Posted on: April 8, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Valerie Olivares, JRN 111 Student

There’s a particular energy when Sylvia Jenkins speaks: Serenity fills the air and time seems to slow down just a bit. In her gentle, firm voice, using only kind words, she shares personal tales of wisdom that can only be known through years of experience. 

Jenkins, the president of Moraine Valley Community College, has dedicated the past 35 years as a public servant to bettering the lives of the community, creating opportunities and support for those who might not have access to them otherwise.

She understands the importance of seizing opportunities more than most, having grown up in Louisiana in a time when segregation was still in practice and opportunities for a young Black woman were not easy to come by. Yet despite the systemic racism around her, she was still able to thrive in an environment that was strategically designed to hold her back.

“It never dawned on me. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be a college president,” Jenkins said. 

LSU wouldn’t allow me to come because of the color of my skin, not because of my ability, but because the color of my skin. That was the first time it hit me, about the systemic racism that existed.”

Sylvia Jenkins, MVCC President

It was the first Sunday of December 1985. Jenkins was flipping through the newspaper when a job opening caught her eye for a part-time librarian at a community college nearby. Although she knew nothing about the college, Jenkins thought the position was perfect; since her children were still young, she could work but also tend to her responsibilities at home.

“I started working in 1986,” she recalls. “I worked as a part-time librarian for two years and in 1988, a full-time librarian position became available and I applied for that position and I served in that position as a public service librarian for 14 years here at the college.”  

Former Moraine Valley president Dr. Vernon O. Crawley encouraged Jenkins to go back to school.

“It hadn’t even crossed my mind about getting a doctorate,” said Jenkins. But she felt the support from her colleagues and Moraine, and in 2008 earned her doctorate in education and human resource studies with a specialization in community college leadership from Colorado State University. 

(Photo: Glacier Archives)

Jenkins was soon promoted to vice president of academic affairs, and in July 2012, became college president.

Over the years, Jenkins has been able to decorate her office with countless awards and medals. However, she notes, “All of that, it’s not about embellishing me, it’s about me advocating on behalf of the students I serve here, the people I serve here. Our purpose is to serve students, regardless of the challenges.”

Jenkins’ conviction and dedication has earned her a reputation. “She always wants to do the right thing,” said Delwyn Jones, communications professor at Moraine Valley and vice president of the Cook County teachers’ union. Jones said Jenkins’ rise to the top was not only supported by many but also expected: “Sylvia’s rise was inevitable; she was a great leader when she was dean and when she became vice president. She has great people skills.” 

In Jenkins’ early life, opportunities to rise were few. Growing up in Louisiana, Jenkins remembers feeling confused when she was told she was not allowed to attend the white school: “As a child you don’t realize the fact that you’re in a school that didn’t have the same resources as the school two blocks away that was all white. I didn’t know any better. I just went to church and I went to school.” 

In the 1960s when Jenkins was attending high school and early college, systemic racism was at an all-time high in the south. The Civil Rights movement had formed a few years prior in 1954. African American activists and their allies had begun to make real change in parts of the United States; unfortunately, the south was slow to follow. Jenkins recalls that it wasn’t until 1970, 16 years after Brown vs Board of Education, that schools in Louisiana finally integrated white and black students. 

“My first time it really impacted me –knowingly impacted me, it impacted me all along but I didn’t think about it– was when I applied to graduate school,” Jenkins said. “When I finished Grambling, a historically black institution, it very well prepared me for graduate programs. I applied to Louisiana State University, LSU, and they had a graduate program in Library Science and they were only limiting the number of black students they would take every year.”  

Years later, Jenkins finds herself reflecting on the situation. “You think about the fact that LSU wouldn’t allow me to come because of the color of my skin, not because of my ability, but because the color of my skin,” she said. “That was the first time it hit me, about the systemic racism that existed. But then my whole life was that way. But my parents did a good job of saying to us and encouraging us, ‘Don’t let anyone hold you back.’

“There’s always going to be people in your life that are going to try to put up barricades.”

The current state of our society often brings up the same confusion she felt as a child: “When we have this whole discussion now on equity and fairness to all, there’s so much rooted unfairness that has happened throughout American history and it still goes on. So much unfairness. And why?”

Racial injustice doesn’t end overnight; Jenkins knows this. But she does think there are ways to help. “You can demonstrate how people should act and then hopefully by demonstrating it there are people who might see and think, ‘Well you know what, maybe Black people are not so bad.’” 

With racial tensions rising over the past several months, Jenkins says it’s more important than ever to start a conversation. One that isn’t rooted in anger or fear but compassion.

There’s always going to be people in your life that are going to try to put up barricades…But my parents did a good job of saying to us and encouraging us, ‘Don’t let anyone hold you back.’

Sylvia Jenkins, MVCC President

“More people are addressing the issue. It’s not buried,” she said. “It’s something we need to talk about and it’s not an easy conversation at all. What’s the root cause of it?  Why is it that we feel we have to be divided? Because at the end of the day, regardless of what political party you might affiliate yourself with or other beliefs, at the end of the day, everyone pretty much wants the same thing, and that’s just a happy life, food to eat, a place to sleep, a safe environment, safe neighborhood. And so you say to yourself, ‘Well, if that’s what everybody wants, then why is it so hard for us to get along?” 

She raises questions that have no easy answer. Racism has been around for hundreds of years, making humanity stumble time and time again. Jenkins believes it may have to do with “deep rooted beliefs and teachings” which ”need to be changed, truly need to be changed. They’re so deep rooted that it may never change. But I think there are more younger people willing to learn.” 

Regardless of the challenges surrounding today’s tumultuous times, Jenkins gives her best effort to ensure Moraine Valley is an institution where safety and support come first. “That’s the basis of what we do here at Moraine Valley,” she said. “We say every student is welcomed here. Every student.”