Jean Dahlgren had no intention of leaving Albany, New York, where she was the dean of undergraduate programs at Russell Sage College. She was tenured and had just bought a new home.
So, when a friend emailed her about a job posting in Delaware, she initially ignored it. Curiosity, however, eventually got the better of her, and she contacted the search firm about the position of president at Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD).
“I thought, ‘Geez, that’s interesting,’” she says of the job description. Although she’d been with Sage College for 30 years, she took the train to Wilmington for an interview. “When I came here, I was so taken with the staff, the mission and the city — really with everything,” she recalls.
On the way home, the New York native decided that she would move if she received an offer.
That offer came, and in August 2018, Dahlgren became the first female president of the two-year art school located in the heart of Wilmington’s downtown Creative District. “I feel very, very grateful to be leading the school right now,” she says. And she feels equally fortunate to be a Delawarean.
From the start, Dahlgren appreciated Delaware’s weather. A native of the Adirondack region, she was accustomed to a long winter, “mud season” and then a hot, humid summer. “I love having a spring and fall,” she says. “My flowers came up here in March — that’s mind-blowing to me.”
The growing zone isn’t the only thing that makes her happy. “Delaware’s location shouldn’t be overlooked,” she says. “It’s such a pivotal place between Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia.”
Most of the DCAD student body, which has grown under Dahlgren’s leadership, lives within an hour of the school. That’s also true of the faculty. Both benefit from the many museums in the region.
“The Delaware Art Museum has arguably one of the most important illustration collections in the country, and illustration is one of our popular majors,” notes Dahlgren, who holds master’s degrees in fine arts and graphic design.
When Dahlgren’s two daughters visit, they tour Winterthur Museum & Gardens – known for its collection of American decorative arts – and Nemours Estate. “They are blown away,” Dahlgren says. “It’s amazing the kind of natural and built resources we have here.”
Those resources include dozens of major universities throughout the region where students can continue their education after completing DCAD’s two-year programs. Since coming on board, Dahlgren has expanded DCAD’s partnerships with institutions such as the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design, Moore College of Art and Design and Goldey-Beacom College.
Dahlgren says it’s easy to form beneficial relationships in Delaware, especially compared to New York State. U.S. Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester comes to DCAD art exhibition openings and has been a commencement speaker. Dahlgren has met fellow Delawareans President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and when Governor John Carney spots her in Starbucks, he gives her a wave.
Indeed, Delawareans often rub elbows with movers and shakers in restaurants, and, as Dahlgren discovered, there are many of them. “I had no idea there was such a foodie culture in Delaware,” says Dahlgren, who frequents Mrs. Robino’s and Bardea Food & Drink in Wilmington.
She hasn’t tried scrapple, although she’s seen it. “That,” she says of the breakfast meat popular in Delaware but little-known outside the region, “was a new thing.”
Since arriving in Delaware, the college president has been collecting “fun little Delaware facts,” such as that local love of scrapple. Another is the state’s nickname: Delaware is the “First State” because it was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
“Delawareans are very proud to be from the state,” she notes, “and now I understand why.”