LOCH SHELDRAKE — Jay Quaintance knows what it’s like to be a student who doesn’t fit into the traditional education mold. His long and stuttering journey to his own higher education is what drives his passion to work in community colleges, where he believes students of all types have the most “democratic” opportunity to achieve a college education.
Mr. Quaintance brought his nontraditional vision to SUNY Sullivan last year as interim president, and in June was named permanent president of SUNY Sullivan. He said he knew by the end of his first semester in Loch Sheldrake that he wanted to stay. He likes the rural setting, and he appreciates the fact that every person in town has a connection to the college in some way.
“Community colleges are anchors in communities,” Mr. Quaintance said. “They don’t call them ‘community’ colleges for nothing.”
Mr. Quaintance did not attend a community college, but he credits a community college professor for helping him finally finish his bachelor’s degree, and his first job after school was teaching at a community college.
“Community colleges are just a place where the work is good for the right reasons,” Mr. Quaintance said. “Everybody deserves the opportunity to get a college education.”
Mr. Quaintance himself has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, but surprisingly, he has no high school degree or equivalency. About six weeks before the end of his senior year of high school in New Mexico, Mr. Quaintance found out there was no way he could raise his English grade above failing, and he would have to attend summer school. Rather than do that, he dropped down to attending only the classes he was interested in, and after the school year he got a job as a carpenter. From there, he began working at Montgomery Ward as a janitor. The department store had the only incinerator in town, and as the janitor, one of Mr. Quaintance’s chores each month would be to dispose of the expired blood from the local Red Cross.
“I would have to build this big fire and throw bags of blood in there in a way that didn’t extinguish the fire but got rid of the blood,” Mr. Quaintance said. “It was really gross.”
A family friend—his future mother-in-law—convinced him he needed to go to college. New Mexico State University allowed students who scored high enough on their entrance exams to enter without a high school diploma, with the understanding that they would complete a GED in the first year. Mr. Quaintance said he took four out of the five GED tests, but never took the math exam, and therefore never attained a GED.
He didn’t instantly become a good student. It took Mr. Quaintance 10 years to finish his bachelor’s degree, getting kicked out twice for bad grades. A doctoral program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute brought him to New York, where he dropped out of school one last time. Not for grades, this time—but because he had an opportunity to work at SUNY Schenectady County Community College. He then worked as the Assistant Vice Chancellor and Assistant Provost for Community College Policy and Planning at SUNY, and served as assistant secretary for education in the governor’s office before coming to SUNY Sullivan.
“I understand really, really well why community colleges are important in American higher education,” Mr. Quaintance said.
As Sullivan County changes, Mr. Quaintance said he looks forward to crafting programs that help students fill the local workforce needs, and he wants SUNY Sullivan to have a leading role in innovation, public health, research and building long-term economic strength for the whole county.