Johnny Pineda showed up at Defiance College a week before classes started. He hadn’t applied to college since graduating from his Miami high school, and he was just tagging along with a friend who was preparing to start at the Ohio liberal arts college 1,300 miles from Pineda's difficult upbringing in South Beach.
But he met Defiance President Mark Gordon, who Pineda said helped him apply, enroll and move into a dorm room in a matter of days. Pineda declared a biology major and was in class at the beginning of the fall 2010 semester.
“I told President Gordon, 'It’s either this or jail or prison for me, or death,' ” Pineda said. “And he told me he was here for me and he was going to make sure I got into college.”
But Gordon’s help didn’t end there. Now a sophomore who hopes to attend medical school, Pineda struggled with his grades early on.
Those grades are better today, something Pineda attributes in part to spending most weekday evenings at the president’s home near campus, where he and other students study and enjoy snacks without the distractions of the dorms. Up to 25 students have studied there in a single night, though Gordon said most evenings see four or five students show up with their textbooks.
That personal help is part of Gordon’s presidential philosophy -- the thought that Defiance’s 1,100 students are temporary family members during their four years on campus. His wife sends a letter to new students giving them a coupon for a free home-cooked meal. Once they take her up on the offer, she tells them they’re welcome for dinner any time. During orientation, Gordon gives out his cell phone number. He also goes on short trips with students, and recently returned from a service learning jaunt to Costa Rica and a week in New York City.
“I really wanted to get to know the students,” Gordon said. “The most fun part of my job is interacting with students. I look at it as this is a way that we have over a thousand kids and I only have to pay college tuition for two of them. Who can be so lucky?”
Gordon took over Defiance’s presidency in 2009 after a stint as dean of the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. Soon after arriving in northwestern Ohio, he started inviting student groups over to his university-owned home about six blocks from the main campus. Those meals revealed a certain amount of cinematic ignorance among the youth, and led to Saturday movie nights in his basement.
The 10 p.m. feature film is often a classic like “Casablanca” or “Singin’ in the Rain,” and always wholesome enough for his 12- and 14-year-old sons to enjoy.
Soon after movie night started, Monday through Thursday became open study sessions. From 6 or 7 until 10, students have free rein over the first floor of his home. Those needing a study break can step into the basement, where Gordon is known to play a tough Ping-Pong game. He claims to have once beaten the entire men’s tennis team after having them over for supper. “That kind of gave me some real street cred,” he said.
Anyone who has a winning record in presidential Ping-Pong gets special recognition at graduation, though that hasn’t yet happened. Pineda played Gordon once and scored only three points. Now he doesn’t even try.
But the score isn’t the important thing, Gordon contends. By playing table tennis, eating his wife’s cookies or studying on his kitchen table, students develop a bond that Gordon believes makes them more likely to speak up when something goes wrong.
“There’s a lot of things students say to me playing Ping-Pong that they wouldn’t say to me in a more formal setting,” he said. “If a student is comfortable, then when they’re having trouble they’re going to talk about it.”
Pineda has seen that firsthand and, without it, he doubts he’d be at Defiance. "If it wasn’t for President Gordon helping me out, I probably wouldn’t be here," he said, "so I’m most grateful to him for that.”