Delaware Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan gives back to her alma mater by guiding her own WilmU students on life’s highway.
When Delaware Gov. Jack Markell introduced Jennifer Cohan as the new secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation last February, he noted that she had started in the department 25 years ago “as a casual/seasonal” worker.
While that may be an official job description, there has never been anything remotely casual about Jennifer Cohan’s approach to her career.
Growing up in Hartly, just west of Delaware’s state capital, Cohan gained an appreciation for how government can impact lives, and at an early age decided she wanted to work in the public sector. As a junior at Dover High School, she started co-oping at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and when she graduated in 1990, she took a full-time job at the DMV.
She moved through several assignments over the next few years, but soon realized that in order to reach her career goals she would need a college degree. She was divorced and had a two-year-old daughter and a full-time job, so taking a full course load and going to daytime classes was out of the question. That’s when she discovered Wilmington University (then Wilmington College), which provided the flexibility she needed to raise her daughter and attend college full-time. In 1995, she enrolled in evening and weekend courses to study business management.
Even though her studies took up much of her spare time, Cohan quickly realized that she had made the right decision.
“I loved the academics and I was amazed with the caliber of the professors at Wilmington,” she says. “It was a wonderful mixture of academics and professional experience, so you were learning the academics but you were also learning first-hand how it applied to the real world.”
It took seven years, but she finally graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of science in business management.
By then she was hooked. “I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to come back and teach in the master’s program.”
Thus motivated, Cohan took just one year to earn a master’s of science in public administration. “I gave up every other weekend for an entire year to get it,” she says, adding, “I have to tell you, that’s a big commitment.”
In 2005, she signed on as an adjunct professor at WilmU. “It’s really the reason I sacrificed what I did,” she says. “The university has been so great for me and I wanted to pay it forward.”
She’s doing exactly that by teaching leadership and public policy courses in the master’s program. She has found it “extremely fulfilling.”
“Nothing gives me more pride than looking into a student’s face at that moment when you can actually tell that they ‘get it’ and knowing the reason for that moment of epiphany is the connection you made with them.”
Cohan also helps her students get started in the real world. “I’ve written hundreds of recommendation letters,” she says. “I truly love being able to help my students in their career. There is nothing more rewarding than to see a great student succeed.”
She does admit that she has trouble remembering names; but she’s found a way to compensate. “Normally during the first evening of any class I give each student a nickname — which I have no problem remembering. Now I often have students that I’ve taught come up and say, ‘remember me — I was Happy Hour, FFA Girl, Mr. Swagger,’ or other nicknames that I had given them. It proves to me that my personal touch impacted them, because they remember.”
With her two degrees from WilmU in hand, Cohan has risen rapidly on the state government ladder. She has served as financial and program manager at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, managing the state’s Clean Water Program. She also worked with the State Legislature within the Office of the Controller General, and she held an array of leadership positions within DelDOT in planning, finance and motor carrier safety. In 2007, she became the first female director of the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles.
The third woman to head DelDOT, Cohan has some definite goals for her department. “Our focus will be on customer service and innovation,” she writes on the DelDOT website. “We will sharpen that focus throughout the department by keeping the needs of Delaware citizens the center of every decision we make, every project we build, and every service that we provide.”
Cohan also is emphasizing innovation. “As a lifelong Delawarean and a taxpayer myself, I want to make sure that every dollar DelDOT spends is being spent as innovatively and efficiently as possible. I want to change the mindset of ‘we’re just going to build things the way we’ve always built them.’ That’s not what we should be doing because we don’t have the revenue to be able to do that.”
Her third goal is to “do a better job of acknowledging and recognizing” DelDOT employees.
“They are the hardest-working folks I’ve ever had the privilege to be alongside of,” she says. “When people are huddling in their homes during snow storms, our people are out there making sure the roads are safe for everybody, or they’re making repairs, or inspecting bridges for safety.”
She expands on this point in her website statement: “I firmly believe that what makes this department run is not its Cabinet Secretary. What makes DelDOT run is the people who work hard in every division, every day. My plan is to ensure that the members of the DelDOT team have the tools they need to continue to make DelDOT a top-notch agency, and I am excited to share my ideas with DelDOT’s talented employees. We will promote innovation in all of our divisions, and we will do this while continuing to use data-driven prioritization for DelDOT’s infrastructure choices.”
Now remarried, Cohan lives in Dover and spends much of her spare time fulfilling her role as president of the Greater Dover Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors. She got involved about five years ago after attending one of the club’s charity events.
“A lot of charity events focus on donors, and what impressed me was their laser focus on helping the kids,” she says. She soon joined the board, and was elected president two years ago. She made it her quest to re-institute the teen program, which had been eliminated because of lack of funds. “I was director of the DMV at the time, and I knew their programs — like no drinking and driving, no texting and driving, don’t do drugs — were crucial messages in the teen years. Getting it reinstated was a huge accomplishment and much needed.”
Her one-year term as president of the club has turned into a three-year term. “It’s the old story,” she says. “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person.”
Now well into the first year of her new job, she says she is “proud that Delaware has the best DMV in the nation,” adding: “It’s my hope that working together we can build on the reforms DelDOT has already made by adopting a transportation funding solution to strengthen our economy and the quality of life of all Delawareans.” WU
Cohan Taps Fellow WilmU Alum to Head DMV
Like his boss, Vien, 36, holds two degrees from Wilmington University. He earned a bachelor’s in business management in 2004 and a master’s in public administration in 2012.
Vien joined DMV in 2006 as a management analyst with the Commercial Driver License program, then served as the CDL program manager before becoming chief of driver services in 2008. In 2013, he was named deputy director of DMV, serving under Cohan.
He has been a member of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators since 2006, and has represented the Delaware DMV both nationally and internationally by serving as a subject matter expert on several committees and working groups. WU