BENNINGTON -- After serving the past year as a senior policy advisor for the U.S. Department of Education Karen Gross returned this week to her presidency at Southern Vermont College a better leader with a wealth of knowledge to share.
Sitting in the same office Tuesday that she temporarily vacated to accept the federal appointment last winter, Gross expressed excitement to be back on campus and to greet the students and faculty -- some of whom she has never met -- when the second semester resumes today.
"One of the things that's very hard in Washington is you can work in the Department of Education and not see a lot of students," Gross said, adding that she planned to go to the campus dining hall Tuesday evening in hopes of interacting with students fresh back on campus. "I can't wait to see the students again."
In her capacity with the DOE, Gross had three areas of focus -- helping shape education policy to increase access to college, redesigning the veteran transition assistance program, and representing the DOE at events in place of the education secretary or undersecretary.
When it comes to college accessibility, Gross said the conversation was geared toward college affordability, but also reaching first-generation and low income students.
"The population that you have to get to increase the number (of college graduates) are not the kids going to elite institutions. The way you're going to get to the president's 2020 goals -- so America can be once again the most educated nation in the world -- is by getting people (who) haven't gone to college, haven't thought about going to college, or started college and haven't finished," Gross said. "And that's a much harder group to have succeed in higher education because that's the group that's most vulnerable."
As president of the private liberal arts college that takes pride in being a destination for many first-generation students, Gross had a lot to add to those discussions.
"My being a college president was very helpful in Washington because I was somebody who had educational experience in the trenches ... it wasn't a theoretical observation that I could bring to the table, it was a concrete, very real set of experiences," Gross said.
She also brought back a year's worth of knowledge to apply at SVC, much of which she will share through lectures and events for students and the community over the coming semester.
Gross also served on an interagency task force to address the transition back to civilian life for veterans returning from Afghanistan.
"As we wind down the war in Afghanistan the expectation is that over the next four to five years 1.4 million servicemen and women will be returning, and there are very real concerns ensuring they are not homeless, not jobless, not educationless, and are mentally healthy," Gross said.
For years there was an optional three-day transition program veterans could participate in, but a law that went into affect in November 2011 called for a revamped transition assistance program by November 2012. "Since I got there in January this was really a perfect opportunity to work on a project that would change the ability and change the ease with which servicemen and women transition from military life to civilian life," Gross said.
The task force included representatives from the departments of defense, labor and veterans affairs, as well as each branch of the military, the Domestic Policy Council, Office of Personnel Management, and national security staff. In one year the group was able to design, implement, and test the new initiative that went into effect last fall. That collaboration was an eye-opening experience for Gross, which, among other interactions, helped renew her faith in the government by illustrating that everyone is dedicated to improving the country, even when they may not agree on how to do so.
"What was really amazing was that while it was hard and there was not always agreement, we were able, as a collective, to develop an entirely new approach to transition assistance that makes our service members more able to be career ready, access higher education, and smoothly move from military culture to civilian culture," Gross said. "I'm very proud of that effort."
As rewarding as the experience was, Gross never had second thoughts about canceling her return to the campus on the hill. "My work at Southern Vermont College is not done," she said.
If her convictions were not enough, Gross was gifted a boomerang signed by faculty and was loaned a vase by a faculty member who said he wanted it back after allowing it to decorate her desk in the nation's capital.
In addition to new outlooks on educational issues, the experience, she said, has taught her how to improve her own leadership qualities.
"I learned a lot about leadership when I was in Washington. I learned by watching some amazing leaders, and I also learned by not being a leader for a year," Gross said.
Specifically, Gross said she took notes on how the nation's leaders bring out the best in people, "in other words that you nurture their capacities."
"I think one of the things that I saw there is that helping people grow and flourish and use their best capacities is part of what makes someone who's working satisfied with their job because they feel like they're contributing in meaningful ways," Gross said. "I come back committed to helping our faculty and staff develop to the best of their abilities and to help them develop and bring out the skill sets they can use both for their own sake but also for the sake of the college and the sake of higher education."
In some ways, Gross said she feels as if she is both returning to her role at SVC as well as starting anew. "I'm actually going to do what I did when I first started as president almost seven years ago, which is I'm going to do a campus and community listening tour. I'm going to literally walk the halls as I did then and listen to the faculty and staff and some members of the community and listen to them share what was successful in this last year, what they would like to see happen in the years to come, their perceptions of the college," Gross said.
When they are planned, Gross said the community will be invited to discussions she will host on the state of higher education at the local, state and national levels.
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