A Fond Farewell
When you walk into Jeri's office, you can't help but notice how much she's got going on in her world. You get an intentionally chaotic visual representation of a life that is full of activity, of ideas, of action. Though she teaches business and accounting, a quick glance around this room tells you that so much more is happening.
And she never seems to let the smile leave her face.
One seemingly random piece of décor in that busy room may have the most significance: an airless mylar balloon.
"When I was adjunct faculty and someone retired, I was lucky enough to get that job," she said. Ed Mosher (a former colleague and eventual chair of the LCCC Board of Trustees) and his wife Edie bought her flowers and the balloon to celebrate.
"It meant so much to me. I wanted to teach at LCCC, nowhere else," she said. "I've kept that on the wall in my office to remind myself how much I wanted to be here, how much I wanted to do this."
That's one of the lessons she shares with her students: find something to hold on to. "Reflect back on graduation or an experience that got you to this point in life. That's what it's all about."
This spring, Jeri became one of very few faculty ever asked to speak at LCCC's commencement ceremony. That invitation was a reflection of the impact she's had, not just on the college, but on the community.
Jeri was born and raised in Cheyenne, and studied at LCCC. She even shot competitively on LCCC's now-defunct rifle team and earned recognition as the top female shooter in the state. She laughs recalling that "the coach offered a free steak dinner every time we got a perfect score."
After leaving with her associate degree, she headed to the University of Wyoming where she earned a Bachelor of Science in accounting and her MBA soon after.
Though she began her professional career as an internal auditor for a bank holding company, she worked as adjunct faculty for LCCC for more than eight years. In 1996, she began full-time permanent teaching.
Not surprisingly, the instructor then is quite different than the instructor now.
"I used to write all my lecture notes on yellow paper and memorized it like a script. That's how I started!"
Since those early days, she has won faculty of the year honors three times and been invited to speak at national conferences. Looking back, she's accumulated an impressive history of work.
"But the thing I'm going to miss the most is working with students." Jeri shares. "I'm going to miss that inquisitive energy. Trust me, I learn from them too."
That said, her legacy may be equally valuable in what she brought to LCCC in community service.
"Jeri's a master of serving students," Ed Mosher said. "She's dedicated to student development beyond the classroom, especially in service learning."
Jeri acknowledges that her grandfather was probably her biggest life mentor. "He taught me from a very young age that part of being a citizen is to figure out how you can give back to the community." She remembers pulling her wagon, going door-to-door to collect items during the Cuban missile crisis.
"I was preaching to the neighbors about the importance of underground bunkers," she
acknowledges with a hearty laugh, "I was seven years old!"
As a faculty member, she went to a conference that explored the concept of service learning, and she fell in love with the possibilities. "I saw right away how I could match management and service learning. Students could see what it was like to help a nonprofit agency and still practice principles of management."
While she started incorporating that idea into class, she also came across the opportunity to apply for a grant through the American Association of Community Colleges. It was the first time she had ever applied for a service learning grant, and in 2006, her efforts meant that LCCC was one of only eight community colleges to get the award, worth more than $100,000. Soon, the campus was embracing service learning as part of higher education's responsibility to students.
She says her philosophy was to change the culture of LCCC so that it was one of giving. Student engagement passed to the rest of campus, and Jeri recalls that 29 faculty members in 58 courses incorporated service learning as well.
One of Jeri's highly successful projects has been The Pantry, which started a few years ago in cooperation with the former instructor of social work classes, JoLene Klumpp. The Pantry provides food and other necessities to students who may not have the money to eat or who may not have access to dining services.
"Students were hungry. Being hungry affects your ability to study, it affects all kinds of things," Jeri said.
The Pantry is run entirely on donations, including food drives. People also provide
cash donations to help the team purchase items.
According to Jeri, an average of 60 students use The Pantry monthly, and they can use it twice a week, no questions asked. All they need to do is provide their student ID.
