UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Despite earning three degrees over a 20-year span including, a bachelor of science and a master's of education in vocational industrial education in 1977 and 1983, respectively, and a doctorate in workforce education in 1997, John Foster has never strayed far from his first occupational love.
“My passion is in helping to reinstate the value of working with one’s hands. Creating something you can be proud of is the foundation of this very country." he said. "It is our technical competence and creativity that drives our economic engine and simultaneously provides individuals confidence and stability to maintain our way of life.”
That passion has carried him from a humble beginning as a construction laborer to heading up Pennsylvania’s career and technical education (CTE) programs to CEO of NOCTI, the non-profit responsible for CTE student testing nationwide at the secondary, post-secondary and adult levels, a position he currently holds.
After graduating high school, Foster eschewed an acceptance letter to a Penn State commonwealth campus. He instead went to work in the construction business. That was just the beginning of his professional journey, but it provided a touchstone for his stops along the way.
About a year later, he began to take some courses at a nearby community college. That spurned an interest not only in the subject matter but also in education. A counselor fanned the flames of those embers when he told Foster about an emerging educational entity — the area vocational technical school (AVTS). The counselor suggested that Foster would be well suited to teach carpentry at the AVTS.
He visited one and confirmed his counselor’s suspicions — he was interested. The counselor connected him with someone at Penn State, where a new program to prepare “vocational” teachers was ramping up. That Penn State official, in what is now workforce education and development, prodded Foster to enroll full time.
He did and graduated two years later with a degree in vocational industrial education.
“I left Penn State energized to make a difference in my field. I wanted to help others enjoy the same feelings of pride I had at the end of each day. Pride that came from the satisfaction I felt when I turned around at the end of the day and could say to myself, ‘I built that,’” Foster said.
He taught construction for a number of years, helping his students build a home every two years. During that time, he completed his master’s degree, which was a rarity in those years. Because he was working full time and pursuing his master’s at the same time, it took him six years. He credits professor Don Evans for nudging him to the finish line.
“Thanks to the master’s degree in vocational administration, I eventually moved into career and technical administration," he said. "I oversaw about 20 different technical programs.”
Even with a new career path, Foster’s education journey wasn’t over. He said a Penn State professor, Fred Welch, encouraged him to take on a doctoral program. He followed Welch’s lead and left administration to work at Penn State in career and technical education (CTE).
He credits a quartet of Penn State professors for helping him complete his doctorate: Ken Gray, Bill Rothwell, Rich Walters and Ed Yoder.
Another foray into administration followed and he was asked by former governor Tom Ridge to become the director of career and technical education programs for the state of Pennsylvania. Two subsequent governors — Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell — asked Foster to remain as the state CTE.
Finally, in 2005, he left state service for the position of CEO of NOCTI, the non-profit responsible for CTE student testing nationwide at the secondary, post-secondary and adult levels.
“I feel I have been very lucky throughout my career," Foster said. "I have had the privilege of working with some of the best minds in the CTE field. Along the way I have been recognized by numerous groups for issues related to workforce development.
“I can’t begin to describe the impact of the Penn State network and the quality and currency of the education I received. Starting my life as a construction laborer, teaching students the value of working with one’s hands, working for three different governors, having a network of friends across the nation and writing three books is something I would never have envisioned.”