Christine Sobek is fascinated by the mechanisms of the mind.
What makes us individuals? What shapes our personalities? What motivates us? What drives the way we learn?
Questions like these led her to major in psychology at Purdue University, where she involved herself in campus organizations and activities and found mentors in those programs who promoted a different career path.
“They encouraged me to think about considering a path in higher education and working as a student development professional,” Sobek says, “so, with that encouragement, I went to Michigan State right after my undergraduate for my master’s in College Student Personnel.”
And so began an accomplished, celebrated and still-evolving career that eventually added an Ed.D. in Adult Continuing Education from the NIU Department of Counseling and Higher Education to Sobek’s résumé.
Her most recent milestone came July 1, when she celebrated 20 years as president of Waubonsee Community College.
Based in suburban Sugar Grove, Waubonsee and its 1,100 employees provide educational programs and services at four permanent campuses spanning the 624-square-mile college district.
Two of those campuses were built during Sobek’s presidency, as were five new buildings on the main campus (thanks to the passage of referenda in 2002 and 2003). She led the development of a 2020 College Master Plan – completed early and on budget – and has multiplied student scholarship funding by more than 300%.
Awards and accolades have come from NIU, Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, the American Association of Community Colleges, Michigan State University, Crain’s Chicago Business, the Quad County Urban League, the Business Ledger, the National Council of Marketing and Public Relations and more.
Yet her greatest statistic is the success of the 14,000 students who each year call Waubonsee home: That number is at nearly 180,000 – and counting – during her presidential tenure.
“I see how people’s lives are changed by coming here, and that was my same experience at the College of Lake County – story after story after story, no matter if it’s a returning adult or a traditional-age student,” says Sobek, who first joined Waubonsee in 1989.
“Many of our students are gifted, come here on scholarships or are gifted athletes – they all need our support or encouragement to take the next step. Many are first-generation college students who have no experience with what college means,” she adds.
“And so many of our students come here not knowing what they want to do, and they connect with a faculty member, or they connect with a counselor – and so many students have told me that, for the first time in their lives, someone has seen potential in them. Someone has seen that they can do something more. It just transforms them. And the power that has – when someone actually says they believe in you? That they see something in you? Who could get tired of that?”
Sobek’s story begins in northwest Indiana – first in Hammond, and later in neighboring Munster – where she was one of three children born to Joseph and Jean Sobek.
Joseph Sobek, the son of Slovakian immigrants who settled in Hammond, received a scholarship to play basketball at Notre Dame but interrupted his studies to serve in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He returned to South Bend after his military service, completing a degree in business and embarking on a career in sales.
Mother Jean, meanwhile, had grown up near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before attending the University of Iowa to earn a degree in psychology. However, she found a job with IBM installing payroll systems – including one at a steel mill in Hammond, Ind., where she met her future husband.
As parents, they stressed education, leading all three of their children to attend college.
For Sobek, it was only the start of following the influence of people she trusted. After listening to her mentors at Purdue, she found herself steered in another direction at graduate school.
“I had a couple of amazingly dynamic professors at Michigan State who had some experience in a comprehensive community college,” she says, “and one professor in particular really encouraged us to broaden our view of higher education and to think about working in a community college setting, which never would have occurred to me.”
Now with a goal to work in career counseling and job placement, where she could combine her loves of psychology, counseling and student development, Sobek found her dream job at the College of Lake County.
Eleven years later, she knew that her professors were right.
“I had a marvelous experience. I worked with fabulous people and fabulous students, and I really learned first-hand what community colleges were all about and their distinct role in higher education,” she says. “I could never find a job – or see a job – that looked more exciting to me than the jobs I had at the community college.”
Joining Waubonsee in 1989 as dean of students, she began the climb the ladder to roles that eventually included provost, executive vice president for Educational Affairs, assistant vice president for Instruction and assistant vice president for Student Development.
She also realized the need to earn her doctorate. In this case, however, it was a postcard that pointed the way.
“I remember vividly being in my office one day, and this flier came in the mail from NIU. It was about this cohort doctoral program that the College of Education was going to run, specifically targeted for community college leaders,” she says. “It was like it just came out of the sky onto my lap, and I was like, ‘This is me!’ It was perfect because it was really geared for working adults.”
Like many NIU College of Education graduate students, Sobek is a wife and mother.
- Her husband, Paul Anderson, recently retired from his career as a professor of engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology (and his daily commute by train from Geneva) but continues to teach part time.
- Their oldest son, Elliot Sobek Anderson, now 29, is following in his father’s footsteps as a civil engineer. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Iowa, where he expects to continue his research on water issues.
