BY VAL SCHOGER; PHOTOS BY KATIE DESANTIS
Dr. John Holdnak returned to Gulf Coast State College this year as newly elected sixth president. His career at Gulf Coast started in 1982 as the Coordinator of Campus Activities and he worked his way up the ranks. Over time, he became the Director of Human Resources and ultimately Vice President and Dean of Administrative Services.
He left the college in 2008 and took the position of Vice Chancellor of Financial Policy for the Florida College System in Tallahassee in 2008 and became Executive Vice Chancellor in 2012.
Coming back to Gulf Coast State College feels like coming home says Dr. Holdnak. “I have waited for this opportunity. I was 22 years old and was hired right out of college when I started working for Gulf Coast. I worked here for 26 years before moving to Tallahassee to work for the Department of Education where I had the chance to work with all 28 colleges in Florida. I know that GCSC is one of the best colleges statewide.”
Attracting students and increasing enrollment is one of Dr. Holdnak’s focal points. “Primarily, we need to ensure that GCSC is the first choice in post-secondary education for students in this area and an important step is to build effective partnerships with other educational institutions such as Haney Technical Center, Florida State University Panama City and the University of West Florida.” He points out that Northwest Florida shows a few trends that divert from statewide and nationwide trends. “The average age of a student at Gulf Coast State College is 30 years while the average age of students at colleges in other parts of Florida is 26 years. The difference in average age can be in part attributed to the economic downturn, resulting in a decline of student enrollment right out of high school as well as adult workers enrolling for industry certifications or re- training.”
Research data by the US Census Bureau shows that Northwest Florida is falling behind in the per capita ratio of citizens with higher education. Local businesses and schools are looking to reverse the trend and, rather than competing for students, the common goal should be to entice more students to strive for higher education.
I am pleased that John came back to GCSC. It is a plus for Gulf Coast – he knows the college and his experience in Tallahassee working in the Education Commissioner’s offi ce is a unique advantage for the College.
Gulf Coast could not be better served by a more dedicated and qualifi ed President than Dr. John Holdnak. I look forward to working with him as an advisor to the GCSC Foundation as he leads efforts to establish more fi nancial opportunities for students through Foundation scholarships.
John Holdnak is defi nitely the right person at the right time to take the College forward. William C. Cramer, Jr. Former Chair – GCCC District Board of Trustees GCSC Foundation Advisor
John’s return is the best thing to happen to the College. He is a ‘Gulf Coast Person’ and people who have been here know what that means.
He is committed to building and restoring relationships with the GCSC Foundation, universities, and the local community.
I think he is the smartest president we have had and is destined to be the best! The community and College will benefi t greatly from his leadership. The Board of Trustees made a great decision when they selected John Holdnak. Dr. Robert L. McSpadden Former GCCC President (1988-2007)
John has an incredible love for this College and the communities we serve. He is an astute problem solver and gifted trailblazer. I have been continuously impressed with his tenacity and creativity. He also possesses a ready sense of humor. Cheryl Flax-Hyman Vice President, Institutional Effectiveness & Strategic Planning Institutional Effectiveness & Strategic Planning
Gulf Coast State College offers innovative programs in their new Advanced Technology Center to attract interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, and Dr. Holdnak plans to expand these efforts and work in partnership with FSU and other universities to entice young students to look at higher education early. “We are separated by only 28 feet of asphalt,” he states about the neighboring campus of Florida State University Panama City. FSU offers STEM summer camps for first-through eighth-graders and Dr. Holdnak sees opportunities to collaborate in reaching aspiring students. “It is never too early to spark interest in learning and education. We want young students to have a look around. If you’re 11 years old, the College can make quite an impression. Then one day, I hope that student will choose to come to Gulf Coast.”
Dr. Holdnak speaks with pride about the advantages the College offers. “We have a competitive edge among other colleges. Our tuition is among the lowest inFlorida and we have not raised tuition in several years. Also, the state compares the performance of our students against other college students and against university students. The data is collected from 28 colleges and 12 universities in Florida where the GPA of students at the end of their junior year is measured. This College, for decades, has been in the top three of 40 public institutions. We have great academic programs and are service oriented. We pay attention to the needs of the students.”
Achieving the goal of making Gulf Coast State College more attractive to students can have many solutions. “We have a nice international travel program run by our Student Government Association where students can be exposed to other cultures. We took culinary students to Italy this year to explore the cuisine of Italy and learn from local chefs. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for us to expand the study abroad activities, so that we’re not just visiting, but immersing students in another culture for some period of time in a study activity, where they’re getting college credit and are involved in on-site instruction.” He explains that GCSC is at a very early stage of working with partner universities in this endeavor. There are several sister colleges in Florida that have established solid partnerships with foreign universities and he is looking to learn from them before branching out.
Good education goes hand-in-hand with attracting industry that will provide high paying jobs. Sharing his vision for growth with community leaders (who are in most cases also the biggest employers) and soliciting their list of priorities in collaborating with the College has been one of Dr. Holdnak’s first agenda points. “It is important to me to find out what the community’s priorities are. The College is a part of the community and our employees need to be good stewards. It is our responsibility to see Gulf Coast State College grow and prosper on our watch. We want to be the first choice for employers when they are looking for skilled workers and looking to be able to offer specialized training to their personnel.” He points out that growth in our area is only possible if people are committed to offering more opportunities here.
With clear goals and student benefits on his mind, Dr. Holdnak communicates a clear vision. While state education funding has been a hot topic and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, Holdnak is optimistic. “We are right now in a mode of getting a little bit ‘leaner and meaner.’ We’re looking at every opportunity to become a little bit more efficient to reduce costs wherever we can. We don’t want to raise tuition if we can possibly help it, because that comes right out of the student’s pocket.”
John Holdnak obtained a bachelor’s degree in Leisure Services from FSU, a master’s degree in Applied Psychology from FSU PC and an Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in educational leadership from UWF. Most recently he served as Executive Vice Chancellor for the Florida Department of Education, College System.
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