That fateful 20-minute conversation changed a lot.

Paul LeBlanc

President, Southern New Hampshire University

Manchester, NH

Some people ask me, “Did you always know you wanted to be a college president?” And I think, “No, who the heck wants to be a college president when they’re a kid? That would be the nerdiest kid you’ve ever met. Of course not.” So this is how it happened: When I was an undergraduate at Framingham State University—a state college that was built to serve first-generation, immigrant college kids like myself— a woman named Dr. Helen Heinneman was the chair of the English department at the time and took me under her wing. She really loved her classes and responded to her students as someone who knows them, cares for them, and takes the time for them.

My senior year was ending, and as one had a bit of luxury to do then but not so much today, I wasn’t thinking about what was next, and I certainly wasn’t thinking about academia. One day, as I was sitting in Helen’s office and chatting with her, she asked: “So to what graduate schools are you applying?” And I said, “Graduate school? Nowhere, I’m not applying to graduate school.” She told me I was one of her best students and that I should apply, but I was worried about paying for it. She told me if I did it right, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. Clearly, I didn’t know anything—I didn’t just have a perceived lack of finances, I had a lack of aspiration and knowledge of how or why graduate school could be an option.

Helen’s husband taught at Boston College in the history department, and she had good friends in the English department. As I came to learn, every year (or two or three) she would basically make a phone call and place one of her students in the English department. She was very good friends with Father Joe Appleyard, the head of the department at the time, who trusted her and she told him that I’d be applying. Father Joe accepted me into the master’s program. I’m glad Helen grabbed me by the proverbial scruff of my neck and said “uh-huh,” because that fateful 20-minute conversation changed a lot for me.

I decided I would go to graduate school, I took out some loans, and thought, “I can do this,” since it was the 1980s and loans weren’t too excessive back then. But a week before classes started, Father Joe called me into his office and said he just had a teaching assistantship open up, that it came with free tuition and a stipend, and asked if I was interested. So I said, “Damn right I’m interested.” I had never taught before in my life and all the preparation I received was a stack of books, a syllabus, and a “go for it and do good work.”

As it turned out, I loved teaching and I was pretty good at it. Not only did I go to graduate school, but in a heartbeat, it became available and free, and I discovered my path to be an academic, teacher, and educator. Years later, Father Joe did the benediction at my inauguration at Southern New Hampshire University, and I still stay in touch with Helen. Between the two of them, they didn’t just redirect my life—they filled in whole blanks of white space I wasn’t even seeing on the page and colored it in for me. 

Dr. Paul J. LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Under Paul’s leadership, SNHU has grown from 2,800 students to over 135,000 learners and is the largest nonprofit provider of online higher education in the country.

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