Up Close & Personal
Past, present & future…
Joseph Gagnon, the new president of Penn Foster in Scranton, is bringing a global perspective to the first and largest distance education school in the world. Gagnon grew up in the Bronx, attended high school and college in New York, and worked in New York City for most of his career. Most recently, he was president of e-Dialogue, a leading, multi-channel digital marketing organization owned by eBay. He also served as CEO of Exit41, a consumer-focused online services company; as global retail leader for IBM; and as a partner at Ernst & Young LLP. Today, he is focusing on the future of Penn Foster and becoming more involved in the greater Scranton community. Next month, he welcomes everyone in the community to view an installment at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum honoring the history of ICS (now Penn Foster), and you can expect to see Penn Foster support the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority bike tour, host a 5K run and implement major changes to its building on Oak Street, including efforts to “go green.” An avid runner, he’s currently training for his fourth triathlon. Meet Joseph Gagnon . . .
We hear you did quite a bit of traveling before making your way to Scranton.
Since 1985 I traveled an average of 200 days a year, so I know the world and I know the country. I’ve been in all 50 states and in 25 different countries and I have a respect for everyone and their communities and what they bring to the world because I’ve seen it. There isn’t just one model. We’re all slightly different and it’s fun. So I’ve kept my family in one place and I’ve worked in other places. That’s been the model. Instead of moving all over, I’ve moved and they’ve stayed stable. That way I’m still married for 25 years and I have two girls in college and they’re highly productive members of society as a result, because they’re highly independent. The other day I was in Scranton, one daughter was in St. Louis, one was in Panama, and my wife was in Paris. That’s how we live. We don’t have a dependency, we have a strong connection.
Is there any place you visited that you’d really like to visit again?
We took the kids to all 50 states and they’re always asked which was their favorite state…in the U.S., my favorite place is Boulder, Colo., because of the outdoor lifestyle, which is really my lifestyle. It has that great blend of university and outdoors. I think that’s fabulous. Outside the U.S., it’s so different … I lived in Amsterdam for four months, which isn’t long, but I loved the Dutch culture. They’re highly analytical and very friendly and I thought that was cool. And I loved Australia – the friendliness of the Australians was really amazing. In a day, you have friends for a lifetime.
And now you’re in Scranton. What are some of the ways you’re helping Penn Foster to become more involved in the community?
We’re going to adopt part of the new Lackawanna Heritage Trail and we’ll invest some money to build a façade with a place to sit with a sign that says “sponsored by Penn Foster” because there has to be a pride in the community in addition to family pride. An example is the Anthracite Heritage Museum. We can have a company meeting with 500 people and I can sort of poke fun and ask people, “When was the last time you were there, when you were 7? When did you go on the Coal Mine Tour?” Because we’ve sort of forgotten how important we are to the history of this country in Scranton, and we should be proud of it. If we go into Lexington where the shot was heard around the world, everyone feels strongly about patriotism…and Scranton could take as much credit as any city because of coal and how it fueled the U.S.
The Anthracite Heritage Museum is where the Penn Foster exhibit is about to open, and it’s a great place.
You walk through the museum, and you walk through history, and you see everything from the picture of the canary in the coal mine to understanding how the generation of energy around the country started here with the domination of a global supply of anthracite. People (think) “that was yesterday,” but I think it’s part of why you should feel proud of what you’re going to go off and do and take energy from that. A family of risk takers should take risks, not avoid it.
Let’s talk about that connection between Penn Foster and coal mining.
What’s fascinating is this company is here as a result of the coal miners. Thomas Foster (a publisher who founded the company in 1890) had a terrible mining accident and the governor said can you create some kind of correspondence about mine safety? From that need for information, the International Correspondence School (ICS) was formed and it played a major role in the country throughout the years. It educated leading Fortune 500 CEOs, and presidents, because it was a form of learning that fit within the demands of the time. At the time, everyone couldn’t get to a program and correspondence was a good way to learn. Fast forward to today, you have the time-starved consumer, and you have people who can’t use formal education as a way to advance themselves in their lives. So Penn Foster now is a distance-learning company using the online environment, using remote learning, to fit a curriculum into your life. And I think that’s a critical element of how are we going to advance from 2012 forward.
What can we expect to see in this exhibit?
Penn Foster has donated its memorabilia and its history since it’s been around for almost 120 years. We have a diploma from 1903. We have a visual, pictorial history of the company as it evolved from ICS to the modern day. We have artifacts of what it meant to be a correspondence student, so you’ll see documents that were there, and then there will be technology to show what Penn Foster is becoming – the online world and some text books. You’ll see how it all started. And what’s interesting is as you walk around the museum and you see this exhibit, you see a parallel of activity between how coal mining started and how Penn Foster started, and how they both evolved in parallel to the modern day where I think we are both at a turning point.
— julie imel
A new installment honoring the history of the International Correspondence School will open at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum (located in McDade Park, Scranton) on May 3. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For more information about the museum, call 963-4804 or visit www.anthracitemuseum.org. To learn more about Penn Foster, located at 925 Oak St., Scranton, visit www.pennfoster.edu.