron DiNicola, chairman of the college's trustees.

The college has grown its initial $3 million county investment to well over $20 million from state, local and philanthropic sources in less than a year since its approval by the Pennsylvania Board of Education in July 2020, DiNicola said.

New to the trough: Erie County Community College gets first state line item allocation of almost $5 million

It's also been approved to offer degrees, gotten its first state budget allocation and signed a first articulation agreement with Edinboro University.

Another 'win': Erie County Community College is given the go-ahead to grant degrees

Gray's hiring is the latest step forward for the new college, DiNicola said.

"Dr. Gray brings excellent skills, powerful innovation and vision to Erie and understands community colleges because he began (his higher education) in community college," DiNicola said. "He combines all of the skill sets we were looking for."

Gray has the opportunity to make the new college a model, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said. While existing community colleges have legacy hierarchies, systems and histories to cope with, "this school can be an example for the rest of the nation in how to do a community college well," Dahlkemper said.

Erie County Community College will begin enrolling students July 15 and will offer its first classes this fall.

Contact Valerie Myers at vmyers@timesnews.com. Follow her on Twitter@ETNmyers.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Meet Christopher Gray: Community college president has a history with community education

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