Spotify music playing, coffee in hand, shoes thrown off his feet: That’s how I found the newly-inaugurated president, Joe Manickam, when I sat down with him last week. And that’s just how Manickam is making himself at home, with the melodies of a ‘60s anti-war song playing in the background.
“I’m still in the honeymoon phase,” he said.
But it’s more a reunion than anything else. Thirty years since graduating from Hesston College, Manickam has found his way back as the 9th president. But Manickam has his own memories and Hesston story: the choir trips, the intramural games, the balloon fights, and much more.
Manickam reminds us all that he is here for the students. Because he was once one, too.
Why Joe started here at Hesston
Manickam was all about automobile mechanics: working on cars, problem-solving and using his hands.
At Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio, Manickam was doing just that. He left his home in Chiang Mai, Thailand at the age of 15 to travel to India for boarding school. But he soon found his way to the United States to pursue his interests.
But what next?
“How about Hesston College?” said his older brother Tim Manickam.
With Hesston offering the best financial aid offer, Manickam became a Lark in 1985. Coming to a Mennonite college knowing nothing about the religion, he looks back on his initial time here at Hesston as “a different experience.”
“To come to Hesston as a 20-year-old was not an issue,” Manickam said. “But I was struck by the openness on campus and by the Mennonites that I knew nothing about. These people were coming from across the United States who seemed to know each other, yet had not necessarily met each other before. Was this a cult?”
But that didn’t stop Manickam from diving in. Feeling both welcomed by the community and surrounded by students from other international countries, Manickam calls Hesston “a good place to land.”
Joe’s Hesston experience
In his two years at Hesston, Manickam studied in the automotive technology department. But he was not the strongest student, coming out of high school with less than a 2.0 GPA.
“I was not a college-bound student,” Manickam said. “Even today, my teachers back in Thailand are very surprised that I have a doctorate, let alone that I am now in the position as president.”
But in Manickam’s words, “You take the cards you’re dealt.” And through auto mechanics, Manickam learned technique, theory, but also leadership.
One of his professors at Hesston, Phil Zehr, recalled Manickam’s mother worrying about his future.
“I remember his mother asking me, ‘Do you think my Joe can earn a living as a mechanic?’” Zehr described. “I replied, ‘Oh yeah, and he can do more.’”
And he did. Manickam’s time at Hesston was filled with much more than automotive technology and shop classes. He was a member of choir, loved playing intramurals, and was given the infamous nickname, “Joe-Mama.”
He was even asked to be “Bill Manickam,” but declined. This decision came after he and two of his friends, calling themselves “Father, Mama and Dale” became the rivals to the Bills and Normas.
A spirit of humor has always accompanied Joe, said Zehr.
But after the two years of Druber’s runs and balloon fights between Green Gables and Kauffman Court, Manickam headed to Goshen College to finish his degree, graduating with a communications degree.
Where Joe’s Journey led
The motto of “Start Here, Go Everywhere” has stayed with Joe throughout his life. Manickam has traveled to over 50 countries throughout his lifetime.
Fromearning his M.A. and Ph.D. in intercultural studies from Fuller Theological Seminary to working as director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace (IRCP) at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Manickam could not have imagined any of it.
“This is not a life I could have written,” Manickam said. “It is not a planned life. But it’s been a really good life.”
And now Manickam finds himself on the third floor of the Alliman Administration Building of the Hesston College campus. From student to president.
“What students need to know is that I am no less and no more human than they are,” Manickam said. “I laugh like they do, cry like they do, eat Druber’s donuts like they do, make mistakes like they do.”
Passing on Wisdom
Joe Manickam is here for the students, whether from Kansas or Japan, studying nursing or graphic design, Mennonite or atheist.
And this is his message:
“Believe in yourself, allow others to walk with you, and trust in God’s faithfulness,” Manickam said. “The appendix would be, learn to laugh.”
Manickam laughs a lot, he loves life, and he loves to learn.
In fact, on Tuesday nights, you’ll find him sitting in a Kropf Center classroom listening to the ins and outs of flying a plane. Always dreaming about becoming a pilot, Manickam is auditing Introduction to Aviation, a three-hour class for aviation majors. The cards didn’t fall in his favor to study aviation while at Hesston, but many years later, they just might.
And that is just the message that Manickam wants the students to hear.
“You play the cards that are dealt to you, and you play them the best that you can.”