HESSTON — Hesston College spent more than a year searching for its ninth president — Dr. Joseph Manickam — and found him in the school's alumni base. He graduated from Hesston College 30 years ago.
However, one could argue that the search for Manickam is actually decades old. When he took the office of president July 1, he became the first person of color to become president of Hesston College. He also became the first international citizen to take the office of president at the school, which was founded in 1908.
"It says a lot about the direction the college wants to go," Manickam said Friday morning.
But there is a bigger story there as well. He may be the ninth president of the college and the first to have an international birthright for a college that currently boasts enrollment from 18 different nations.
He is, he believes, also the first person of color to take the role of president at a Mennonite Church USA college in the United States. There are several colleges associated with the Mennonite Church including Bethel in North Newton, Goshen in Goshen, Indiana, Bluffton in Bluffton, Ohio, Eastern Mennonite in Harrisonburg, Virginia and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
In that context, Manickam is a pioneer. It is something not lost on him. As the son of a couple from India born in Thailand, he has lived his life as the citizen of multiple nations. He has held passports from Thailand, India and now the United States.
"Think of the citizenship you hold today, and the power that comes with it," Manickam said.
He has witnessed, and in many ways suffered, from the different ways people are treated based on citizenship. He can tell stories of his family being separated — his wife and children with U.S. passports and he with one from India — at customs. The "straw that broke the camel's back" was the day that his family was told to get on a plane, and to leave him behind.
Manickam comes with a strong knowledge of Hesston College and the broader community, as he is a 1987 Hesston College alumnus and served five years as associate director of admissions.
John Sheriff, president of Bethel College, listened to Manickam speak Friday at a joint breakfast of the Hesston and Newton Area Chamber of Commerces. Manickam spoke openly about his choice of citizenship — and his becoming the first person of color to lead a Mennonite Church USA college.
Sheriff affirmed he believed that Manickam was accurate in his assessment — and spoke to his own frustration when it comes to recruiting people of color to take leadership at those colleges.
"it is very difficult to recruit," Sheriff said. "We have a lot of desire to do so. We have put in place recruiting rules that require us to try for every position, but our record looks terrible for our whole denomination."
He told The Kansan that needs to change — and he believes it will. Not only are there concerted efforts to make that change, but demographic changes in the student population at the colleges will, he believes, over time help make that change.
"Mennonites have not been producing a lot of black or Latino graduates," Sheriff said. "We have more now. The percentage of students other than Caucasians at many of our colleges has been reaching 50/50, and there will be more graduates."
Sheriff told The Kansan of his current struggle at Bethel — Aaron Austin, a popular vice president of the school and person of color, stepped down in August.
"I was on the phone yesterday trying to recruit a black woman to be our next vice president, and she is a Bethel alumnus," Sheriff said. "Could I get her? No. I have four applicants, white men. Will we get a person of color to replace Aaron? Probably not."
But just down the road at sister college Hesston, there is a beacon of hope — a president who is well traveled and well versed in not only the challenge — but the history of the institution.
It is Manickam who points out that the first person of color to attend Hesston enrolled in 1942, and the first international student in 1946. Friday he pointed to the 18 different flags in the cafeteria representing the nations of students enrolled at the college. He also pointed to a statistic — one in eight students on campus this year are international.
And the number of people of color on the campus has risen over time as well.
"As I sit here, one month into my presidency, I must confess that there are many days that I am sitting up in the clouds and not knowing where I am floating while being held up by sisters and brothers on this campus," Manickam said. "But what I do know is this: the things that are happening on this campus have the possibility to change the world."