Bob Sigman — Building blocks for the future

06/18/2013 4:19 PM

06/18/2013 4:20 PM

Johnson County Community College students with gloomy job prospects have nothing on Joe Sopcich.

Sopcich, who took over there as president this month, found himself in a depressed employment market after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1978. Like many students these days, Sopcich decided to stay in school with the hope of an improved economy a few years out.

One big problem, he recalled in a recent email conversation. He was short of money.

So, Sopcich, who was raised in Independence, came home and went to work. And, even with a bachelor’s degree, took odd jobs. He hawked beer at Kauffman Stadium, weighed truckloads of asphalt on the night shift at an oil refinery and refereed grade school basketball games to bolster his savings.

Then, with better financial footing, Sopcich was off on a circuitous route to the top rung at JCCC.

Sopcich got a degree, a master’s in business administration, at Notre Dame in 1981. From there he worked in advertising for six years in Chicago (where he met his wife, Stacy) and did fund-raising for nonprofit groups.

All the while they were returning to the Kansas City area to visit family and friends. Gradually the pull of the place led to a life-changing decision. They wanted to live here.

Sopcich explains what happened next: “We were always astounded at the lifestyle and convenience in K.C. We lived in the city (Chicago) and loved it. But after our first child, Eli, was born we started thinking differently and targeted moving back here.’’

The stars aligned for the move when the directorship at the JCCC Foundation opened. He barely beat the deadline for applying, but got the job.

“So we packed up the car and moved here when our daughter (Kate) was four days old,” he recalled.

That was in 1992. Over the next few years Sopcich realized he faced another game changer. He needed a doctorate for the field of education. At age 45, he went back to the classroom — as a student — at the University of Kansas. Five years later he had a Ph.D. in higher education administration/leadership.

He was ready for the climb.

Sopcich’s story is instructive. The new head of JCCC is a prime example of someone who has used education to achieve better career opportunities. Now he is in an even better position to help others use education as a building block to reach their goals.

Actually, he told me much more about the college than himself. Among my questions:

College completion rates? Forty-six percent of the full-time students enrolled in college for the first time complete their studies or transfer to another school in three years. That ranks JCCC in the 80th percentile nationwide and third among its peer institutions.

Post-college experience? Of the former students who completed career programs in 2011, 65 percent who responded to a survey were employed full-time, 17 percent part-time, 12 percent were unemployed and the rest were not in the work force.

Cooperation with other schools? The college has many collaborative programs. They include agreements with Kansas State University, Emporia State University, Pittsburg State University, Central Missouri University and the Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City. All told, JCCC has more than 100 transfer agreements with regional colleges that assure admittance without loss of credit. Under an agreement with Ottawa University, Ottawa offers scholarships to JCCC students that can save them up to 40 percent of the cost of their bachelor’s degree in certain areas of study.

No question, JCCC is an outstanding educational and cultural icon for the community.

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