Meet Michele Smith: JJC’s New Workforce Education Director

Joliet Junior College’s Workforce Education Department is taking a proactive approach to inform the campus and community about its services.

That’s according to Michele Smith, who began leading the new unit in February. 

The department launched in the spring semester, combining existing services under the Workforce Development Department and the Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL).

About Workforce Education Department

“Previously they were serving the same population but meeting that end through different means. And now that we are a combined department were are able to combine the resources and the services that we have,” said Smith.

On the workforce development side, funding comes from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). This offers a variety of services for adult and dislocated workers, as well as youth, to receive funding to further their education through training, certification or degree programs.

Michele Smith
Michele Smith

Adult education and literacy enables individuals to complete their high school equivalency, receive their high school diploma, and educates people looking to become proficient in the English language.

“We’re working toward making sure that we are coordinating our efforts and increasing the collaboration between the two units,“ she said.

One of Smith’s goals is to strengthen the department’s relationship with the entire institution by helping others at JJC understand how Workforce Education serves the community and how they can continue to support the college’s mission, by working more closely with cross functional teams and departments.

That includes raising awareness for opportunities such as those through the Connect to Your Future program, which provides career scholarships for students ages 17 to 24 who meet WIOA eligibility requirements. Also, Smith said, that JJC is providing a pathway for students to transition to other JJC services.

Smith said her department serves between 1,500 and 2,000 students each year. Most of those students, about 1,000, are enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) courses. Workforce development and adult education accounts for roughly 200 and 800 students, respectively.

“We are really a bridge between our students’ past educational experience and their future. We are the conduit to get them to the other side. We want to give them the inspiration, support, and the encouragement they need to continue their education beyond the services that we provide.”

Success Stories

Smith said programs under the Workforce Education Department offer challenging yet rewarding opportunities for individuals wanting to start the next chapter of their lives.

“Adult education students may test in third or fourth grade reading and math levels. So we have a lot of work to do with that particular individual to get them to a place where they obtain their high school diploma. But we get them there.”

She added that many students on the workforce development side have come through the program and gone on to earn a degree with JJC. It’s amazing to see the students’ resiliency, said Smith. 

She shared the story of Connect to Your Future student, Richard Owusu, who found out about it through Career Services. He was initially unsure of the career path he wanted to take. But through the program’s career assessments and exploration, Owusu decided to study electrical automated systems.  Smith said Owusu worked closely with his advisor to stay on track and excelled in his coursework. He was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa Society Honor Society and graduated from JJC in December of 2017 with a Certificate of Completion in Electronics, an Associate of Applied Science degree in Electrical/Electronic Automotive Systems, and an Associate of General Studies.  Smith said Owusu’s proven hard work and motivation helped him secure a full-time position at an Amazon warehouse as a control systems technician just as he was finishing at JJC. 

“So when you hear the stories of our students and their resiliency and their strive to finish, regardless of their circumstances, it makes what we do encouraging,” said Smith.  

JJC students have also been recognized on a state level for their accomplishments. This spring, adult literacy student Martha Reyes was among 10 students to receive the Spotlight on Achievement Award. She was honored for her progress in reading, English, and citizenship goals. Reyes has tutored with her volunteer for more than two years, even surrendering one of her two jobs so she could focus on education. Having increased her English reading and speaking literacy, Reyes is now focused on earning her high school equivalency and becoming college ready.

In March, adult learner Sandra Zarazua received the Paul Simon Adult Learner of the Year Award at the Illinois Adult and Continuing Educators Association’s (IACEA) annual statewide conference. Zarazua had to overcome cancer during her educational journey, which started in JJC’s ESL program before she moved on to get her high school equivalency.

“She started in our ESL program and moved on to obtain her HSE. She also participated in our ICAPS program,” said Smith. “Those are students that are dually enrolled in their high school equivalency courses. That particular program was our TWL, so she was working on her global supply chain management certification.”

Zarazua just completed her associate’s degree at JJC this May.

“She spoke about her experience when she received the award and she said ‘I told myself I don’t have time for cancer. I have to finish my degree. I’ve got to get through this program.’ So she said ‘I would be reading my books and studying even as I was going through radiation.’ So she is a phenomenal example of the resiliency and persistence of our student population,” said Smith.

About Michele Smith

Smith started at JJC on Feb. 12. She brings 10 years of experience in higher education, having previously worked for Colorado Technical University at its campus support center in Schaumberg. Prior to that, Smith served as dean of workforce development for Kishwaukee College.

“I was very inspired by the work that community colleges do and the students that they serve and their mission. When I saw this position at JJC it aligned with my previous experience – working with community-based organizations and partnering with employers,” she said.

Originally from Aurora, Smith has lived in Illinois all her life. She is married with a 15-year-old daughter.

While an undergraduate, Smith worked at Loyola University’s Burn Center. She feels the experience there helped shape who she is today and gave her the motivation to serve others.

“It was hard work. But it gave me a compassion for people, especially when they’re at their worst.”

Contact Information

Workforce Development: Call 815-280-1416, email or visit website.

Adult Education & Literacy: Call 815-280-1325, email or visit website.