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Hal Cohen: Moving Strategic Initiatives Forward

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Posted on Thursday, April 8, 2021, at 1:21 PM


Hal Cohen is the Executive Director at Vermont Adult Learning. As he described his job, “the buck stops with me.” He stated that he is very fortunate to have Regional Directors at each of VAL’s locations and that, as part of his job, he does check-ins with each of them; oversees a leadership team consisting of the Regional Directors, Director of Programs, and other administrative staff; directly supervises those in administrative positions; and serves as the primary contact to both the public and the government. However, Hal stated that his major role as Executive Director is, “putting out fires, dealing with problems, moving strategic plans along,” and overall making sure that all VAL locations have the resources they need. He also added that, since taking on the role in 2018, he has been trying to build a better relationship with other adult learning providers to better communicate needs as one voice to the Vermont Agency of Education.

Prior to earning his Bachelor’s degree, Hal had what he called a “semi-professional career” that consisted of working in youth care in residential facilities. He stated that this was his first social services job and that it was very tough work. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Studies through a program called “University Without Walls” where he spent a year abroad in both Paris and London. After earning his degree, Hal continued to work in child/youth care, eventually earning his Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Antioch University. After doing some work in New Hampshire, Hal was given the opportunity to start children’s homes in Israel. He started this nonprofit in 1980, making sure the children’s homes were family homes where siblings were not broken up and children were provided with professional services and schooling. Both Hal and his wife stayed in Israel for 6 years working at their organization and, due to the success, it continued even after they came back to the States. Upon returning, Hal began to work for the Jewish Federation of the North Shore doing fundraising and later with the Council of Jewish Federations. Following this, Hal joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). During this time, he met folks from the Jerusalem Foundation and after his service, worked with them in New York for a few years and then in Israel for 3 years. Afterwards, Hal got his Master’s in Management for nonprofits and worked for an Israeli peace organization. However, he wanted to get back into program development and not live in a metropolitan area and as a result, landed a job as Executive Director of Central Vermont Community Action (now called Capstone Community Action) and held this position for 18 years. Hal then was appointed Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services under Governor Peter Shumlin and served during the last 2 years of his administration. He stated that this was the pinnacle of his career and that it was lots of fun, but also really hard. After Governor Shumlin decided not to re-run, Hal worked a temporary job at the state, working for the Public Service Department, until he took on the role of Executive Director at VAL in 2018.

Hal stated that an aspect of his work at VAL that he particularly enjoys is the student success stories. He said that one of the most fun (and moving) things is attending graduations — he makes sure to go to all of them. Graduations show how hard these students have fought to get where they are and that it is amazing to see the families so excited and proud; it is a true testament to the incredible work those at VAL do.

When asked about his work-life balance, Hal laughed. He explained that a work-life balance depends on your career and that, at times, he did not have the best work-life balance. However, in his current position, he stated that he has the “power of policy” and makes sure that everyone at VAL knows that family is important and a priority, that work should not take precedence over family. That being said, in his free time, Hal loves sports, cross-country and back-country skiing, snowshoeing, biking, kayaking, and a little bit of hiking. He is also a beekeeper and stated that he has a great group of friends and a close bond with his family.

Hal stated that VAL’s work matters because traditional school does not work for everyone — for many, it fails them and is not always the best institution for individuals from families with lots of barriers. He said that VAL is special because it works with all different types of populations (from low-income to individuals with disabilities to English-language learners, etc.), gives people a lot of personal attention and flexibility in their education that they would not receive in traditional schooling, and also provides workforce development on top of schooling. Hal also emphasized that, a lot of times, students start out at VAL and, for one reason or another, have to stop their studies but if they come back later, they will always be welcomed and able to pick-up where they left off.

This profile was written by Rebecca Shames, Development & Communications Intern.

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