When Dr. Judith Gay Ph.D. ’71, was a young high school student, she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to go to college. By her own admission, she hadn’t done much to apply during her senior year, and, she added, her school counselor wasn’t too inspired by the thought. “I recall her saying that she was not sure I was college material,” Gay said. “My mother said, ‘then you better be job material,’ so I started applying for jobs, but wasn’t having any luck [with that either].”
Fast forward to present day, where Gay, the recently retired vice president emerita for the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), and now the interim president for the newly-formed Erie County Community College (ECCC) – the first new community college in 27 years in Pennsylvania – is in the midst of an impressive career in the education field, having been involved both as faculty and administration, and also having co-authored a book on leadership development in community colleges. To say she has come a long way from her uncertain youth is a vast understatement, yet one that, at the same time, shines a light on the possibility of a successful future. “At various points in my life, someone intervened and created a new possibility for me,” Gay said. “I believe it is critical for higher education institutions to be intentional about making sure that students feel that they are an important part of the institution and that they have a chance to contribute and develop through the experience.”
Gay, born and raised in Philadelphia surrounded by lots of family, had much to be proud of at a young age. Her parents both attended historically black college/university Virginia State University before her mother graduated and her father left to join the Marines. She had a job at the young age of 16, shelving books in the neighborhood branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and she graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, from which her mother and grandmother also graduated. It seemed that, even if she wasn’t certain that she was college material, she had been surrounded by educational influence enough for her to seek it out anyway. When she was having lunch with her friends one day, one of them, Linda (Alexander) Carter ‘71, said she was going to what was then known as Findlay College. “Her sister was already a student there,” Gay said, “and Linda actually contacted Findlay to find out if it was too late for me to apply. Findlay sent me an application and I completed it and was accepted.”
As it was, she was college material after all.
Arriving at Findlay during the late 1960s – a historically turbulent time in our nation’s history, marked by the fight for civil rights and the Vietnam War, among other challenges – Gay said she came to Findlay College with what was then the most Black students the University had admitted in a class up to that time. She said that the national unrest, also felt residually in the local area at the time, was likely the catalyst, at least in part, for students forming the Black Student Union, which she called a great support network. “I became more self-assured there,” she said.
The world was opening up for Gay, and she was learning many new things about who she was and who the people around her were; so much so, it seemed, that she found great interest in learning more about what made different people think and act in their own unique ways, and, as a result, she subsequently majored in psychology and Spanish at Findlay. That interest in studying mind and behavior led her toward building relationships with not only Findlay College faculty like the late Dr. Jean C. Nye, for whom there is an endowed scholarship within the College of Education, and who would have her Spanish class meet sometimes at her home to have tacos, (“That was the first time I had that food,” Gay said.), but friends and academic colleagues as well. This social gathering of knowledge also led Gay to meeting her husband while at Findlay College; he was a student at nearby Bluffton College, and would, along with his friends, come to the dances that the Black Student Union hosted.
Gay graduated from Findlay College, got married, and was off to Bowling Green for graduate school, where she continued her interest and study in psychology, and gave birth to her first child. After writing and defending her dissertation about moral judgment in Black children, Gay graduated from Bowling Green State University, earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in experimental psychology with an emphasis on social development. Her life since has been an impressive string of successes, both professional and personal, that include giving birth to a second child; being hired as a professor, as the advisor for the Black student group, and as the first Black person in a tenure track position at Gettysburg College, a private liberal arts college in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; as professor of experimental psychology and department chair for the psychology department at Chestnut Hill College, a Catholic women’s college in Philadelphia; as the division chair for social science at Montgomery County Community College, where she also taught part-time online and at Graterford prison; as the aforementioned vice president for academic affairs and, later, vice president for strategic initiatives and chief of staff at CCP, and now as the interim president of ECCC. During this period of time, she also co-authored the 2018 book, “Up and Running: Starting and Growing a Leadership Program at a Community College” with Dr. Susan J. Tobia, Ph.D.,the former assistant vice president for academic affairs at Community College of Philadelphia.
It’s an incredible list of accomplishments for a once educationally unsure young woman who, at the time of her initial foray into college academics at Findlay College, was also facing social unrest as a young, Black woman in America. It is a testament, as well, to the value of family support, to the necessity of a solid work ethic and the willingness to learn about and ultimately understand the people surrounding us, and to the innumerable benefits of education, including those that come from the University of Findlay.