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Q & A: Former McDaniel president on alumni award, her career, school's name change

Joan Develin Coley, of Westminster, was named president of Western Maryland College in 2000 and spearheaded the school's name change to McDaniel College in 2002. After leaving the college in 2010, she served as interim president of Notre Dame of Maryland University and today runs Coley Executive Advisors, offering her expertise to other businesses in the area. On Saturday, Oct. 1, she was awarded the Jacob Albright Award from Albright College, the school's highest alumni honor. The Times caught up with Coley to discuss the award, her time at McDaniel and her proudest achievements.

Q: How did you find out about the award, and how did it feel?

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A: I found out about it before our 50th reunion. I knew when I went that I was going to get the award, but I didn't know how I was going to feel about it until I got it. I was sort of surprised at how touched I was. Of course, the Jacob Albright Award is the big award of the night. The other people winning awards that night were so impressive, that I was humbled to be the one receiving the Jacob Albright Award in contrast with all of these other people who had such spectacular accomplishments. You can get a little jaded over the years, and I was surprised to feel so touched.

Q: How did you first come to attend Albright?

A: I was a first generation college student; I was the first person in my family to go. I certainly hadn't expected to go. In the '60s, not a lot of women in my circle of friends were going to college. I always wanted to be a teacher. I fell in love with all of my teachers and I really enjoyed school.

When it came time for college, everyone said 'you'll get a scholarship,' but at the time I thought the only scholarship that existed was the National Merit Scholarship. I was a finalist, but I didn't get one, so I said 'I guess I won't go to college.' That's how little I or my parents knew about college. That's how stupid I was. When my counselor found out, she was appalled. She drove me up to Albright where her sister was the registrar, and of course, Albright gave out scholarships. I worked three jobs on campus, so I was working about 40 hours a week, and I loved every minute of it.

Q: What was your path to president at Western Maryland?

A: I got a job in 1966 on an emergency certificate, and in order to keep my job I had to get my master's, so I did. Then I was asked, why don't you get a doctorate, and it just hadn't occurred to me to get a doctorate. This is sort of my career path. You might ask, "How did you bumble your way up to college president?" Well, it wasn't all bumble, but there was a lot of chance.

I wanted to teach second grade. Albright didn't offer a track to teach the second grade, so I got a degree in English. They needed remedial English teachers, so I got a doctorate with a specialty in remedial reading. I started teaching in college, which I liked more than junior high. Then, when I started at Western Maryland, I thought I would only be there three years. Of course, I fell in love with the school and stayed almost 40. I've enjoyed every job I've ever had. I didn't chart a career path, I just agreed to take opportunities when they were presented.

Q: What is it about education that drives your passion?

A: I've always loved education, and have been there my whole life. Even as I go through different stages and different places, I've always been associated with and involved with education. Even after I retired from McDaniel, I got a call from Notre Dame and served as interim president there. You just don't know where your path is going to take you. I still believe in a liberal arts education. I think it best equips you for the wide variety of things you can do. Here I am, an English major, and I'm the proof.

Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of?

A: Every single different thing I have done in my career has really brought me joy. There was a particular joy in teaching kids in junior high who were really struggling with reading. In some ways that was the most important thing I ever did, because I had the most direct connection with students. I loved having my graduate reading program, where I was educating new teachers to help students who are struggling in reading. You can cast a wider net of influence that way.

I thoroughly enjoyed being president. Of course, with every job, there comes more pressure, more expectations and more people figuring they could do the job better. I guess you get the job you can do when you're equipped to do it.

There's no way I could have done a presidency when I was younger, because I just wouldn't have had enough courage when people were second-guessing me. By the time I was in my 50s, I had enough sense to know that I could stand up. I could have the courage of my convictions when it came to the name change. I could weather that storm and know it was the right thing to do. Each of the jobs I did was right at the time I did it.

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