NEW LONDON — “I see Mitchell really going back to its roots,” said Dr. Tracy Espy, since July 1 the new president of Mitchell College.
Espy is the first African American woman to lead the college.
Mitchell College has a history of providing exceptional service to students, she explained, including those of different learning abilities.
“They’ve had this learning model for years, including when they were a community college. They started as a junior college in 1938 and had their first graduates in 1941.”
In its early publications, the college defined its purpose as providing a well-rounded education for the creation of an informed, participatory citizenry, said Espy.
“And how do we take what was really a deep piece of the college and how does that look for Gen-Z going forward?” she asked. “How do we become more engaged in the New London community, but also in the region?”
According to Espy, Mitchell is not just a traditional college and that’s one of the school’s strengths. The Children’s Learning Center and Michael’s Dairy are key pieces of the future, and, as learning labs, and examples of the diverse offerings at the college.
“We are preparing these students with core abilities that position them to adapt no matter what life brings them,” said Espy
Service above self
Espy is a graduate of Berea College, a private liberal arts college in the hills of eastern Kentucky, well known for its labor program affording students of the limited means the opportunity to receive a high-quality education without tuition. Berea was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South.
“I always said if I hadn’t gone to Berea, I never would have done a Pfeiffer or a Mitchell because it’s something about the soul of Berea that grabs you and brings you in and if you allow yourself to really experience it and open your heart it’s an incredible learning experience,” she said.
Espy said her education at Berea College, with its combination of community service and academics, and a spirit of “service above self,” had a powerful impact on her outlook on life and the direction of her career.
“It really changed it for me that life was more than just things, it was about people. I think that was probably a turning point for me because I realized that it didn’t matter what I wore — and I like cute clothes and cute shoes — I was trying to reconcile how two worlds like this exist.”
She said it was difficult to reconcile the extreme poverty she saw with life as she knew it.
“I tell people Berea was one of the single greatest experiences of my life. In so many ways it helped track the course of my life,” said Espy. “I probably had seen poverty, but going to Berea and volunteering in Eastern Kentucky was unlike anything I had ever seen.”
Deep roots in service
Espy grew up as the second oldest of four girls in a family that focused on service to the community.
“My parents were very active in the community and serving people. They got us involved in things like youth rallies and doing things in the community and because I lived it, I didn’t even know it was something different,” she said. “When someone is sick in the community, you go visit. When someone’s family member dies, you take them something to eat. If there’s a need for people, you go do it.”
At various times, her grandparents and her great-grandfather lived with the family, which engendered her deference and appreciation for aged people and possibly her love of vintage items.
“I have a high degree of respect for elderly people. I love old things — vintage and people. I love a good piece of vintage furniture, jewelry or clothing, and I just love old people. I think they provide so much value to who we are in our society — so I’m very passionate about them,” she said. “I learned it from my grandparents, about respecting people and listening to their stories.”
Espy said her great-grandfather was not a slave, but his grandparents were. She said she respected the tremendous obstacles they overcame.
“That was my childhood, very involved with service and the community,” she said. “I think about it coming full circle. It created so much of my passion for people and service and being engaged in the community,” she said. “I never talk about it but when I talk about it I realize I’ve been doing this my entire life.”
A life of learning
Espy earned an M.S. in Family Studies from Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, and a Ph.D. in Child/Family-Marriage and Family Therapy from Syracuse University.
After earning her Ph.D., Espy said she wanted a position at a small college. Through a series of conversations and connections, “Pfeiffer found me,” she said.
At Pfeiffer, a school of about 1,900 students, Espy started off teaching and became the founding director of the Francis Center for Servant Leadership, which connected the service mission of the college and its founder, Emily Prudden, to the community and engaged service leadership into the curriculum.
“That began my journey working with students and connecting service, learning and civic engagement,” she said. “I worked with faculty, developed community partners, wrote grants, traveled really all over the world, taking this message and working with students.”
When the position as provost opened up, she had the opportunity to take her work deeper at the university. She started 10 new academic programs and diversified and hired more than 40 new faculty.
“The college saw that if service leadership is fully engaged into the curriculum, it was going to be more transformational, so I applied and got that job and continued that work, but in a different way,” she said.
In the last few years, she said she began to ask what’s next?
Model of adaptability
COVID-19 was not yet in the public discourse when Espy first learned about Mitchell College.
She acknowledged she faces huge challenges with the pandemic, but said the college has adaptability built into its framework.
“What COVID has taught us is that we have to move with a different cadence, if you will. So for me it’s right for the community to focus on our future here,” she said. “I come in at a time when Mitchell has been into their strategic frameworks for a few years so I’m evaluating those frameworks under the lens of Covid-19 and the changes in higher education. For me it’s looking at the possibilities of a new financial model. What does it look like for a college in a post COVID-19 world?”
This fall Mitchell will offer its students remote, hybrid and in-person classes, which will require a commitment to learning from both students and faculty.
“The Mitchell Ability Model is all about being flexible, capable and adaptable in a rapid sea of change. It’s about critical thinking, community diversity, being technologically literate, using analysis and problem solving , having strong ethics, value and responsibility, and social interaction — those are the core, the heart,” she said. “I’m a strong believer in a solid liberal arts education, obviously coming from Berea that is my foundation. It’s what liberal arts does, it positions you with the skills and the ability to be able to move in any direction that you need to.”
Espy said she had been reading a publication from the 1930s in which the Connecticut Department of Education defined a junior college as one that “should aim to meet the needs of the community in which it is located.”
Tying Mitchell’s current status as a four-year institution to that definition, Espy commented, “I think that’s important and it’s even more relevant today because I look at New London, it’s a brilliant town, as someone said, ‘full of grit and grace,’ It’s got incredible people. They’re friendly, hard working and we’re all within five square miles.”