Dr. Jacqueline Edmondson knows what it’s like to be the first in a family to go to college: the anxiety, the uncertainty, the financial realities.
But there’s also the joy of succeeding. And there are the life-changing results — results like becoming the new president of the University of Southern Maine.
“It is humbling to me to be a president of a university and to realize how incredibly impactful a college education can be. Earning a degree changed my life, and the life of my family,” said Edmondson, 55. “It makes me double down on efforts to bring first generation and historically underrepresented groups into higher education, and I am committed to creating a sense of belonging for them so they may thrive and earn their college degree.”
Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Edmondson got her college break when Dr. Steven Smith offered her a spot in his Penn State University piano studio. But while she’d been taking piano lessons since she was 4 and dreamed of becoming a studio musician, her family was apprehensive.
“My family wasn’t quite sure what I would do with a Piano Performance major,” she said.
Around then, her piano professor also began talking with her about continuing on to graduate school.
“That was a real vote of confidence in me and I understood that he saw potential in me” she said. “But I was trying to figure out how to survive my undergraduate degree and how I was going to pay for it and put gas in the car and eat. The thought of graduate school seemed out of reach to me.”
With that, and with pressure from her family — they thought she should consider being a nurse or a teacher rather than a pianist — Edmondson switched majors and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary and Kindergarten Education.
Teaching wasn’t playing piano, but she fell in love with that, too. She was awed by children’s language development and how they learned how to read and write, and she wanted to focus more on that. Several years after her piano professor first suggested graduate school, Edmondson began considering a master’s degree — then a doctorate.
“I just had to keep learning,” she said. “It was a hard time. My boys were 1 and 2 years old when I started graduate school. My husband was really supportive. I have this memory of the two of us talking about whether I should go on for my doctorate or not and he said, ‘Absolutely do it. You’ll change our sons’ lives. They’ll have so many opportunities.’ It turned out to be true.”
Edmondson received a master’s degree in Educational Psychology from Penn State in 1996 and a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Penn State in 1999. She went on to hold a variety of academic and administrative positions in higher education, including Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Minnesota Morris, Associate Professor of Education at Penn State, Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Studies in the College of Education at Penn State, and Associate Vice President and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at Penn State. She most recently served as Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer for Penn State Greater Allegheny.
“Greater Allegheny was absolutely an amazing place to be. I was humbled every day by the work people were doing to provide access to a college degree for students who might not have access otherwise. People who just put their heart and soul in that work,” she said.
After five years at Greater Allegheny, it felt like the right time to explore new opportunities. She was leaving the college in a good position and she felt comfortable passing it on to somebody else. When the presidency at USM opened up, she excitedly applied.
“It was such an amazing opportunity,” she said. “The University of Southern Maine’s service promise of student focused every day, that’s really important to me. I love the public mission of a regional comprehensive, the idea that it’s a people’s university providing access to education. We’re working closely within the region to make sure our research, our teaching, our service are relevant to the region. The people here are just amazing.”
“The opportunity to come in at a time when things were trending so well and to take them to the next level was very exciting to me,” she said. “It felt like the right job at the right time. It just fell into place. I’m very honored to serve as the president here.”
While she and her family had no formal connection to Maine, moving to the area was a long-standing dream.
“When my husband and I were first married — maybe even before we were married — we thought a lot about what we were going to do, where we were going to live. We always said we wanted to go live on the coast of Maine,” she said.
Several weeks into her presidency, Edmondson is still learning about USM and its community. She’s loved everything: the people she’s met, the natural beauty of the state, the programs and resources that make the university unique, from the MIST Lab to USM’s PhD in Leadership.
“As you drill in, there are just amazing, amazing things happening,” she said.
As a published author, Edmondson can personally relate to one of those amazing things — the Stonecoast MFA program for writers. She’s written eight books, including biographies for young adult readers. She also co-edited one book and was sole editor for a four-volume music encyclopedia. She’s currently writing a historical fiction novel involving the underground railroad.
And while she didn’t pursue a career as a studio musician, the piano remains dear to her — another thing she can personally relate to as USM moves forward with building a new arts center on the Portland Campus.
For now, Edmondson and her husband Michael are settling into the President’s House in Gorham with their new yellow Lab puppy, Elbow. Her husband has found a studio space for his wood crafting business within walking distance of the house. They have already hosted their eldest son Jacob, daughter-in-law Lauren and 8-year-old grandson Karsen for a visit. Their youngest son Luke and his partner Christina also spent a weekend.
As Edmondson looks to the future, she sees a lot of potential at USM — potential for increased access to education, for research and innovation, for showing the world exactly what a regional comprehensive university can do. And she sees potential for reaching more of those first-generation college students like her.
“I don’t remember feeling frightened, but I did feel like I didn’t belong,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t want anyone to know I was a first generation student, and I also thought everyone was wealthier and more intelligent than I was.”
She’s excited to be at USM.
“I’m so impressed with what I know about the University of Southern Maine and what I’m learning about the state of Maine. I’m just really humbled to be here and committed to serving the university and its students,” she said. “It isn’t the title that interests me so much, it’s the work. And I think there’s such great work here. It’s important to me that we have a community where everyone’s valued and everyone can thrive and do their best work.”