Out to Lunch ... with Sharon Bartels

Sharon Bartels is the president of Gwinnett Technical College

Sharon Bartels is the president of Gwinnett Technical College


Panera Bread in Duluth

Spinach Salad with grilled chicken $7.39

Turkey Deli Sandwich $5.99

Tax 80 cents

Total $14.18

Editors note: "Out To Lunch" is a periodic feature that allows readers a chance to learn about the people behind the titles in Gwinnett County through a lunchtime conversation with a member of the GDP staff. The subject picks the place, we pick up the tab and then share the conversations that occur during the meal.

Sharon Bartels is partial to Panera Bread. Not only does she enjoy the selections of salads and sandwiches, the restaurant is close to her workplace -- a straight shot up Sugarloaf Parkway.

Inside Panera, Bartels inches forward in a line of a half dozen people. Through big windows, sun rays stencil patterns across the eatery's floor on an unusually warm winter day.

She places her order, takes a receipt and an empty cup. Filling it at the soda fountain with ice and water, Bartels and I walk through the restaurant looking for an unoccupied table.

The place is busy -- slammed with customers. We spot a woman standing up from her chair, brushing crumbs from her shirt. "There's one," Bartels says. She sits down to stake our claim. They call the number for our food, and I walk over and grab the tray, sitting down across from her. We dig in.

The 59-year-old talks about her job at Gwinnett Technical College -- the rapid growth she's seen at the institution over the past two decades. She tells me about her rise at the college -- from marketing specialist to president.

She talks, all smiles, about her family. At one point she pauses, mid sentence, pulling out her iPhone.

"My granddaughters, they're twin girls, 6 and a half years old," she says. "Let me show you the picture. Oh my gosh, they're so cute."

She furrows her brow, finger swiping her way through apps. "My niece was playing with my phone the other day, and she's got all my icons all mixed up. Here's something called Temple Run ... do you know what that is? Oh no, where are my photos?"

For the highest-ranking administrator at one of Georgia's largest and fastest growing technical colleges, she is refreshingly friendly and down to earth.

As the oldest of three children, the Georgia girl recalls a happy childhood playing in the woods and flying kites with her siblings. She grew up on a cul-de-sac in suburban DeKalb County near Ashford Dunwoody Road -- on a street that now backs up to I-285.

After graduating from Chamblee High School, she attended the University of Georgia, earning a degree in journalism. She got married, had children and took a job at Gwinnett Tech in 1986 as a marketing director. "I've been here forever," she laughs.

"The school opened in 1984," she said. "There was just one main building, and it was huge. That one building is five acres under one roof. We had a little more than 300 students."

Added Bartels: "At the time, people didn't even know what technical education was."

As marketing director, Bartels reported to then-president J. Alvin Wilbanks.

She said one thing she learned quickly from working with Wilbanks: "He knows how to get more out of people than anyone I've ever known. He's very good at challenging you to do something new and different, and he gave me a lot of work that was new and different."

Bartels said that, at the time she didn't realize it, but Wilbanks saw something in her, and he was grooming her to be the technical college's next president.

When Wilbanks took the position of superintendent with Gwinnett County Public Schools, Bartels applied for the big job.

She competed for the position with two men who were from outside the state. Several different committees met to decide who was best fit to lead Gwinnett Technical College into the future.

That was about 16 years ago.

As a veteran administrator at the institution, Bartels said she's "proud of all the students who now serve out there in the field. There's so many of them. You can't go to any local lab or doctor's office without seeing one of our graduates. They're working all over the place: at car dealerships, at the federal reserve bank. It's been neat being a part of giving them an opportunity to do what's next in their lives."

Bartels said that the college served 23,000 students in 2012, give or take.

When she took over in 1996, the college had only two buildings, and now there are nine of them. Said Bartels: "It's grown massively."The next big venture is a satellite location in North Fulton County.

Bartels said that officials with the college are in the stages of selecting a construction firm for the parcel.

After Gwinnett Tech's service area was expanded to include north Fulton County in June 2010, the college indicated its interest for a campus in the area. As a result of its interest, the Technical College System of Georgia approved a recommendation last year from Gwinnett Tech's North Fulton County Site Selection Committee.

"It's going to be a fabulous campus," she said. "It's going to grow fast. We've done our research to determine what kind of jobs are out there and what kind of training they need for those jobs. We're thrilled about the new campus. We can't wait to see it."

While her passion for her work is plain to see, her enthusiasm reaches new heights when she's asked to talk about her family.

"When you're my age, and you look at what's most important about life, you see your family," Bartels said.

These days, she spends every weekend with her children and grandchildren.

She and her husband currently live in a condo in downtown Suwanee: "One of those over-the-retail types. We love it, absolutely love it. If there's a concert in the park, we just open the balcony doors, and we hear it just as good as if we were down there in the park."

She pauses for a moment to finish her spinach salad with grilled chicken. "I hope I've given you enough for a good story," she says, laughing. "I guess one thing I've realized is ... the older I get the more I feel fortunate to work in a job that positively impacts people in this community."