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Dr. John Avendano Named Distinguished Alumnus
Throughout its 45-year history, Waubonsee Community College has touched the lives of nearly 300,000 students. Many of those students went on to success in business, health care, criminal justice, politics and many other professions, extending the reach of their Waubonsee education. Dr. John Avendano took the educational foundation gained at Waubonsee and is now multiplying that positive effect to new generations of students through his leadership as president of Kankakee Community College. Waubonsee is proud to honor him as the college’s 2011 Distinguished Alumnus.
The Distinguished Alumnus Award is given to a respected Waubonsee alumnus who has demonstrated personal and professional support of the college, its growth and development, and its mission. This honor also recognizes individuals who have documented evidence of a distinguished record in their chosen profession, of contribution and service to their community, as well as demonstration of a continued interest in lifelong learning.
Growing up in east Aurora, Dr. Avendano’s parents, Juan and Ninfa, always stressed the importance of education.
“The greatest driving force for me was my parents,” he said. “All their lives, they would tell me to take advantage of education opportunities. They worked hard so I would have the opportunity to get an education.”
Even with his parents’ influence, Dr. Avendano, who was a stand-out athlete at East Aurora High School, was not sure if college was for him. Waubonsee Athletic Manager and Baseball Coach Dave Randall saw Dr. Avendano’s potential and recruited him to come to Waubonsee to play baseball.
“Waubonsee was a very familiar environment and close to home,” Dr. Avendano said. “You saw a lot of familiar faces, but there was also the excitement and nervousness of something new.”
Dr. Avendano excelled on the playing field, making the All-Skyway Conference Team, but a knee injury forced him to re-evaluate his priorities.
“When I was injured was when I truly became a student,” he said. “I knew that I needed something more than athletics.”
Luckily, Dr. Avendano was back on the field not long after getting out of his cast and was part of the team that set the school record for wins his sophomore season, serving as team captain. Now, truly a student-athlete, he began to think more about his future. He transferred to Elmhurst College to play baseball just a few credits shy of his associate degree.
Although he did not earn his bachelor’s degree at Elmhurst, he went on to earn a B.S. in exercise physiology from Northern Illinois University (NIU). He next completed a master’s degree in adult continuing education from NIU. Even with his advanced degree, he wanted to finish what he started and earn his associate degree from Waubonsee, which he did.
“It was important to me to be able to say I was a community college graduate,” he said.
His educational journey continued at Loyola University Chicago, where he started his Ph.D. work, before finishing his Ph.D. at Illinois State University in educational administration and foundations.
In all his experiences as a student, Dr. Avendano never found a better place to learn than at Waubonsee.
“I’ve had the opportunity to experience higher education at the community college level, at the private institution level, at the university undergraduate level and at the graduate university level,” he said. “The best and most meaningful education I ever received was at Waubonsee. They took more of an interest in me. I wasn’t just a number. I say that proudly everywhere I go — when I meet with parents and students.”
Dr. Avendano returned to Waubonsee to start his career. He was assistant baseball coach and manager of the fitness center, which he had helped create with former Waubonsee athletic director and physical education instructor Bill Prince. He later was recruitment coordinator, director of Enrollment Management and eventually associate dean of Student Life.
“I learned how valuable the education I received here really was and how valuable Waubonsee is to this district,” he said. “It’s where I realized that I wanted to spend my career in community colleges. [Community colleges] give opportunities for those who might never have thought that college was possible. It’s been the greatest job, seeing students when they first arrive and then when they graduate — seeing how they develop and shape their lives.”
Rising to the position of president at Kankakee, earning his Ph.D. and working at his alma mater, Waubonsee, are career highlights for Dr. Avendano.
“The fact that here I was, somebody undecided on education, to be able to achieve a Ph.D. meant a lot to my parents, and it meant a lot to me,” he said. “Early on in my career, I realized community colleges were where I wanted to be. I believe in the mission and the communities we serve. It’s a passion for me. As a community college alumnus, I understand the motivations and experiences of our students. Community colleges are a great start, a great value and a great decision. We’re the best economic value in higher education.”
Dr. Avendano left Waubonsee in 1995 to become dean of Student Services at Illinois Central College, which serves Peoria, Woodford and Tazwell counties. He steadily advanced at the college to the role of vice president of Academic Affairs and Student Development. Building on this experience, he became the sixth president of Kankakee Community College in July 2009.
“All of my past experiences prepared me for the position,” he said. “Working in student services, academics and with the community, all of these experiences made me confident in my ability to serve in the role — serving the community and serving the college. It’s been a very smooth transition.”
As president, Dr. Avendano has led Kankakee through the unprecedented state fiscal crisis and historic enrollment growth.
“Given the state of the state and funding challenges, I believe that if you can weather these types of storms, you can weather anything,” he said. “The challenges are based on the economics of the state of Illinois and how it impacts our respective communities. We provide education and training for a community that desperately needs job training. We are here to support and encourage growth — employment growth and economic growth, encouraging future development.
While the national recession and the state’s fiscal shortfalls are not factors for which any leader would wish, Dr. Avendano sees them as opportunities to illustrate the positive benefit that community colleges have on our society and economy.
“Over the course of the past two years, the challenges of the Illinois economy has allowed us to tell the story of our students and how our students positively impact the community,” he said. “We have judges and bank presidents who are alumni.”
Leading an institution as diverse and multi-faceted as Kankakee Community College, Dr. Avendano has focused his initial efforts at the college to learning as much as possible about the college and those it serves.
“I’ve been getting to know the people, learn the strengths of the institution, and spend as much time in the community,” he said.
Looking for partnerships within the local community has been another goal for Dr. Avendano. He has served on numerous community and local economic boards, met with every local high school and principal, hosted the area legislators, and forged a strong relationship with the president of Olivet Nazarene University. He serves on the Illinois Public Community College Council of Presidents, the Grundy-Livingston-Kankakee Workforce Board, the Riverside Healthcare Board of Directors and the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County.
“I want to find ways to improve as an institution,” he said. “People are open to sharing ideas and feedback on the college.”
Kankakee Community College initiatives under Dr. Avendano’s leadership include creating an early college program, partnering on Enterprise U — an entrepreneurship program, increasing institutional accountability, and generally focusing on student success.
“We’re raising the level of student success, student retention and degree completion,” he said. “We’re making positive impacts on the students we’ve retained.”
While it has been more than a decade since Dr. Avendano worked at Waubonsee, he remains in touch and follows Waubonsee in the news.
“I’ve been impressed with Waubonsee’s growth, meeting the needs of the community,” he said. “Waubonsee will always be my community college. I’m a proud graduate of Waubonsee.”
Thinking back on his path to becoming a college president, Dr. Avendano remembers a conversation with then Waubonsee President Dr. John Swalec and current Waubonsee President Dr. Christine Sobek, who was then his supervisor.
“I had their support and confidence to become a president,” he said. “We all set goals of where we want to be in life, and this was one goal I had. I don’t ever see myself leaving the community college system.”
Dr. Avendano and his wife, Janet, live in Bourbonnais, Ill., and have three children, Michael, age 19, Nikki, age 16, and Marissa, age 14.