It became a running joke at the retirement party for Algonquin College president and CEO Cheryl Jensen on Friday that she couldn’t possibly leave, not when the City of Ottawa had finally reached its one-million milestone population.
Her departure would result in the number dropping back down to 999,999.
Humour aside, nobody wanted Jensen to go. She's has earned the love, respect and admiration of her students, colleagues and the broader community during her five years as head of Algonquin College and its Ottawa, Perth and Pembroke campuses. She was the first woman to hold the top position at the college, founded in 1967.
Her many achievements and contributions were recognized and celebrated at a gathering held in one of the beautiful new Indigenous spaces, the Nawapon Learning Commons located on the first floor of the state-of-the-art DARE (Discovery, Applied Research and Entrepreneurship) District that opened under her leadership. It's full of Indigenous themes and influences.
The party was planned with Jensen in mind, from the choice of venue — which reflects Jensen’s commitment to goals of truth and reconciliation — to the forget-me-not flowers to the Beatles-themed music.
The formal part of the reception, sponsored by Colliers International and PCL, was emceed by the affable Doug Wotherspoon, the college’s vice-president of innovation and strategy.
An endowed bursary has been created in Jensen’s name to acknowledge her exemplary leadership, her dedication to the students, and the substantial growth of the college during her tenure. It's for full-time students who face financial challenges. The bursary total had passed $66,000 in donations by Friday.
For many, the party was bittersweet. There were some tears and many hugs.
“You are leaving Algonquin College more beautiful, diverse and accepting than you found it,” Deijanelle Simon, president of the college's students’ association, said during her heartfelt remarks at the podium. She spoke of Jensen's bond with the students, and of how the president would regularly stop and talk with them in the hallways, always insisting that they call her by her first name.
Gifts included a traditional wampum belt presented to Jensen by Ron McLester, a 2019 Forty Under 40 recipient and the college's vice-president of truth, reconciliation and indigenization.
Among the business and community leaders in the crowd were: Invest Ottawa CEO Michael Tremblay, MindBridge Ai CEO Eli Fathi, OSEG (Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group) president and CEO Mark Goudie with the head of its charitable foundation, Janice Barresi. Jensen has been a member of the OSEG Foundation board.
Also spotted were college alumna Christina Tessier, CEO of Ingenium, the organization that oversees the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum; Robert Gillett, president of Algonquin College from 1996 to 2012; and angel investor Carman Joynt, a former board of governor for Algonquin College.
Not to go unnoticed were the large landscape and wildlife photos that added beauty and wonder to the bright and open space. They're the works of Ottawa-based Canadian photographer and Algonquin graduate Michelle Valberg.
Jensen plans to return to the Hamilton area to be closer to her family, all of whom live in southwestern Ontario. She moved to Ottawa in 2014 to take up the top position at Algonquin College following a 31-year career at Mohawk College, where she was a professor, dean and vice-president.
While in Ottawa, she’s maintained a long-distance marriage with her retired husband, Tom Jensen. They have three adult children and two young grandchildren.
Mayor Jim Watson, Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, who's the minister of children, community and social services, as well as the minister responsible for women's issues, Liberal Ottawa-West Nepean MP Anita Vandenbeld and Conservative Ottawa-West Nepean MPP Jeremy Roberts were among those to talk highly and sincerely of Jensen on both a personal and professional level.
Algonquin College board of governors chair Peter Nadeau described her as "one of the most decisive leaders" he'd ever worked with.
“I know her goal from the outset was to leave Algonquin College in better shape than she found it, and I think we can all agree that that goal has been accomplished,” said Nadeau, whose own career has included being vice-president, general counsel and corporate secretary at former Newbridge Networks.
“She’s someone who’s always had clear vision and has executed that vision with a rare combination of precision and compassion, always keeping the best interests of our learners at heart."
Over the course of her life and career, Jensen has been a student, a faculty member, a parent of a college student, and a vice president. "When issues came up, Cheryl was always able to look at them from those many perspectives and always with great empathy," said Nadeau. "I saw this again and again.
"She set the destination but she always let her team find the best path to get there."
"I believe this has made Cheryl a truly authentic leader, and one we all know and love. She put the best people in their best places and then she let them run. She set the destination but she always let her team find the best path to get there. She trusted them, she backed them up always, and she helped them be the best they can be."
Nadeau quoted former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It's about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others' success, and then standing back and letting them shine."
The biggest laughs of the night went to the mayor, who was quick to address the elephant in the room: the repeated delays of the light-rail system. “I’m sorry I was a few minutes late; I was waiting for the LRT,” he quipped.
The mayor spoke about his time with Jensen on the board of Invest Ottawa. “Cheryl was such a great contributor,” said Watson. “She understood the connection between the college system and universities and economic development and employee retention and attraction. She did some great work.”
He proclaimed it to be Cheryl Jensen Day as presenting her with a framed letter that recognized Algonquin College’s many successes under her leadership, from its record enrolment levels to its ranking as one of the region’s Top 25 employers. He recycled one of his old jokes — that his gift is worth one hour of free parking — before telling everyone how one recipient actually placed it on the front dashboard of his parked car to see if it would work. He still got a ticket from bylaw.
“I paid it, personally,” said Watson.
During her time at Algonquin College, Jensen has kept in her office a home-made Algonquin canoe paddle that her husband made for her. It fits in nicely with the place, especially when the college's new library has a soaring, curved roof that looks like the inside of a canoe.
“I look forward to my next phase and to spending more time with my family,” Jensen said at the podium while her two wee grandchildren, ages two and five, delighted the crowd with their adorable presence that night. “At the same time, I’m incredibly sad to be leaving this wonderful college and all of my colleagues here in Ottawa, Perth and Pembroke.
“I have the best executive and leadership team I’ve ever worked with. To all of you here, I thank all of you for this privilege.
“I will miss all of you very much," she added before delivering her final thank you in three languages — English, Algonquin and French.
Jensen's contributions have also included forging partnerships with other post-secondary institutions, local businesses and institutions, and expanding the college’s academic offerings with several new programs. In addition to the DARE District, she's been instrumental in the opening of a new multi-million-dollar welding lab, the Garbarino Girard Centre for Innovation in Seniors Care, and a new digital health lab in collaboration with The Ottawa Hospital.