When you work hard and invest in a company that invests in you, good things happen. That philosophy was imparted early on in Dr. Judy Mitchell, who in her first 10 years after high school worked for a telecommunications firm, and before the age of 30 was scheduling multi-million-dollar heliax and coaxial cable production lines. When Mitchell took a step back to spend more time with her growing family, she didn’t sit idle, coaching her children’s sports teams and selling Tupperware and Avon on the side.
While Mitchell’s investment in higher education didn’t begin until 34, she ascended quickly. Over an 18-year span, she earned five degrees that spurred multiple career advancements, culminating in 2016 when she became president of Joliet Junior College. As Mitchell prepares for retirement this fall, that guiding philosophy is reflected in her presidential achievements.
Investments in Fiscal Responsibility
Mitchell’s financial acumen predates even those first accounting courses that launched her JJC career in 1993, and she carried it through her most recent role, vice president for administrative services. As president, she’s continued that commitment to financial stability, while also carrying out visions of new programming, and strengthening student success and community support.
“We’ve been very strategic,” she said. “Always proactive to keep JJC in a financial state that builds for future success. It’s keeping in mind the global picture. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done and have continued to do.”
Mitchell’s transition into the presidency occurred around the time of the State of Illinois’ lengthy budget impasse. To manage the revenue gap, she encouraged more creative funding streams, and during the next four years helped the college reduce its operating costs by over $2 million. Each year under Mitchell’s leadership, JJC’s financial team has been recognized nationally for exhibiting the highest principles of governmental budgeting.
Investments in Adaptation
A key financial focus is tuition, something Mitchell, her Cabinet, and the Board of Trustees have worked to keep low throughout her presidency. In 2018, in anticipation of reduced state funding, they made the difficult decision to raise rates. But after better than expected state revenues, JJC made the unprecedented move to provide a partial reimbursement to students. It was the only community college in Illinois to do so.
“We were able to reimburse our students $16 of the $19 per credit hour increase that they incurred,” said Mitchell. “It was our commitment to our students that we do listen and we care about them, and appreciated their support during those difficult times.”
When the college adopted the guided academic pathways model in 2020, simplifying how students choose majors to complete degrees on time, it added another support mechanism. Assistance has become more holistic to address student health and well-being, with new offices like the Student Advising Center and the Center for Multicultural Access and Success.
“Creating those new departments and divisions, although difficult decisions at times, were the right decisions and now look at the success of our students and the impact we’re making.”
Mitchell’s Pizza with the Prez and Donuts with the Doc student sessions offer opportunities for intimate conversations, and her semesterly Student for a Day experience allows Mitchell to directly engage in the classroom. The feedback she receives is critical.
“The students test us. And we need to be tested. We cannot become complacent. We have to continue to be visionary to meet their needs.”
Investments in Employees
In order for the collective work of the college to thrive, employee support is also critical. That’s included professional development enhancements to grow workplace skills and leaders through internal conferences like EDUCON and the President’s Academy for Leadership. By implementing a program peer review model, introducing new technology in classrooms, and upgrading campus facilities, Mitchell has overseen initiatives that have empowered faculty and staff to do more and improve services.
“Whether it’s talking to faculty in the hall, whether it’s attending the meetings, sitting in their classrooms as a student for the day, all of those help me make better decisions in my role.”
From celebrating employee accomplishments to hosting candid conversations on challenging topics, Mitchell has sought varying ways at the individual and campus-wide levels to engage with JJC’s more than 1,500 faculty and staff.
Investments in Inclusivity
A key focus for Mitchell has been building upon JJC’s climate of mutual respect and inclusion, a pledge she made when appointed president. It started in 2016 when she prioritized the President’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.
“Listening and working with so many of our employees, diversity and inclusion was so important to me because everyone has a voice. Everyone needs to be heard. Everyone needs to have that opportunity.”
In 2020, the college formed the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Compliance. More employees have since become engaged through cultural competency workshops and small group discussions. It’s strengthened employee recruitment, leading to more diverse candidate pools. These efforts earned national prominence in 2021, when JJC received the Award for Excellence in Advancing Diversity by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
“You learn to work with everyone, and everyone’s opinion is important. Whether it be their cultural beliefs or background, you learn so much. That’s what makes us all grow personally and professionally. I’m so proud of the work we’re doing with DEI and I hope this continues to grow for years and years to come.”
Investments in Global Outreach
From expanding degree options and trainings to support local industry to growing stakeholder relations, community partnerships have flourished under Mitchell. Her annual State of the College address has seen attendance increase by 25% since her first speech in 2016.
“The community, our partnerships and our donors are instrumental to the success of JJC and our students. Just this past year over $800,000 in scholarships were provided to our students. That’s because of our amazing partners throughout the community that invest in us, and who we support.”
Mitchell has personally contributed 40% in funding to support returning adult students through what is now called the Dr. Judy Mitchell Scholarship. It’s opened doors for those charting similar paths as her. Five years since starting the scholarship, Mitchell and JJC employees have combined to gift $54,000 to over 85 students. She fondly recalls meetings with scholarship recipients to learn about their academic journey, and what brought them back to school.
“The one session I remember there were a few tears and then we would laugh. That’s what we’re here for. To make a difference in someone’s life, and to let them know that they’re not alone. They walk out and feel good and are like ‘yes I can do it, I can make a difference and I can graduate.’”
Mitchell’s community outreach extends beyond her capacity as president. She currently serves on the board or as a member of seven civic organizations, and has been recognized for her involvement. In honor of her contributions to improving the status of women locally, Mitchell received the Zonta Club of Joliet’s Woman of Distinction Award in 2018. She’s also a 2021 recipient of the Gary W. Davis Ethical Leadership Award from the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, which honors outstanding contributions in ethical leadership and decision-making.
Investments in Teamwork
At its highest level, decision-making requires strategic thinking, and is best supported by team members who are working toward the same goals. Mitchell says she’s grateful to her leadership team, the President’s Cabinet, in helping position JJC as the first choice for learning, working and cultivating pathways to prosperity.
“It’s not just one person. You have a team. That’s what defines your success. I’ve been very fortunate to have a strong team throughout to help us achieve these goals.”
Investments in The Future
Just as Mitchell learned right out of high school, good things happen when you work hard and invest in a company that invests in you. That philosophy guided her academic journey, career milestones and through her presidency. It will continue to be a guiding force in retirement.
“Although the next chapter of my life isn’t defined yet, I will continue to be an advocate for JJC in any way that I can to support future generations; just like Joliet Junior College has supported me.”
This story first appeared in JJC's Spring 2022 Connections Magazine, a biannual publication prepared by the JJC Communications and Marketing Division and the Institutional Advancement Office.