Learning from the best: Our lessons from a county visit to Google

I recently took a delegation of business and community leaders, students, an alumna, and educators from Cumberland as well as Rowan University, to Massachusetts to meet with business and higher education leaders. We met with executives from Google, the Cambridge Innovation Center, and MIT’s Media Lab. We also made short stops at the Boston Public Library and Harvard University. Our purpose was to engage with disruptive innovators and learn from them how they built such successful organizations, fostered cultures of innovation, and developed institution-wide comfort with ambiguity, risk-taking, and constant evolution in competitive markets. The meetings were insightful. The sights were mind-blowing. We left inspired, having cultivated new allies and friends who committed to helping us any way they can.

We had ample takeaways from the meetings. I will highlight only a few. First, Google is built on a culture of asking “why not” and “what if,” rather than “we can’t,” “it’s too much,” and “it’s too fast.” Across all the meetings, collaboration came up as one of the most unifying themes. The executives also attributed their institutions’ successes to hiring people who can think outside of the box and are problem-solvers who see challenges from multiple viewpoints. MIT’s Media Lab was started with a group of brilliant academic “misfits” and continues to thrive because of them. Lastly, they emphasized having fun and not taking oneself too seriously.

While Cumberland County is no Boston or Cambridge, with close proximity to Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington D.C. as big urban hubs, with low real estate cost and many successful multi-generation enterprises that serve national and international markets, the county has a strong base of success from which to build and immense potential still. In Cumberland, we also have a growing population of youth that is culturally and linguistically Hispanic. Spanish is the second largest spoken language in the world, thus giving us great potential to reach deeper into the domestic Hispanic market as well as international markets.

Our challenge in the county is to cultivate leadership skills, an agile and entrepreneurial mindset among our youth, in addition to whatever technical skill or academic discipline they may gravitate toward. The future of Cumberland County can only be written by Cumberland itself—that is capitalizing on our human and social capital, as well as our natural resources. As someone who lived in Boston for 25 years, I know first-hand that when youth are empowered and taught to think that the world is their oyster and that no challenge is insurmountable, they deliver. Our challenge is to empower our youth and cultivate supportive home environments.

Now that we are back, all of us are inspired to take bold and courageous steps to working collaboratively for a better, stronger Cumberland. We may not be able to provide free massages, game rooms, gourmet lunches, sleeping pods, and fire poles to get from one floor to another, but entrepreneurship is in our DNA in Cumberland. Upward and onward, Cumberland!

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on Dec. 9, 2017.

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Discovering our strengths through Leadership Cumberland County

For 16 years, the County has been cultivating emerging and established professionals from industry, non-profit and government for local leadership through the Leadership Cumberland County program, which is housed at Cumberland County College’s George P. Luciano Center for Leadership and Public Service.

Led by Dr. Kim Ayres, the 9-month long program explores seven different leadership topics in a peer-to-peer learning environment that is enriched by the diversity of professional backgrounds and lived experiences of the 24 participants. Leadership Cumberland County exposes leaders to institutions, resources, challenges and experiences that they would otherwise not have known about. It also challenges participants to determine what they can do individually and collectively to move the County forward.

This year, I have the privilege of participating in Leadership Cumberland County and, as an alumna, I will join its active network of more than 350 past participants. Dr. Ayres has challenged the current class and alumni to think of what game-changing disruptive innovations we can adopt to accelerate the pace of positive change in the County or to introduce change in areas where improvements are needed. There is already a momentum that we can build upon. At this year’s State of the County address in September, the Cumberland County Improvement Authority’s Jerry Velazquez highlighted the number of new jobs, new businesses, new construction, and offered some forecasts of things to come. It was overwhelmingly positive. To hear Corning’s executive speak about why his company chose Cumberland County was a resounding vote of confidence for Cumberland and a highlight of the day.

Through my own visits to local businesses, the common sentiment is one of positive growth. So many local businesses are building new facilities and expanding their current footprints. The challenge for our community college is to help new and existing businesses prepare the labor force for the new jobs that are coming in, and help equip current employees with the skills to help them remain upwardly mobile within their industries. It is a challenge that Cumberland County College wholeheartedly embraces and one that we can only address through strong partnerships. No other institution understands this challenge better than our partners at Cumberland’s Center for Workforce and Economic Development (CWED). This year, our County has the distinction of leading the Garden State Employment and Training Association with our own Allison Spinelli serving as president.

An educated workforce is critical to our County’s continued progress. Whether it is providing short-term and long-term training to adults, associate degrees and pathways to a bachelor’s or master’s degrees at the College, or supporting youth pursuing vocational/technical training at Scarpa TEC, raising the socioeconomic level of our County depends on a strong alignment of a skilled workforce to talent demand in industry.

Leadership Cumberland County provides an effective forum for leaders with a stake in the County’s success to assess where our strategic advantages lie, what opportunities exist, and how to make the best of what we have while building a lasting foundation for the future.

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on November 28, 2017.

Achieving Full Economic Participation and Regional Vitality through Inclusion

In August, Cumberland County College officially launched its strategic planning process. We have taken great care to ensure that the process is inclusive and aligns with other strategic plans in the county. With more than 70 participants from across the county, we have broken the process into iterative phases that will lead to a document that reflects the County’s aspirations for its premier higher education institution.

