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In the C-Suite: DCAD President Jean Dahlgren

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Delaware College of Art and Design Jean Dahlgren DCAD

Jean Dahlgren is the third president, and first woman, to lead the Delaware College of Art & Design. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DCAD

WILMINGTON – It probably comes as little surprise that Jean Dahlgren grew up with a passion for art.

Growing up in upstate New York, the president of Delaware College of Art & Design (DCAD) in Wilmington watched her mother express herself through art. Partially paralyzed from polio, her mother learned to draw and went to college on a full scholarship for drawing. She would later teach college art classes.

“There’s something in the DNA that I think inclines you to this [profession], whether or not you have someone to look up to as a mentor. I definitely had the family encouragement, but I also could have looked to my father and been an attorney,” Dahlgren said with a laugh.

An introverted child, Dahlgren found comfort and identity in art, becoming proficient in drawing and painting.

She attended the State University of New York Oswego and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. It was a conversation with a mentoring professor there that perhaps unknowingly changed her career trajectory.

“He was standing in the corner of the room smoking a cigarette, and I went up to him and asked, ‘What do you think I should do after graduation?’ He just took a really long drag of the cigarette and he said, ‘I have no idea,’” she recalled. “This random comment really kind of lit my quest to figure out how to never have that answer come out of another art instructor’s mouth.”

Upon graduation, she worked for a short time as a technical illustrator for an engineering firm, finding it wasn’t creative enough. Dahlgren earned a master’s degree and then went to work for a marketing firm in Lake Placid, N.Y., where she learned graphic design.

“I realized that was exactly what I should be doing because it was problem solving and working with people, both which I loved,” she said.

Her work earned her a job as an art director for a boutique marketing firm in Albany, but she found her longtime career path in higher education when she joined the faculty of Sage College of Albany, teaching graphic design. Dahlgren would stay at Sage College – today known as Russell Sage College – for about 30 years, rising to dean.

In many ways, she was successful as a teacher because she never stopped being a student too.

“I started my teaching career at the beginning of the digital age, so I was responsible for bringing in our first Macintosh computer lab. I was learning software programs like Photoshop while the student was getting ready. We were all just at the same place,” she recalled. “I always pictured professors having this incredible depth of knowledge, so much faster than the students, and that’s not true. The good professors are ones who are as curious as the students and can lead them through their curiosity.

Seeking a new dean in 2016, the provost of Sage College paid a visit to the office of Dahlgren, who was then a department chair. Over the course of a two-hour discussion, Dahlgren was convinced to take the job that would advocate for all of Sage’s faculty, ranging from the arts to nursing.

“[My provost] recognized things in myself that I hadn’t I hadn’t seen or even had any hadn’t looked at and probably would not have looked at,” she said. “It was intimidating and a little frightening, but also one of the most interesting jobs that I’ve had because I had to learn how to be a leader for all of the programs that I represented.”

Two years later, a colleague sent her the ad for DCAD’s open president position, and she initially laughed it off. Only after taking a second look later on did Dahlgren see how the role suited her skills. She applied, and weeks later found herself visiting the small arts college more than five hours from home.

“The turning point for me in that process was coming down here, meeting everybody at DCAD, seeing the school and hearing about where they wanted to go. And I was sucked in immediately,” she said.

Only the third president in DCAD’s short history and its first woman, Dahlgren sought to leave her mark on the college by changing the narrative around arts as a career path.

This academic year, DCAD launched a new major in game art and expanded its photography major to also include video. The college has also already begun rolling out non-degree programs to help advance things like product design, with more planned.

Later this year, DCAD will unveil a new strategic plan, part of which focuses on the intersection of the arts and local industries like financial services and technology, Dahlgren said.

“I really understood the need for people to stop talking about starving artists and start talking about what artists and designers do for this country,” she said.

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