Cheryl Jensen’s path to the president’s office of Ottawa’s Algonquin College

Cheryl Jensen
Cheryl Jensen

With a degree in chemistry and a certification in metallurgy, Cheryl Jensen – the first-ever female president of Algonquin College –  took the path less travelled, at least for women, early on.

“I always loved school,” she says. “I loved science and music. In fact I thought I might become a music teacher,” she adds.
As a student Ms. Jensen assumed the “system” would help her, but in the end it was a grade 9 teacher who told her to keep her options open and pursue an education in both her fields of interest.

Upon graduation, it came down to two post-secondary options: music or science. The latter won.

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“I chose science and chemistry,” Ms. Jensen says. “I liked applied chemistry, and chose that path.”

While at university, employers came to interview students. Ms. Jensen was offered a job on the spot as a product developer for Procter & Gamble. The work was interesting and the pay was significant. But after two years, she moved on.

“I didn’t know if making a good shampoo was what I wanted to be known for,” Ms. Jensen says.
Her next move took her to the Stelco Steel Mill.

“I love heavy manufacturing,” she says. “I love the machinery, the size, the idea of making something.”

She loved it so much that she took a certificate of metallurgy, which is essentially the science of metals. The process involved in taking ore and making carbon and steel, or adding nickel to make stainless steel.

A layoff in Stelco lead Ms. Jensen back to her first love: teaching.

“Mohawk College needed someone to train Libyan men on the steel industry,” she recalls. “This was much harder on them (to have a woman instructor) than me,” she adds with a laugh.

During her time at Mohawk College, the dean – a man she looked up to and feared at the same time – informed her that a position in electro-technology was available. And he was looking at her to fill the position.

“(Dean Hans Bastel) was my mentor,” Ms. Jensen says. “He empowered me to believe I could do anything.” She credits getting her confidence from him.
This led to a chair position and, once the dean left, an appointment as the dean of technology and trades and eventually vice-president of technology, apprenticeship and corporate training. She later became academic vice-president.

The move to Ottawa

In 2014, Algonquin College was looking for a new president. It was a perfect fit for Ms. Jensen, and the opportunity came at the right time. Her husband was retired, her children were grown and Ms. Jensen loved trying new things.

She became the school’s first female president and the eighth person to hold the role in 50 years.

“Everyone looks to Algonquin for what’s next in post-secondary education,” she says.

Engagement of students and the community is a key mandate for ms. Jensen. She conducted a school tour upon her arrival at Algonquin, asking everyone – including students, faculty and other stakeholders – what needs to be improved. These results have informed her and her mandate for the future.

“My purpose is to make a difference in the students and employees lives. I want to leave Algonquin a little bit better than when I came,” she says.
In her free time, Ms. Jensen loves spending time with family, including her husband, her three children and her grandchild. She has been an avid runner and loves to spend time outdoors, including camping.

On her role in traditionally male dominated fields, Ms. Jensen says it can be lonely and she was often the only woman in the room.

“I had to be comfortable with that and learn to speak my mind,” she advises. She was always well prepared and fact-based in her meetings and interactions with colleagues and industry. “Be confident and know your stuff. Show people you know what you can do,” she says.

Fenix Solutions CEO Jennifer MacKinnon writes a column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.

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