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Alumna Joyce Ester credits education, mentors for rise to presidency of Kennedy-King College

May 15, 2012
Joyce Ester

Joyce Ester

Bitten “by the Student Affairs bug,” Joyce Ester says that her time at NIU as a graduate assistant in housing “led me to where I am today.”

And where she is today is no small feat.

After a nationwide search, Ester was selected in November to be president of Kennedy-King College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

A native Chicagoan, Ester received her undergraduate degree in sociology from NIU in 1987. Sociology was a compromise for Ester (she wanted to major in theater; her mother wanted her to pursue accountancy), but it turned out to be one of the best decisions she ever made.

“I always had an affinity for the elderly and aging, and so focusing on the sociology of health and aging was perfect for me. I just knew that working with elderly and aging populations was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Turns out she was wrong.

Accepting a position as area coordinator in housing at Whittier College drew her further into working with students and housing. When the position of resident director at UC-Santa Barbara opened up, Ester applied and got the job. She stayed 16 years, serving as the assistant dean of students for Student Conduct. While holding this position, she returned to school, earning her Ph.D. in education.

“I had a fabulous mentor at UC-Santa Barbara,” Ester says. “He encouraged me to get my degree and keep my mind open to a variety of positions. He really helped me think more broadly about what I could do in the field of education.”

Ester’s next roles took her further up the ladder in administration.

As assistant vice president for judicial affairs at Cal State-Fresno, she managed a $10 million budget before landing a position as associate vice president for student services with Bakersfield College, where all of the student services functions, including financial aid, administration and disability services, were under her direction. While at Bakersfield, Ester founded the Veterans Resource Center, which provides information about benefits, makes referrals to services and organizations in the community and helps ease the transition to college for veterans.

When she was ready to move forward in her career path, a mentor again played a key role in her decision. Ester says she was looking for her “next challenge,” but a college presidency seemed like a big step.

“My mentor said I should apply, but I was reluctant. ‘What can it hurt?’ she said. So, when the position was posted a second time, I applied.”

Logo of the City Colleges of ChicagoEster’s hire in November 2011 was part of an historic reinvention of the City Colleges’ seven-college system.

Located on Chicago’s south side, Kennedy-King is one of the system’s smaller campuses and is located in an economically challenging area.

While focusing on improving graduation rates and increasing the number of students who transfer to baccalaureate programs, Ester will also work on building relationships with the surrounding neighborhoods and accentuating the positives at Kennedy-King.

“For many, the college is a beacon of hope, to help them move out and move up,” Ester says. “Kennedy-King has a rich legacy. It’s named after Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, two people who epitomize exactly what we’re trying to do: encourage academic excellence and civic responsibility.”

Distinctive features of the college include:

  • The Washburne Culinary Institute and French Pastry School, which will be featured in a Food Channel documentary for creating a 10-foot-by-7-foot chocolate replica of Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture commonly known as “the bean” in Millennium Park.
  • The Dawson Technical Institute, which provides job training for construction trades and management careers.
  • The WYCC public television station and WKKC radio station, owned by the CCC system and operated by Kennedy-King College

“All presidents have particular strengths,” she says. “Mine is student affairs, which is certainly not the traditional track to the presidency.”

Each position on her journey to the college presidency provided her with valuable skills and experiences that she is drawing on today, Ester says.

“Cal State had a tremendous number of students who were children of migrant farm workers and first generation college students. It was exciting to see how much more of an impact the opportunity for higher education has on the first generation college student and their families. Kennedy-King is similar in that the academic experience is changing so many lives.”

Photo of the NIU flagEster remembers her days at NIU fondly.

“NIU was my first choice and the only school that I applied to. Some of my friends went to U of I, others to ISU. I was so excited when I found out I was accepted [at NIU].”

She was Miss Black NIU, became fluent in American Sign Language – “I took every sign language course on campus,” she says – and was on the College Forensics Team, which was “a big part” of her life. “Forensics helped me make the transition to college. Judy Santacatarina was a very good mentor to me, and the whole experience was good fun.”

Ester has clear advice for students who might want to follow in her footsteps.

“Figure out what your pathway will be: faculty or administration or research. Find your passion among these things, but be sure to get teaching experience. When you’re looking at careers, look at all the areas; don’t be too narrowly focused. Branch out, get a breadth of knowledge and experience.”

Mentors are also critical to success, she says, because they help you see in yourself what they can see in you. “I know that I would not be where I am today without my mentors.”

Most importantly, she says, “You must find what you love. Just because something will pay well or just because you are good in a particular field doesn’t mean that you should choose it as a career. You certainly could do it, but your quality of life will suffer. Where possible, make sure there is a balance in your life. There is no way I would have been happy doing anything other than what I am doing today. The challenges of life are much easier to navigate when you are doing something you love.”