When Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s new president, Steve Nunez, moved to the Johnstown area on New Year’s Day, it was just his second time visiting the community, he said.
But the Lebanon, Virginia, area native has spent most of his life in towns just like it, he said.
Nunez grew up in Virginia’s hard-hit Appalachian coal country.
And for the past 24 years, Nunez has worked at an Illinois community college that serves a former steel town that also has strived to reinvent itself.
“I was raised in a community where coal was king – and I spent my first two years of school in a community college,” Nunez said. “I’m not a big city guy.”
Nunez began serving as Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s newest president last week, after working as a teacher, researcher and, for the past eight years, senior administrator at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Illinois.
A Virginia Tech grad who obtained his doctorate at Michigan’s Ferris State University, Nunez was vice president of Academics and Student Services at the 1,750-student Sauk Valley before taking the job at Penn Highlands – a move he views as “the right fit.”
“When I started looking for a job as president, I was looking for somewhere closer to my hometown,” Nunez said. “But I was also looking for a family atmosphere – somewhere that I’d fit in. I feel like I found that here.”
Nunez admits he’s still getting familiar with his new surroundings, whether it’s the Windber neighborhood he is settling in or Pennsylvania Highlands’ six locations, which are spread out across four counties.
He said he’ll be a familiar sight on campus – and plans to spend the coming months getting to know faculty, staff and students – “as people” rather than numbers.
“My promise to all of them is that I’m not going to come in here and just start making unilateral changes. I’m going to be listening,” he said. “Over the next six months, I want to meet everyone – at least, everyone who wants to meet me. I want people to tell me their stories. And I’ll ask a lot of questions.”
He’s hopeful the strategy will bring both the school’s challenges and opportunities into focus.
And that includes outside its campus walls, too, Nunez added.
He said he wants to forge a relationship with the business community to make sure the school is continuously doing what it takes to serve their ever-changing workforce needs.
“It’s not all about degrees. There are so many good jobs going unfilled in our country that don’t need a college degree. And we need to work closely with our manufacturing friends to make sure we’re providing the right programs ... on the right schedules to fit their needs,” he said. “We need to go to them. Because we can’t ever assume we know what they need.”
Nunez replaces Walter Asonevich, who resigned Nov. 1 after he was suspended by college trustees for making “demeaning” and “offensive” comments on social media earlier in the fall.
He becomes the college’s fifth president, joining the school after a period of significant growth that saw the school develop Blair County and Huntingdon education centers.
Nunez said the community college will continue to serve the region.
But moving forward, future growth may come through online opportunities, he added.
Pennsylvania Highlands currently offers just six online programs, Nunez said – “and I think there could be an opportunity to grow that.”
Nunez said he’ll be on a “traveling road show” in the coming weeks to introduce himself to the area.
But the community college’s new president – and fellow Penn Highlands leaders alike – will be active and visible in the region, he said.
“It’s important to be out in the community, to build relationships and let people know who we are,” he said. “Whether it’s Rotaries, Kiwanis clubs or economic development agencies – we’re going to be involved.”