"We don't want anything to be a stumbling block," she said.
Another recent venture was the LCCC Community Garden, where a large area north of campus was dedicated to individual gardening plots that anyone could use. While there were some logistical issues in its first few years, Jeri hopes that this project can find its footing and thrive.
But some of the greatest service learning impact comes from the projects that are a required part of her classes. Initially, some students had hesitation about the projects, but now it's grown into something that benefits the community.
"It relates directly to the importance of working together in teams, building trust with people they might not even know," Jeri said.
Even online students in such places as Afghanistan and Japan have to take part. "People work globally, not always in the same settings as their co-workers," she said.
While the projects have benefited numerous people, some of the biggest changes come in the students themselves. At the end of the semester, they write a reflection paper about the experience.
"It's amazing, they're almost like thank-you letters: thank you for making me do this, thanks for pushing me out of my comfort zone," Jeri said.
She shared the story of a 19-year-old student, who admitted that she had never even looked a homeless person in the eye. The student and her team decided to do something for COMEA, which provides support and resources for the homeless community. They bought food, planned a menu, prepared and served the meal. Then they talked with the people after the service and heard their stories. The student told Jeri, "I always thought homeless people were just lazy. Why should we feel bad for them? But after hearing their stories, I knew this could happen to anyone just by health, loss of employment. I have a whole new perspective."
Jeri added: "That's why I do what I do. That's why I love it. It builds understanding."
On top of all this, Jeri was chair of the committee who wrote a proposal to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) to get online courses at LCCC. After at least a full year of intense work, she and her committee compiled a thorough package to get accreditation from HLC. This was in 2005, a time when online learning was relatively new, as was the idea of getting full degrees online.
"We wanted a blanket approval from HLC, instead of program by program," she said. "It really was groundbreaking at the time."
The team – and the college – got total approval.
Even as a self-declared people person, Jeri grasps the value online learning has to many people, giving them access to education. What started with just asking questions and digging through resources turned into an exploration of defining what makes a good online course and what the expectations are for instructors. This resulted in the tremendous growth of online learning and hybrid courses at LCCC.
"It's so interesting to see how things have evolved," she said.
This dedication to the task, this work ethic, is just one of the aspects that garners respect.
"Jeri was not just involved, she was embedded in all aspects of her job," Mosher shared. "Serving on committees, leading the way in obtaining accreditation from HLC, facilitating program transferability. She is the epitome of the meaning for being a professor."
As she looks onto the next chapter of her life, it's worth a quick look back to see what brought her here. Jeri was married to Dave for 32 years, before his untimely passing in 2010. Though she has no children or pets ("or live plants" she adds), she has a tremendous network of friends that has supported her, becoming family in their own right.
In fact, it's often with these friends that Jeri travels the globe. So far, she's visited 48 countries, with more to come this year as she works her way through Europe.
"Jeri and Dave were our neighbors when my family moved to Cheyenne," said Jo Haley, an architect now based out of Texas but who remains close friends with Jeri.
Jo knew that the couple did a fair amount of international travel, which Jeri continued even after Dave's death. "In 2016, she asked if I would go with her to Cuba. It was an awesome experience to travel with Jeri!"
Every time Jeri traveled, she thought about how it could impact her students.
"It gives you a different way of looking at things. It gives you a spirit of adventure, the idea of getting out of your box, which fits well with the ideas of management," Jeri said.
Even to this day, she incorporates stories about her trip to Cuba in her class discussions.
"The people had such a spirit of entrepreneurship across the country, and it had been squelched for so long," she said.
Jeri embraced the people and their culture, wanting to learn more and help in any way she could. It's no different than her approach to teaching at LCCC for nearly 30 years.
"She was always seeking techniques or methodologies which would enrich student learning," Mosher added. "Jeri clearly was and is respected by her peers, the community and her students."
Because of this legacy, LCCC will be a better place thanks to Jeri Griego.