By Rafaela Rezende
In July 2023, Eric Gordon assumed the role of Senior Vice President (SVP) of Student Development and Education Pipeline at Tri-C. With a wealth of knowledge from previous high-achieving education roles, Mr. Gordon brings excellent ideas for Tri-C’s future and its students’ experiences and development. The new SVP graciously granted The Voice an opportunity to discuss the experience, progress, and expectations of his new role at Tri-C.
Rafaela Rezende: You have been involved in teaching and administration roles for close to 30 years. What initially drew you into the field?
Eric Gordon: I always wanted to be a teacher, and as I got into teaching, I wanted to ensure that the work I did mattered. What I mean by that is, some students have the resources, and they will be fine. They need good teachers, but they’ll be fine. Then there are those who not only need good teachers but also fierce advocates to help them find success, and that was me as a kid. So, I wanted to give back in my field the way people gave to me and make it a point to find roles throughout my career where, without my involvement, students might struggle to accomplish their goals. It is a personal mission for me to give back, right up to and including this role I recently joined.
Rafaela Rezende: Coming from a background in introductory education, what do you see as a similar struggle for students at the secondary level of education?
Eric Gordon: Higher education is entirely new for me, as you can see from my background. What interests me is that higher education students choose to be here. You and your classmates have all made decisions about why you wanted to be students, as opposed to introductory education students who are compelled to attend by law. I’m curious to know more about the choices you and your classmates make for being here. I am also a strong advocate for student voice, choice, and agency, so I want to make it easier for you and your classmates to take an active role not only in your personal success in your program but also in thriving in college. Part of what attracted me to Tri-C is that I appreciate that small things, which I call “micro barriers,” can have a significant impact. So, I want to identify where we excel and ensure we consistently do that, while also addressing the small obstacles that can hinder your goals. I’m clear that I’m not an expert in higher education; we have an incredible faculty for that. What I bring is a commitment to students and a systems-oriented approach to improving larger systems from where we start.
Rafaela Rezende: You have a very successful track record of increasing graduation rates for high school students. Why is college graduation important for you to address?
Eric Gordon: In the US, there is a conversation that college isn’t for everybody. When you unpack that, it often means, “college is for my kid, but not those kids.” We know that more than 60% of the jobs in this region will require something beyond high school, such as credentials, badges, certificates, or degrees, and Tri-C is perfectly positioned to provide you with those tools. For me, even in the last 12 years of working on increasing graduation rates, my focus has been on ensuring that graduation matters. It means being prepared to move on to the next step, as it’s not the end but rather the beginning. Many of my former students are now here at this campus, working with you and others, adding to their toolkit of credentials, badges, degrees, and skills so they can pursue their desired careers. While not everything requires a traditional 4-year or 2-year degree, if you aim to become a CEO or board member, those degrees do matter. I want to ensure we don’t create a “paper ceiling” where you’re limited because you lack certain degrees, based on decisions made early in life. I want to build a system where every opportunity is accessible to you, without unnecessary gatekeeping.
Rafaela Rezende: What has been the largest hurdle for you in this new role, and what is the biggest hurdle you see students experiencing within college?
Eric Gordon: The most significant hurdle for me is that I’m on a steep learning curve. After 32 years in K-12 education, where you continually learn and grow, this is an entirely new field for me. Staying in a learning mode is essential, and while I’m enjoying it, it’s challenging to be a newcomer again, especially when you hold a title that’s supposed to carry knowledge. I’m learning a great deal, and there’s much more to learn. Regarding students’ experiences, I’ve noticed that students generally enjoy being here at Tri-C, which is a significant advantage. With the introduction of Tops and The Stomps, we are shifting from liking it academically, where futures begin, to embracing it as a community. Sometimes, though, it can be challenging to be a student here, mainly due to navigating complex systems. This isn’t a criticism but a reality of large and intricate systems. My hope is to simplify the navigation so that it’s easy for you to be happy as a student here.
Rafaela Rezende: You appear to be a very hands-on leader. Why do you take pride in getting to know your students?
Eric Gordon: You cannot effectively work for people you don’t know well. If I cannot understand what might seem like minor challenges to me but are significant hurdles for you, I’ll never be able to address them. Our average student age is 26 years old, and you are adults working with adults. The more we take the time to know each other well, understand your adult experiences, and identify the solutions you seek, the better we will be. Additionally, it’s where I draw my energy for the work. I spend most of my days on our campuses because that’s where the energy lies: getting to know our students and witnessing their success. While I could sit in an office, that wouldn’t allow me to work with young people.
Rafaela Rezende: You were once a student yourself. What advice do you wish you had received and plan to transfer to your role?
Eric Gordon: I was a first-generation college student, and no one in my family completed college. I liken it to the difference between IHOP and Golden Corral: at IHOP, you order everything off the menu and pay separately, so the check adds up fast. At Golden Corral, you pay one check and get everything. I wish someone had told me that college is like a Golden Corral buffet – take advantage of everything available. Utilize Student Life, tutoring, counseling, help centers, and office hours. You’ve already paid for these services, but I didn’t realize that when I was a student. So, I didn’t go to office hours because I didn’t think people like me were allowed to attend. I want our students to know that everything is here for them, and it’s all free. Use it generously, regularly, and never apologize for utilizing these resources. I also want our students to know themselves. I’m not concerned that they don’t know themselves, but I want them to understand how they thrive and not ignore that because someone else says, “Here’s how you’re supposed to do it.” You know yourself and what makes you successful or not. For example, when I was in college, I had a dorm room with five guys, and it was never quiet or conducive to studying. My study habit was to go to the soft seating area in our dorm’s common area, flop down (not sit), put on my headphones (sometimes without even playing music), just to buffer the noise, and study until I was finished. I wouldn’t go to bed until I had completed my studying. That worked for me, but it might not work for you. Apply what you know about yourself to leverage your success here. Professors are experts in their fields and want to help you succeed, but no one knows you better than you. Consider what they, I, and others offer you, combine it with your self-awareness, and thrive in a way that brings your best self to your work.
Rafaela Rezende: Hypothetically speaking, what would you like to see happen at Tri-C in the next 10 years?
Eric Gordon: I’m excited about the introduction of Tops and Stomp and the sense of community they bring. Tri-C has always been known for its strong academic programs, but it used to be viewed primarily as a community college without a thriving student life. I want to contribute to creating a student experience where you not only attend classes but also want to hang out with friends, participate in activities, and support our athletic teams. I want Tri-C to offer an experience similar to high school or a 4-year university. The perception of community colleges used to exclude a vibrant campus culture, but we’re changing that. I fundamentally believe in students having a significant role in shaping their own experiences. Over the next decade, I want to ensure that students are heavily involved in decision-making processes because it’s their experience we’re trying to enhance, and who knows it better than they do?
Rafaela Rezende: Assuming you meet all your goals for this role, what is the next challenge for you?
Eric Gordon: I don’t have a specific answer because I don’t look to the next challenge. I immerse myself deeply in the work in front of me. One of the unique aspects of the education industry is that every class is new and unique. There’s never a sense of “we’ve achieved” or “it’s done.” When I led the Cleveland district, I often told people that our job isn’t to serve 36,000 kids at one time; it’s to serve one student well 36,000 times. I approach this role the same way. My job will never be done because there will always be another cohort of students, each with unique needs and goals. We must continually adapt, learn, and remain nimble to respond to the times, culture, and community we serve. My focus is on ensuring a healthy, rigorous student experience, and I’m here for the long haul. I’m not here to accomplish something and move on; I’m here to help create a fantastic experience so that you and every classmate can look back and say, “That was great!”