This article is a continuation of the interview found in the July 2020 issue of Park Pages.
Can you tell us about your academic journey?
Honestly, I never set out to be a college president. My original dream was to be a neurologist. Eventually I became a doctor… just a different type of doctor. I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami, and after working several jobs in different sectors I was fortunate enough to land a staff position in Community Education at Miami Dade Community College. While working there, I realized I had much more in common with the students there than ever I had with students at the University of Miami. Most students at the campus where I worked were immigrants, had English as a second language, and they did not come from wealth. Those similarities sparked my interest in community colleges and my desire to help students like me get an education and find their place in life.
I served in many roles at Miami Dade Community College (MDCC) now Miami Dade College (MDC). My career started helping non-traditional students who recently immigrated to the country transition to college. After earning my Masters in Management Information Systems, I served as a technology trainer/instructional designer assisting faculty with instructional design. While being an instructional designer, I started teaching part-time as faculty in our Information Technology department. Later I became the director of the Computer Courtyard at the MDC’s Wolfson Campus overseeing a lab of 400 computers delivering training to students on how to use technology for academic purposes. So I've been in the space of advocating for technology fluency and helping underserved students for a very long time. From there, I became campus director for learning resources which included supervision of the Wolfson Campus Library.
After Miami Dade, I became the dean of learning technology resources at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) overseeing tutoring, testing, and technology. However, not long after my son was born, we returned to Florida after accepting the role of dean of academic resources and assessment at Broward College. Within a year, I became the south campus president and have served in that capacity for the past five years while also providing college-wide leadership for academic and technical programs in Business, Industry, and Transportation in addition to testing centers, academic success centers, libraries, institutional accessibility, and student achievement initiatives.
Now, I am humbled by the opportunity to continue my journey and answer the call to lead North Hennepin Community College.
Was education important for your family when you were growing up?
Absolutely! That was my parents’ number one priority for me and my brother even though they had little formal education. My parents never went past first grade in their country (Cuba), but they always saw the value in education. That was an amazing gift. They stressed early on the importance of studying. ‘Take it to the end,’ was their mantra, which quickly became mine. So, while my parents didn't have education or money, they did have love and support and I'm extremely blessed by that.
Who would you say has been most influential in your life?
Obviously my parents have been very influential because they set the tone for me to concentrate on school. Dr. Robert Calabrese, associate dean of learning resources at Miami Dade College, was influential as a supervisor and mentor. He demonstrated an incredible amount of trust and faith in me, allowing me to oversee department operations whenever he was away from the college. From this experience, I learned the value in helping others, and reaching back to bring people with me. Dr. Sean Madison inspired me through his leadership as Broward College South Campus President. As a male of color, I was fortunate to see the world through his eyes, and saw firsthand the importance of supporting minority students. Finally, I learned the importance of treating others with respect and elevating the human aspect when making tough decisions through Dr. Rolando Montoya, currently serving as the interim president of Miami Dade College.
What is your leadership style?
I lead from the heart. Being caring, compassionate, understanding, and transparent are integral to my leadership style. It also helps that my personal experiences reflect many of the students we serve, so I understand some of the struggles they face now. I know I won’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to work with and to listen to people to solve challenges together. At the end of the day, everything we do is about people.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My pride is really in what my team does. I’m very proud of the work we accomplished at Broward College around academic resources. We established one operating principle to support our students regardless of the campus location where they were enrolled. We also created benchmarks and metrics to track our efforts. As we started analyzing the data, we realized students who were using our services were much more successful than students who didn't use any of the services. The number of students using our services grew from nine percent to 50 percent today. We also noticed that it’s not just the students on the upper end of the GPA scale that are doing well; it’s the students in the middle, taking them from a D to a C or from a C to a B. As part of this process, we also enhanced tutoring services, providing extensive training and testing them for aptitude to make sure they know their content. Then we worked on strategies to engage students across cultures to use these services.
Another accomplishment I'm proud of is how we’ve scaled our initiatives for students of color, the LGBT community, and first-generation students. We coordinated a cohesive college-wide strategy that has increased student engagement. For example, our minority male initiative started with 50 students and is now up to 500. We are continuing to put more resources behind these initiatives and students are being retained at a higher rate and reporting a higher sense of belonging.
What attracted you to North Hennepin Community College?
The one thing everybody always tells me about Minnesota is that it's cold. But nobody talks about all the diverse cultures at North Hennepin and in the Brooklyn Park area. You have different cultures, foods and ethnicities that I want my family to experience. I’m also excited to bring my experience to help the institution move forward with the Chancellor’s 2030 Equity Plan. It’s an aggressive plan, and that's where we need go, because the demographics of this country are changing. We need to be reaching out to more people, bringing them together, and preparing them for what the future holds.
As President, how would you spend your first hundred days?
I will hit the ground listening. I will spend the first 100 days interacting with and listening to students, faculty, staff and community members to see what they think of the college, what they would like to see, and what ties them together. I'm in it for the long run, and before we start tweaking too many things I need to gather perspective to understand the ‘why’ behind it all. Some of the most successful colleges in the county have built a culture that allows them to be responsive and make big changes, but it takes time and trust to do it right.
One of the College's strategic goals is to become a trusted and valued community partner. How do you think you'll be able to contribute to that goal?
Part of that responsibility is obviously on the president to be out in the community, meeting people, engaging the community, and being a cheerleader for the college. But it's also everybody's responsibility. We're all ambassadors of the institution. I see myself as an ambassador at every single opportunity, whether I'm playing tennis at the park or just going to a restaurant to eat. I want to get everyone whether they are students, faculty, staff, or alumni involved in making sure that the college is a trusted and valued community partner. Together we can build an amazing community.
What experiences, or strategies will you bring to foster a very diverse and inclusive environment?
I’ve been fortunate to live and work in diverse communities in South Florida and Northern Virginia and experience different cultures and interact with people from many walks of life. One of things I’ve learned is that we need to look at the college’s data to understand what is happening with our students. In addition, we should have conversations with the campus community, students who have stopped out, and students who did not attend to get a complete picture of what we are doing or not doing to make NHCC a welcoming place. For example, are students of color being just as successful or not? If not, then we need to reexamine our strategies across the board and most importantly, be intentional and honest about doing the best we can for our students, faculty, and staff. We need to build a culture that cares about the diverse voices in our community and includes them in every aspect of our programming.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to play tennis. I picked up the sport when I was 12 years old, and started my son playing when he was three. I’m also an avid video gamer, but most of all I just enjoy spending my free time with my family.
What is a fun fact about you?
I love Halloween. My wife and I were actually married on Halloween in 2008. I was dressed as the Phantom of the Opera, and my wife was dressed as Christine, the bride. We still dress up every year and it kicks-off our holiday season so it’s great fun for us.