With a deep commitment to education and a passion for diversity, former Latin major, Chris Reber ’80 was drawn to a career in postsecondary education. As the president of Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey, he oversees a diverse student body representing 119 different countries, as they work to achieve their life-changing educational goals.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?
The liberal-arts education that I received at Dickinson has served me exceedingly well throughout my life and career. My Latin major and history minor, in combination, provided for me a foundation and context for reflecting upon and understanding the world and our society. Through rigorous reading, writing and discussions with phenomenal Dickinson faculty, staff, students and others during my undergraduate college experience, I learned how to think critically, solve problems and strive to understand and work effectively with others. During my Dickinson years, I also developed a passion for learning that eventually led to a Ph.D. and a 37-year career in postsecondary education that continues and offers inspiration every day. Equally important, my Dickinson education helped me develop a deep commitment to and appreciation for diversity in all of its forms.
What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?
I had the wonderful opportunity to coordinate the 1978 New Student Orientation Program, working under the caring mentorship of then Dean Mary Watson Carson. This resulted in my living in what was then Biddle House on campus, next to the HUB, during the summer of 1978. I also served as an admissions tour guide that summer and an assistant for summer conferences. In retrospect, I realize that this experience helped me understand the joys and opportunities of college and university service and leadership.
What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?
There are so many! I had the immense good fortune to learn from the late Dr. Philip Lockhart, professor of classics, who remains to this day the greatest scholar and teacher—and one of the finest human beings—I have known in my life and career. Dr. Lockhart brought the classics to life and inspired me to work hard and love learning. He also taught me so much about life. I later dedicated my doctoral dissertation to Dr. Lockhart and had the honor of presenting this to him during an alumni reunion at which hundreds of his former students held a dinner in his honor on the campus. Many alumni there shared similar stories of the transformational and life-changing impact Dr. Lockhart had on their lives.
How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?
Again, my experience at Dickinson instilled in me a love of learning, a deep commitment to education, a passion for diversity and an excitement about devoting my career to postsecondary education. It is an honor to work in a profession that is life-changing and transformational. Students inspire me. Nothing brings me greater joy than watching students succeed and feeling a personal sense of satisfaction that comes with the opportunity to be involved in their educational journeys.
What does your current work entail?
I am currently moving into my second community college presidency. I recently finished a wonderful chapter of my career as president of the Community College of Beaver County (CCBC) near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and am now beginning my presidency of Hudson County Community College (HCCC) in Jersey City, New Jersey, located next to the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. Hudson County is one of the most densely populated and diverse counties in the United States. HCCC is a leading institution in New Jersey and nationally for providing social mobility for its students, one-third of whom were born outside the United States, and who represent 119 different countries. As president, I report to a board of trustees and have responsibility for leading and supporting all of the activities of the college, which serves over 12,000 students annually and employs over 1,000 faculty and staff. I also work closely with alumni, family members, elected officials, donors and partners in business, industry, health care, human services, education and beyond.
What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?
I spent two weeks driving across the country with my partner and best friend. We made no plans and decided where to go and what to do each day, eventually making our way across the northern United States, north to Vancouver, B.C., and down the Pacific Coast to Los Angeles. It was completely different from our highly programmed life and a memorable, fun and rewarding experience that reminded all of us of the beauty of this country and the goodness of the American people.
If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?
Former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. When he ran for president in 1968, I delivered a speech for him to my fifth grade class. My parents sent him a copy. He read my speech, wrote me a letter with a signed picture (that still hangs prominently in my office) and thereby sparked my lifelong interest in our democracy and public service. I was able to meet Senator Humphrey three times in the next 10 years, and he remains a hero to me all these years later. Senator Humphrey was known as “The Happy Warrior,” always an optimist in his care and concern for everyday people, and, in particular, the most vulnerable members of our society. I later became President of the Pennsylvania Teenage Democrats and as a high school senior, I ran to become a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention (and lost by a whisker). I fully intended to major in political science at Dickinson until I met Professors Philip Lockhart and Robert Sider, who introduced me to a love for the humanities. But throughout my career, and now more than ever, I have continued to enjoy working closely with elected officials on both sides of the aisle and at all levels, promoting education, workforce development, quality of life, civility in our national discourse and related issues. I’d cherish an opportunity to chat with Senator Humphrey about his life, career and the tumultuous and eventful year of 1968 in particular.
You just built a time machine: where and when do you go?
To the early meetings of our Founding Fathers at the time of our Revolution. Their genius in developing our Constitution and governmental framework is uncanny. I’d like to watch the debates and process.
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
The fact that when I was a teenager I lacked the courage to admit to myself, let alone others, that I was gay. Many years later, I gained the confidence to acknowledge and share my truth with my family, including my kids, my coworkers, my friends and eventually the larger community. I am blessed to have been accepted by others, including those I hurt over the years, and today I am living authentically for the first time in my life. I never would have imagined the phenomenal societal change that has occurred in recent years toward acceptance and understanding of the LGBTQ community, but much remains to be done. While I don’t choose to bring visibility to my sexual orientation, I also don’t hide from it and try to be a mentor and role model for others who struggle with their identity and the challenge and angst of sharing their truth.
Published July 26, 2018