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September 7, 2017 The Hesston RecordSeptember 7, 2017 The Hesston Record

Hesston College Student Returns As 9th President

Posted 8/16/2017

By JACQUELYN NELSON

HESSTON RECORD STAFFDR. JOSEPH A. Manickam graduated from the automotive
program more than two decades ago and is returning
as the ninth president.DR. JOSEPH A. Manickam graduated from the automotive program more than two decades ago and is returning as the ninth president.

This weekend, Dr. Joseph A. Manickam will, for his first time, hoist the Hesston College Mod Olympics Torch for the fist time as the ninth president of the college.

Manickam, who was a graduate of Hesston College, said he was introduced to the college simply because “Hesston gave me the best scholarship. That was the only reason and it turned out to be a very positive decision,” he said.

While at Hesston College, Manickam was drawn to the strong sense of community and his earliest introduction to Mennonites - particularly Phil Zaer and his wife, Deborah.

“He never really talked about faith, but I saw the connection between what was being taught in my Bible classes and the life Phil and his wife were living.  These two people, I would put them pretty high on my list of people that helped shape me and released me into the world,” he said. 

Manickam earned a degree as an automotive technician and then took a job with Mercedes Benz in Wichita.

“I found I had a restlessness. I love working on cars. I’m a tinkerer.  I do all the work on my own vehicles. But I realized I needed a job that was more people-oriented,” he said. Manickam embarked on what would become the first of many international journeys.

“I went to Germany for a year on a Mennonite Exchange. It was quite informative in terms of my faith and theological formation,” he said.

Following his year-long stay in Germany, Manickam returned to the United States and earned his bachelor’s degree from Goshen College, Indiana.

Manickam returned to Hesston College in the 1990s and worked in the recruiting office, encouraging other young adults to choose to begin their journey to adulthood at Hesston.

“I had gone out, I had a little more experience and some travels, and I was able to bring that back to Hesston College to share with others,” he said.

However, in 1996, Manickam said his greatest and most profound journey was about to begin. He and his wife moved to Southern California and spent nine years in the Pasadena area. 

“I became involved with a small non-profit, the Center for Anabaptist Leadership - CAL. It was probably the most jarring time of my life in terms of faith formation and really equipping me to move on to do what I did,” he said

CAL focused on working with churches and engaging their communities.

“I was surrounded by Mennonites that were born into the church. I was there but on th margins. I was an outsider, especially as an international person and a person of color. 

“The ‘ah-ha’ really came during the years in LA. In this vibrant area that’s very pluralist, there were these groups of Christians who call themselves Mennonites and came to faith as adults and are trying to live a life for God in this particular way. Now I’ve found my place,” he said.

Manickam went on to serve in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, working closely with communities in Asia and traveling overseas several times per year. 

“Those years too my faith formation to the next level - faith formation at a global leve and looking at inter-faith engagement, which today remains one of the things I am most passionate about,” he said.

Finally, he and his family moved to Manickam’s nation of birth, Thiland.

“What was good about returning, it gave me wife and children the chance to get to know part of my life and my formative years,” he said.

Returning to Hesston College, and the United States, has marked another major changes for the Manickam family. Since Manickam’s graduation and then employment, many changes have happened at Hesston College, however the foundations are still in place.

“One of the things that is so obvious that hasn’t changed is the tightness of the community and the openness.

“My days in the ‘80s, there’s a small handful of faculty still here and staff still here. And I’ve been warmly welcomed by those familiar faces.  From the ‘90s, a larger group is still here, but the other whole group I haven’t met yet. There’s a caring community that has continued and I still see that here and my hope is we never lose that,” he said.

As the new leader of the college, Manickam said his style is to “lead from the center” and to engage people with areas of expertise to move the college forward.

“I have very little need to be up front. The VPs are my intimate circle. I’m not the expert, but I bring an expertise to the table.  Each one of them bring an expertise and it gets shared. It’s in that collective we lead together,” he said.

Manickam added he has been pleased to see many people coming into his office with everything from concerns to prayers and well-wishes.

“I feel very empowered in this type of place. People trust me because they’re willing to come and engage with me. People are not afraid of this office,” he said.

However, one of the greatest challenges in his first weeks as president, Manickam said, would be simply staying in his office and completing paperwork.

“Nailing me down to the desk will be a challenge.  I want to connect with faculty and staff and sitting in a class or two, eating in the cafeteria.  I want to meet people, because that’s what makes us who we are - not the buildings or the trees - it’s the people,” he said.

While Manickam said assuming the roll of president is about engaging the campus as a whole, he takes his role very seriously and comes into the office with a deep feeling of respect.

“I’m not Howard. I don’t speak or think or act like Howard. I don’t work like Howard. I don’t know the issues or have the depth of relationships like Howard. But I’ve inherited this beautiful mantel Howard has passed on to me. And I treat it with much respect and I am very careful and committed to being careful about how I use that mantel and how I wear that mantel and how it is displayed,” he said.

However Manickam said he, as a man, is much more than the ninth president of Hesston College.

With a wife and two children, he is a father and avid automotive enthusiast.

“I hope people see me also as a father and a husband and someone that loves to ride motorbikes and bikes,” he said.

Manickam’s eldest, daughter Faith, will be attending Hesston College and moving into the dorms this weekend.

“We are making many adjustments as a family. My son will be in 10th grade at Hesston High. My daughter is moving out of the house. We need to put down roots, but we aren’t sure what that is going to look like yet. We have to adjust to what life will be like for the three of us in the house instead of the four of us. We’re in a discovery process here,” he said.

Manickam said one of the greatest discovers for he and his son has been Dan’s Cycle.

“It’s a second home. We go there and our guards come down and we just salivate over the bikes,” he said.

Manickam has the added benefit during this time of adjustment for his family, of having a support network of family.

“It is the first time my children have lived this close to biological family. Wanda’s sister, her parents live in Yoder. My sister is in Wichita. The proximity to family, that’s the first time we have had family this close and it’s a very good thing,” he said.

Manickam said has he comes into his own during his presidency at Hesston College, he will be encouraging students and staff to push out of their comfort zones. 

“Dare to meet someone who is not like yourself because fear is what drives us toward violence and we must, must, must face our fears head on and overcome our fears. The way to do that is to be curious. Curiosity mitigates fear. Get curious! Because out of curiosity comes creativity and creativity is the opposite of fear that drives violence,” he said.