Q&A with Dr. Ann Rondeau
Meet the former Navy admiral now at the helm at College of DuPage
Pursuing a lifeTIME dedicated to service, Dr. Ann Rondeau moved to Wheaton two years ago to take up her next adventure — serving as the sixth President of College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. No stranger to challenge, Dr. Rondeau retired from the U.S. Navy in 2012 as a three-star admiral, the second woman to have achieved this rank. She gained extensive leadership experience in military roles, including Pentagon Director/Chief of Staff for the U.S. Navy Staff, Commander of the Navy Personnel Development Command in Virginia, and President of the National Defense University. A graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a masters from Georgetown University, Dr. Rondeau also served as a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration.
Let’s begin by telling our readers a little about your background.
I grew up in the Hudson Valley of New York State in the small town of Beacon,along the Hudson River and in the foothills of the Appalachians. It was a beautiful area. My sister and I were very close and knew the love of parents and friends. While growing up, my parents each had health challenges, and financial challenges were always present. But our parents were purposeful and focused toward ensuring that my sister and I were given every advantage they could muster. I was aware then, and even more acutely over time, that those health and financial challenges made my sister and I more mature and aware early on in our lives.
What kind of student were you?
I was a good student and an engaged kid with lots of interests. I enjoyed family, friends, church, the outdoors — hiking, walking, bicycling. This was before Title IX, so there were no girls’/women’s sports or athletic opportunities unless you attended private school. I was also a natural and comfortable leader and was active in church, school and the community as a visible student leader in all kinds of activities, endeavors and projects. Even as a young kid, I liked being part of a team effort toward purpose. Ironically, I always had a slight stammer, but with that realization I joined the school Forensics Club and volunteered for speaking opportunities. I was encouraged to have a voice and worked on how to present ideas and compel others toward belief and action.
What made you choose the military and why specifically the Navy?
I had been successful in college and accepted to graduate school. But with no financial aid, I could not afford grad school. Nationally, we were in a recession and job prospects for someone entering the workforce at that time were meager. My sister was pursuing her nursing degree on a full-ride Navy scholarship and suggested I think about the Navy. I did extremely well on the Navy’s aptitude exam and when I met the recruiter, I was impressed with her answer to my question, “Why should I join the Navy?” Her answer: “You will have the opportunity to lead from the very first day you join.” That was good enough for me.
Was it difficult navigating in such a male dominant culture?
Whenever you enter a competitive workplace, especially for any younger cadre, you must learn to work within that environment. Yes, there was competition and some people sought advantage. However, in the Navy, there is also comradeship and an obligation toward each other’s success. The military “grows their own.” You are always training the person who will relieve you, and the commitment toward mission success engenders an obligation to help others succeed. Did I experience rough spots? Yes. Was I stronger for understanding my missteps and seeking to perform at the highest level? Yes. I often quip that I had the benefit of more mentors than tormentors. I worked hard and I had the deep satisfaction of performing at high levels. The fact that I was able to compete, including being a White House Fellow, is as much about effectively working hard as it is about having mentors and people who were present and serving as support.
How did the Navy shape you as a person and as a leader?
I had a wide-ranging career in the Navy that covered the waterfront: tactics, operations, strategy, analysis, policy, business and working with local, state, federal and foreign government entities. Of course, at every juncture there was always an opportunity to lead, whether as an operational leader, team leader, mission leader or thought leader. There was great satisfaction in getting things done.
There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that gives me as much joy, mindfulness and gratitude as the privilege of leading others to succeed and win. Being trusted, being given loyalty and good faith, being given the gifts of others’ talents toward common purpose — well, there are few experiences in my life as eye-watering for me as being a part of something greater than yourself. From that, one of my leadership principles is “covenant leadership”— accounting for myself while obligating myself to others. Accountability is liberating; obligation is gratifying. Frankly, I owe much of this philosophy to my faith and it reflects the example set by my parents and my sister.
What is it about College of DuPage that made the job of president interesting to you?
This opportunity and privilege of service is a calling. Frankly, I was meant to be here. The mission is terrific and so important to our region, state, nation and the world. The collective genius of our people is so energizing and our students — our students — give us a deep sense of purpose.
The college had a few challenging years prior to your arrival. What steps did you take to calm the waters?
Trust. Trust. Trust. Being trustworthy. Being willing to take risks based on trust. Trust is paradoxically tempered and strong as well as fragile. Trust and trustworthiness are the precious metal of team and organizational health and success. Along with that, it helps to have a bit of humor and mirth and the ability to laugh and breathe easily. From there we learn good things while building energy and capacity toward our promise to each other, the public and our students.
In the wake of yet another school shooting this past month, what are your thoughts about why this kind of violence continues to happen, what can be done to stop incidents like these?
First of all, we should all be mindful of the agony of the families affected by this latest tragedy. There is such heartbreak in our country — too much heartbreak of this kind over too many years. This is a huge question and one that obviously requires the applied expertise of many. There are no easy answers. However, the tone of our national conversation could benefit from less amplitude and volume and more attitude and focus about collaboratively addressing what makes for a healthy civil society. We, as a nation, have a remarkable history of solving problems once we agree on core objectives and principles. We need to all work together in order for the nation to reach that place.
How did you end up choosing to live in Wheaton? What do you like about it?
I knew about Wheaton from a former aide-de-camp who attended Wheaton College. The city is close to our campus and has excellent options for renting a quality apartment. I live downtown and get to hear every train and witness the vibrancy of American commerce pass by my window over 70 times a day! I can walk to Maxi dry cleaners, Mariano’s, a host of very good restaurants, clothes shops, Prairie Path Books and my church. Shops, shoe repair, bakeries, restaurants — all of the people of Wheaton exude warmth and offer a smile.
Have you had opportunities to see much of the neighboring areas?
My apartment is a short drive from south Wheaton and there are a host of services and shops in the Danada area. I’ve also joined Morton Arboretum in Lisle and have enjoyed its offerings — from educational opportunities to hiking and bicycling. Wheaton’s ambitious plan for redeveloping downtown is an investment in its future and is uplifting as I watch the transformation of the city into an even more attractive place to live and work. This winter, I also witnessed some of the best snow-clearing techniques I have ever seen — and I have lived in many areas with lots of snow!
Four words that best describe you.
Earnest, trustworthy, grateful and a problem-solver.
Books likely to be found on your night stand.
History of all kinds: history of science and mathematics, political, social development, military, national, art — I learn from history.
If you hadn’t joined the Navy, what career do you think you would have pursued?
Corporate or labor lawyer; history or theology scholar; pilot; civil engineer.
You’ve traveled the world — what was the best place to see?
Many favorite places, but the most exotic to date has been Antarctica.
Hobbies or interests when not working?
Family, reading, walking/hiking, white water rafting; good food/dining with excellent conversation. Thoughtful eye-to-eye conversation is really important.
Favorite quote or words of wisdom to live by?
I have always liked “The truth shall set you free.”