- Fraternal twins Eric and Amelia – like their brother, born during Sobek’s time as an NIU student – are now 26. Eric is an architect at Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill while Amelia is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Vermont.
NIU provided her with relevant coursework, valuable mentorship, the flexibility of weekend classes and a robust network of professional colleagues as fellow students.
She began the three-year curriculum in 1990 and, in 1996, with the guidance of now-Professor Emeritus Rick Orem, successfully defended her dissertation on the culture of community colleges.
Five years later, Sobek became Waubonsee’s fourth president.
“Clearly, I wouldn’t have been able to get this role without completing my doctorate,” she says, “and, since I graduated, NIU and the various deans, presidents and people there have always been so supportive of Waubonsee and so kind and gracious to me personally.”
Sobek is proud of articulation agreements and partnerships on grants, excited about ongoing opportunities and conversations for future collaboration and thrilled to see so many Waubonsee students complete their degrees in DeKalb: “When you’re a doctoral student,” she says, “these are the kinds of things you hope for.”
Waubonsee itself, and the community college system in general, also fit that bill.
Fueling economic development. Delivering workforce training. Providing open access to all residents while also being mindful of and accountable for student success, graduation, post-degree outcomes and greater reliance on local property tax dollars as state funding declines.
“I think community colleges are where it’s at for the future of this country,” Sobek says. “If we do our jobs well, we should be our community’s college, and the community should be looking at us first and foremost.”
To that end, the president considers herself a “chief relations officer” who works closely with elected officials, school district superintendents, chambers of commerce and other local leaders to keep them up to date with the college.
Personal relationships built on respect and trust often accomplish projects “if people want to work together and be supportive,” she adds, whereas collaborations without those ingredients tend to fail.
“The reason we’re so valuable is that we’re boots on the ground. We are embedded in our communities. We can pivot more quickly. We have the opportunity to be more flexible – to be more dynamic – and to really adjust quickly,” she adds.
“Even if students don’t end up completing their full degrees with us, we are a resource. We do dual-credit. We do outreach. We should be viewed as our community’s resource for thinking about higher education, and for thinking about training and workforce development, and I think that need is going to be even greater. The workforce has changed so dramatically as has the need to train and retrain.”
Giving every student an outstanding experience is an “amazing opportunity and responsibility,” she says.
“Our students are real people,” she says. “They live and work in our community. Their families are here. Their employers are here. They come here, for the most part, because they want a better life. They want a better future. They want a career path and, a lot of times, that career path takes them to a four-year university, which is great – it shouldn’t stop here.”
Also not stopping is Sobek’s drive to continue pushing Waubonsee on an upward trajectory.
She has spent the last year working hard with her team toward a “strong, positive, forward-thinking, smooth transition” this fall after months of COVID-impacted operations.
Meanwhile, with the endorsement of her board of trustees, she is launching this fall a review of the college’s mission statement to determine how Waubonsee “remains relevant and vibrant” and to draw a roadmap to the future.
“I think the timing is perfect,” she says. “We all have to guard against saying, ‘OK, now we’re back. Everything’s the same,’ because so many things have changed. It would be a mistake for all of us to just kind of slide back in and do exactly what we were doing before.”
There’s no chance of such stagnation for Sobek, who clearly loves the job she calls “relentless” in its demands for “balance and resilience” and laughs that it hasn’t gotten easier despite her growing experience in the role.
Key to that is Waubonsee’s employees, who are accustomed to personal messages from their president when they celebrate work anniversaries or receive awards and honors: “I want people to know as their president that I see them. I see their contributions. I see their work. I value them as individuals,” she says.
“Over the years, I have met one-on-one with every single new full-time employee who has joined the college since I became president. I’ve not missed one,” she adds. “Why do I do that? Because I just feel like, as president, I want every person who comes to work here to know that I’m happy they’re coming to work here and that I love to hear their stories about why they’re coming to work at Waubonsee.”
And, despite all the new construction, the new campuses and the visionary 2020 blueprint that made it all possible, Sobek hopes that Waubonsee will remember her for how she led rather than what she has accomplished.
“You can build all these buildings – and that’s great, right, because our facilities are fabulous. Our master plan was such a big deal; it transformed us. I’m very proud of that, and I’ll be remembered for that probably more than anything,” she says.
“But at the end of the day, for me, it’s more about how I made people feel, and that gets back to my love of psychology and connections,” she adds. “For people to feel affirmed and valued is, I think, really critical, and I think that everybody is sort of yearning for that – to feel seen and heard and to feel valued. I hope that’s my legacy.”