, Salem, MA

February 3, 2014

Taking the time to listen


---- — DANVERS — Patricia Gentile’s first act as North Shore Community College’s new president was to close the school when a snowstorm hit the region Jan. 1.

Since then, Gentile has been on a 100-day listening tour, meeting with local lawmakers, school superintendents, college faculty, students and business leaders. She has been learning about the North Shore and the college, which has campuses in Danvers, Beverly and Lynn.

Gentile came to the North Shore from Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey, where she worked in a variety of leadership roles. She lives in Swampscott now and spoke recently with The Salem News.

Tell me about your background.

I haven’t had the usual journey to become a college president. When I first started out after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, I taught for a year in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Catholic school system — grade 5, in a very distressed neighborhood — and quickly found out that I was very ill-equipped to teach fifth-graders.

How long did you do that?

I only did it for a year. I knew it wasn’t for me ... (She later taught in a Catholic high school for five years, but declining enrollments led her to switch careers.)

That’s when I got, because of my volunteer activities, involved in the nonprofit community. Worked as an executive director, chief operating officer or chief executive officer for a number of charities — local, regional and then national. And I realized after my first charity ... I need some more business tools in my tool chest, and that’s when I decided to go back and get my MBA.

Where did you get your MBA?

At the Wharton School (at the University of Pennsylvania) ... While I was there, I learned I really love finance, too. So, that’s how I got my joint finance and public policy and management degree at Wharton. I came out of there right into the financial recession of the 1990s.

(Gentile went to work for a consulting firm that works with major philanthropies, then worked for two different Girl Scout councils in the Atlantic area and later for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.) ... Moved back to New Jersey because of family issues, and that’s how I got to Atlantic Cape Community College.

Did you just call up the college’s president and say you wanted to work there?

I had been an adjunct instructor in the business department. He (the college president) told me about a program that had just, the word he used was “imploded,” and could I help him out. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll give you six weeks,” and I was there for 14 years because the mission truly captured my heart. I learned that a community college makes transformational changes for folks who might not otherwise have access to that opportunity.

How did you wind up becoming a community college president?

About seven years ago, I took a program called chair leadership academy that my president nominated me to attend. And I met Lane Glenn, who is now the president of Northern Essex Community College. ... I really enjoyed the program — it was a yearlong program — and one of the things it did for you was to give you the opportunity to earn some credits toward either your master’s degree or your doctorate.

(Gentile went on to earn her doctorate in educational leadership and higher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where her dissertation was about the role of the presidency in community colleges.)

How did you come to apply for the North Shore Community College job?

There was a presidency in New Jersey at a community college that I admired and had actually been part of my dissertation, and so I applied for that. And that’s how I got to know the headhunter (for North Shore Community College). I was a finalist for that search, but another sitting president from Texas got that job. ... Then, the search consultant was hired here at North Shore to do the president’s search. She called me up and said, “I think I’ve got an opportunity I hope you consider.”

What does the future hold for North Shore Community College, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary next year?

I know, if you are going to ask me what is my major challenge, it’s truly the focus on the Lynn campus and expanding and developing that campus.

With the coming of casinos to the region, is your background working with casinos in Atlantic City a plus?

I have worked with the casino industry very closely. ... There is going to be a need for a workforce that is prepared to understand the casino industry. It’s a bit different than other industries. It has the skills in terms not only what happens on casino floors, but also in the other auxiliary services — the restaurants, the retail industry that will come with it. But also, like any business, they need their accountants, they need their marketing people, they need their workforce at both the entry level and above to make that casino successful.