President Jones says goodbye to Cal U after 46 years

Jones reflects on her time at Cal U before retiring January 29 

California University of Pennsylvania


Jeff Helsel

University President Geraldine M. Jones addresses graduates at California University of Pennsylvania’s 183rd Undergraduate Commencement ceremony, Convocation Center, Dec. 17, 2016.

Kaitlyn Collins and Hannah Wyman

When asked by the Dean of Students to participate in the 1970 Miss California State College Pennsylvania pageant hosted at school, Geraldine Jones thought ‘why not?’ and agreed. Even as a college student, Jones knew that what California University of Pennsylvania, what used to be California State College, was a hotspot for opportunities and new experiences. 

“I’ve always been open to opportunities and I don’t say no often,” Jones remembers five decades later. “I saw [the pageant] as something new and I choose to do it.” 

Saying yes to the pageant paid off especially after winning and moving on to the state capital pageant where she was crowned runner up and got to boast the title of preliminary talent winner 

In her last year as president before retirement, after 46 years in various leadership positions and both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education, Jones is the quintessential example of what happens when the opportunities at Cal U are taken with zeal. 


Mr. And Mrs. Jones 

“California, for me, has always been a place of opportunity and wonderful opportunities awaited me here, Jones said. More than education, Jones’ marriage came to fruition during her first year at Cal U 

Jones and her husband have been married for 46 years, with their marriage beginning the same year she started her career at Cal U.  

Initially, Jefferey Jones first met his wife around age 5 at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal church in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Their families became close, which caused him, and Jones to run into each other at family gatherings. Growing up together Jeff said he first realized he was interested in going on a date with her in seventh grade.  

“I was in Brownsville looking at their basketball team because we were competing against them in the coming week,” he said. “I ran into Gerri there, and we sat down and had a wonderful talk for about three hours. Then, I realized she was important, and so much so that I didn’t even make it to the basketball game. We did win though.”  


In the Beginning 

Reigning from Brownsville, Pennsylvania, Jones said choosing to attend Cal U was “an obvious choice” as several cousins and family members attended had already obtained degrees from “Harvard on the Mon.” 

“Cal was one of the best decisions I could have made,” she said“California is just a wonderful place of opportunity and a wonderful place for students to become who they are.”  

Like many new college students, Jones arrived at campus in 1968 not knowing many individuals. 

“During my first semester I didn’t know many people, and it felt a little lonely and different,” Jones said. “After that semester things changed, and I began to blossom as a student here at the university.” 

Through experiences like joining a sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and participating in Miss Pennsylvania, Jones was able to see and take advantage of all that Cal U had to offer. 

One of Jeff’s fondest memories during their college experience first took place at a party with their friends in 1971.  

“I mustered enough gumption to ask her if she wanted to go out and see Smokey Robinson in concert,” he said. “I think that kind of kicked it off for us.” 


Back to School 

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1972, Jones taught as a second-grade teacher at Albert Gallatin School District. According to Jones, she loved the experience, especially because her favorite teacher as a student was her second-grade teacher. Even more so, Jones felt prepared for the job, “our faculty, our professors prepared you for all kinds of opportunities and experiences.” 

Yet, she could not seem to stay away from her alma mater and returned to campus two years later after accepting a job as a counselor for Special Programs, now known as the Upward Bound program, a college access program.  

“I was offered the position, and it was just a few weeks before the school year was about to start. I had to call the superintendent [of Albert Gallatin School District] and ask if I could be released from my contract,” Jones said. “He was very accommodating, and he even made the comment that there was not a school board meeting for the next month, so if I took this job and decided that I didn’t like it my job would be there waiting for me. A few weeks later I called him and said, ‘this is the position I really like, and I’m going to stay here.’” 

Despite leaving her full-time teaching position for a temporary faculty position with no pay for the first two months, Jones said she loved being back at Cal saying it was another one of “the best decisions I have made.” 

“I was young enough and willing to take that risk, that gamble,” she said.  

And that gamble paid off as she eventually became the program director for 20 years and served as the chair of the Department of Academic Development Services for 11 years. In this position, Jones said she worked with first-generation college students to meet their goals, something she truly enjoyed. 

“I still keep in contact with some of those students,” she said. “Some of those students are now doctors, a few of them are gynecologists or attorneys or teachers or they went into the military and made careers. So, to have had that opportunity to work with those young people… that will always have a special place in my heart, to see the wonderful things to have happened in that role.”  


Leadership & Inclusivity  

She also cited this role as giving her the foundation “to serve and act as a mentor to individuals which largely prepared her for when she stepped into future leadership positions. 

“[I] was always open to different opportunities and wanting to do things with the university and the next thing I knew, I was asked to move into the College of Education [and Human Services] as an interim associate dean,” Jones recalled.  

“I’ve always been student-focused but now, after working with students, was in a college that would produce teachers so that was very rewarding as well. 

She eventually served as associate dean fotwo years before becoming the college dean from 2000-2008. During the summer of 2008, Jones became the provost and vice president for academic affairs. 

