Chamber’s young professionals tour college

Published 11:32 am Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Douglas Sumblin of Mr. D’s and Mallory Taylor of FSEDI, in the background, look at some of the infographics on the wall during a tour of Paul D. Camp Community College. -- CAIN MADDEN | TIDEWATER NEWS

Douglas Sumblin of Mr. D’s and Mallory Taylor of FSEDI, in the background, look at some of the infographics on the wall during a tour of Paul D. Camp Community College. — CAIN MADDEN | TIDEWATER NEWS

This past Wednesday, several F.U.E.L. members visited Paul D. Camp Community College, and they learned there was more to it than they previously thought. Meghan Councill, the president, said she knew where some of her Christmas presents would come from after seeing the Barnes and Noble campus bookstore.

The primary purpose for the visit, however, was about NEETING a community leader and learning about how they got where they are. In this instance, they were to learn from Dr. Paul Wm. Conco, president of the college.

While Conco did get to talking about himself, he was much more interested in giving them a quiz — a pop culture quiz.

“I talk to a lot of groups, of all ages, and I like to see how ‘with it’ they are,” he said.

In 2012, he wondered if they knew what was the most searched for and watched video on Google. After several wrong guesses, one of the young professionals was able to guess “Gangnam Style.” How into 2013 were they? None were able to guess the answer — “What Does the Fox Say?”

In 2014, the current year, none of them guessed it either. It was “Let it Go,” from Disney’s “Frozen.”

“I am amazed that high school students and middle school students get these,” Conco said. “But looking at the progress from year to year, do you think the country is getting better?”

Conco said he was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where he grew up fairly poor. But he didn’t let that stop him from trying to make something of himself, particularly as his mother had pushed him to go to college.

Ultimately, when he grew up, he wanted to be a cowboy. Unfortunately, down the road, he realized he could not be a cowboy, so his next option was perhaps a math teacher. He always liked math in school and was a tutor, so it should work out? Well, no one in his family had gone to college, so when he got there, he only lasted one semester.

“It was too big, there were too many students and I was scared and homesick,” Conco said of attending Salisbury State Teacher’s College. “Nobody had told me what to expect. So, that was that. Now what?”

He had offers when he came back to Baltimore, and six cents essentially decided what he’d do. Conco took a job in a kitchen he had worked at in high school because it paid six cents more per hour than the electric company did.

“But I continued to have my mom’s words haunt me: ‘Go to college,’” he said.

So, over a 10-year period, he took a class every semester at a community college and earned his associate degree. Following that, he got his bachelor’s, master’s and then started working on his doctorate. His wife, Diana, was also working on her doctorate, and they were employed at the same time.

Time management became a struggle, but they started writing sticky notes or leaving things in front of the door so they would trip on it on the way out.

“Some nights, Diana would put grounds in the coffee machine, and pour the water,” Conco said. “And I’d get up, come in, get the water and pour it in. It overflowed and there was a mess to clean up.

“So Diana continued to prepare it at night, but then she started writing a sticky note: ‘Press On.’ That’s sometimes what we have to do in life, press on.”

Conco became president of Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, South Carolina. He loved the job, but his wife did not like being married to the president of a university. He counted 63 nights in a row having dinner away from home. So, from there, he took an executive vice president job at Campbellsville University, a small private college in Kentucky. Then he came to Virginia, at Highlands Community College, as the vice president of finance.

“It really instilled in my heart my love of community college, taking one course in the fall, and one course in the spring, back in Baltimore,” Conco said.

By then, he had grandkids and things were going well. He could retire, but Conco decided he had one more challenge left in him when colleagues told him that he should apply for the job at Paul D. Camp Community College.

“I think I got the job because my first name is Paul,” he said in jest. “Part of it was me thinking, that I was prepared. I had the background, the education. I had been a small business owner, a culinary arts instructor, a professor of business, a dean, a president, an executive vice president, vice president, and now I was going to be president again.

“You can’t work forever, so, where do you want that last job to be? For me, I wanted this to be my last job. And I feel lucky that I was selected to be in this community, to do some good as part of the college’s mission.”

Some lessons he imparted to the young professionals was one, the importance of teamwork. But with teamwork, you also need leadership. Conco showed a video of people working together to turn a car over. Unfortunately, when they got it over, the car rolled right off of a cliff.

Clear communication is important, too.

“I do a lot of management by walking around,” Conco said. “If you send an email, people might read it, maybe the first few sentences. Don’t assume that because you sent an email or put out a flyer that everyone knows. Everyone is bombarded with communications constantly, Twitter, Facebook, emails. So it’s important to go and visit people.”

Keeping your skills up to date is important, but Conco also noted to not ignore technology. As an example, Conco showed a clip of an “Indiana Jones” movie.

“It doesn’t matter how much of a master swordsman you are if you bring it to a gun fight,” he said. “When the Pony Express learned of the telegraph, they tried to train better riders and get faster horses, but they did not realize the world had changed. Don’t let that be you.”

F.U.E.L. member Mallory Taylor of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. said she thought the tour and presentation were very good.

“You could just see the passion that Dr. Conco has for community colleges,” she said. “I had never toured the college before. There are some wonderful technology and programs available to students here. It’s a good resource for the workforce here.”