“When I was in these roles you started to see more women moving into the leadership roles as department chairs,” she said which was an encouraging changed compared to the handful of women and minorities employed by the university at the start of her career“As provost, having more women and people of color become department chairs, that was exciting for me.” 

In 2012, she was appointed as the president of the university, a job she said she has greatly enjoyed largely due to the students   

One of her favorite things she accomplished during her time as president is putting together her cabinet which is full of women and people of color.  

Jones said it has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Cal U’s seventh president, being the first woman and person of color to be in this role. 

“I’m very proud to be in this role because it is very special to me. More importantly, it’s what it means for all women and people of color to have me in this role,” Jones said. “I always said when coming into this role, ‘I’ll know if I’ve been successful in one way if another woman or person of color is hired into this role after me.’ Being the first, you don’t want to be the last.” 

She also enjoyed having the opportunity to hire new faculty members and athletic coaches to complement the existing ones. She established the first doctoral degree programs at Cal U, the mechatronics engineering program, the veterinary technician program and the Center for Undergraduate Research.  

“Gerri was always focused on one thing, and one thing only,” said Jeff. When she taught second grade she was always concerned about the education, wellbeing and health of her students. It’s the same here at CalHer mantra was always ‘If I do what’s best for the students, how could I go wrong?’ That’s always been the way she’s driven her career.” 


The Jones Presidency 

Bruce Barnhart, former provost, and senior vice president for academic affairs still remembers the day he learned that Jones would become the next president of Cal U while they were in a meeting together. 

“I remember she got a call from Harrisburg and she went in her office to take the call. When she came out, she had announced that she had been told that she was the president,” he said. “One minute she was the provost, and the next minute she was the president.”  

Barnhart said she took over during a really difficult time for Cal U but was able to put everything back on the right track. 

“She’s been president during some of the most difficult times in history for higher education,” he said. “She met every challenge head-on, and she did everything with gracefulness that can’t be duplicated.” 

Jones said she never imagined herself being Cal U’s president during a pandemic that would cause Cal U to operate remotely and struggle financially as a result.  

One of these problems included the idea of the retrenchment of faculty members that was supposed to help keep the university financially sustainable. The university rescinded this action in late October, allowing permanent faculty members to keep their jobs and created a plan where some faculty members will be working in additional departments.  


Memorable Moments 

According to Jones, a memorable moment during her presidency was cheering on the women’s basketball team with her husband as the team won their second national championship. The couple attended every game. She said she also enjoyed singing a solo backed up by the Cal U choir, cheering on the football team and feeling energized by the band’s performances at halftime. 

Commencement is what Jones will miss the most after retirement. She said she loves seeing students receiving their degrees they have earned, “having their dream fulfilled. That is just something that never leaves you.” 

“You’re standing there, and you get to see every graduate walking across that stage and seeing their family members out there. I have so much fun… getting to have a few seconds with each student,” she said. “When I have that opportunity to give my remarks to that graduating class out there, it’s so exciting because you’re close enough to look into their faces and see how excited they are to be moving into the next phase.” 

“If their family or loved ones have been yelling out, I say, ‘you told them not to do that, but I’m so glad they didn’t listen,’” she said. “I love that. I love the energy in the room during that special time.” 


Change is Good 

It’s no question that 2020 has brought an abundance of shifts to all walks of life. For Cal U, this means online learning, a proposed integration with Edinboro University and Clarion University and an unknowable future. But Jones is confident in the university after her departure. She maintains that change is good. 

“We have to have change and change is always going to be with us,” she said. This university has been here for 168 years. A lot of change has taken place over that time... one thing that continues is that a great education is going to be provided here and most importantly, we’re making experiences better for the students who are coming to this university. We’re just beginning.” 

Jeff said he feels his wife has done extremely well at leading the university during this difficult time.   

“Gerri’s adaptability to change has always been really easy and comfortable for her,” he said. “I think she’s doing an excellent job.” 

Jones said that she welcomes these revisions and is looking forward to visiting Cal U to see the good things that will result of it... We’re telling our story proudly and boldly and now we’re starting another great chapter. 

“California is a place of opportunity and I’ve experienced it,” Jones said. “I always say Cal U changes lives and it truly changed mine. 


AC, After Cal  

Unsurprisingly, Jones’s immediate plan following retirement is to catch up on sleep. But she is most looking forward to spending time with her family, specifically her husband and their three grandchildren.  

She is also excited to have more time to play the piano, catch up on reading and do some extended traveling. Currently, Jones is preparing to move out of her campus home.  

“We’re going to move from here, but we’ll be close enough that we can come back and visit campus,” she said. “I’m leaving here while I love what I do, but it is now my time. I love this university, and it will always have a special place in my heart.”  

Although her time at Cal U is coming to an end, her life with Jeff continues much to their excitement. 

“I think Gerri was the perfect president for our university at the right time,” he said. “Now, I’m looking forward to spending more time with her and our family.” 

President Jones on CUTV’s “Caton’s Corner”

CLICK HERE to watch Cal U President Geraldine Jones television interview on CUTV’s “Caton’s Corner” hosted by Tom Caton.