For more than a year, I have heard members of our community express the need for the type of inclusive economic participation that leads to individual financial independence and family legacies that build multi-generational wealth—both in terms of monetary value and social capital. While K-12 schools and higher education cannot solve all of society’s problems, in the current knowledge economy, socioeconomic mobility is impossible without post-secondary education or training.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education, Rochelle Hendricks, and the Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, Aaron Fichtner, held a summit that discussed the future of jobs in New Jersey, our state’s preparedness to take advantage of the current positions and the positions of the near future. Their lead speaker, the CEO of the Lumina Foundation, Jamie Merisotis, highlighted the disparity in education and training preparedness across counties in New Jersey. The biggest take-away from the session was that to achieve economic prosperity, counties such as Cumberland need to ensure that adequate opportunities for educational achievement and job participation exist across income status, gender, and race.

Cumberland cannot afford to leave any child or adult behind. Anecdotally, my fellow Cumberland residents have shared with me that our County has been losing its young people. As our Freeholders and CCIA leaders have shared recently, with nearly 1,000 jobs added to the Cumberland rosters recently, we are in the midst of an economic revival. Our continued success depends on empowering youth and adults to fully participate and to give them more reasons to remain in our county, like upward mobility through jobs with career ladders.

Cumberland is not alone in its efforts to retain a skilled labor force. In March, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association convened a group of prominent business leaders who lamented about the rate of out-migration from New Jersey and the flight of the millennials in the state. The NJBIA President, Michele Siekerka, responded to this by forming a Post-secondary Taskforce that includes industry, education, and policy-makers from diverse regions of the state.

Cumberland County College’s strategic plan cannot solve the gargantuan issue of retaining millennials, but working with our K-12, economic development, and non-profit partners, as well as our local elected officials and private citizens, we can educate the youth and adult populations to take advantage of 21st century jobs. Working together to give them reasons to stay in Cumberland and support our existing and prospective businesses’ training needs.

The mission of community colleges, since their inception, has been to support individuals and businesses in their respective local communities. Through this next strategic plan, we aim to live our mission by enabling full economic participation and with the kind of institutional agility that the modern, 21st century environment requires.

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on October 2, 2017.

Cumberland County College is at the Top of the Right List

Last week, CNN Money’s national college rankings came out and Cumberland County College was rated the #1 community college in New Jersey and tied for #2 in the tri-state region that includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. We are at the top of the right list!

It’s not surprising at all. Our county has a history of investing in education, be it K-12 or support for our local community college. Our Freeholders and community members understand that the ticket into the middle class, and to elevating one’s status beyond the middle class, is education. On our campus, we understand that very well and put students first. My predecessors understood that and I, too, am keeping students first.

The College recently launched a new branding campaign to educate our community that college is more within reach now than ever before. A couple of weeks ago, we launched the Carver Early College High School program with Bridgeton Public Schools. The same program will run next year at Vineland High School and at CCTEC. This program will allow high school students to complete the first two years of their undergraduate degree concurrently as they are earning their high school diploma. After four years of high school, the most motivated students will have earned their associate degrees. We also have dual enrollment and dual credit programs that allow students to finish some college credits in high school. English 101 and Sociology 101 are the same, no matter where one goes to college.

The Lampitt Transfer Law in New Jersey ensures full transfer of community college credits into New Jersey four-year universities based on NJ Transfer guidelines. A student who transfers out of state is also eligible to transfer their community college credits and students are advised to check with the school where they aspire to attend out of state.

As we enter our strategic planning process this fall, we are looking to the community—to you our residents—to better understand the community’s needs and our aspirations for who we want to become. Whether it is establishing college as an expectation rather than an aspiration for our youth, supporting our businesses with workforce training, or keeping the arts, humanities and culture part of our local identity, as a community college, our primary mission is to advance the community.

Cumberland County College does not exist in a vacuum. We understand that our success is inextricably linked to the success of our community non-profit partners, our faith-based community, our cities and towns, and other public entities such as the Center for Workforce and Economic Development and the Cumberland County Improvement Authority.

Our time is now, Cumberland, and collaboration is the key. Onward and upward!

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on July 26, 2017.

Cumberland County Responds to Food Insecurity on Campus

Food insecurity or hunger—to call it what it is—on college campuses is an issue that has garnered a lot of attention in the last few years. Cumberland County College is not immune to this problem. As one of the poorest counties in the state, it is not surprising that some of our students struggle to feed themselves and their families. While our data are anecdotal, enough of our faculty and staff report seeing evidence of hunger on campus that we decided to do something about it.

To help our students in need, we recently partnered with F&S Produce CEO Sam Pipitone in establishing a free on-campus Farmer’s Market which provides fresh fruits and vegetables once a week for our students. Food and shelter are basic needs that must be met before we can expect more of our students. Indeed, the K-12 sector realized that long ago and has implemented a variety of programs which go beyond free lunch for qualifying students. College students are no different. It is hard to concentrate, let alone learn, if one is distracted by hunger.

This fall semester, Cumberland County College will participate in a national empirical study on hunger on college campuses. This will provide us with hard numbers on the extent of the problem. Nationally, a 2016 study on the issue reported that about half of college students reported food insecurity in the 30 days prior to being surveyed. First-generation students—that is, those who are the first in their families to go to college—were more likely to go hungry because they could not afford to feed themselves. The study by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger also reported that black and Hispanic students were also more likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to experience hunger.

The same study also found that food insecurity was highly correlated with housing insecurity, which is defined as the inability to pay one’s rent, mortgage, or utility bills. At 13%, community college students reported nearly double the rate of four-year university students experiencing housing insecurity.

The study found that more than 50% of students struggling with hunger or housing insecurity reported missing a class, and a quarter of the students dropped a class. Surprisingly, most of these students also have paid employment.

We look forward to having data specifically on our college. In the meantime, it is gratifying to know that we have members of the community willing to lend a hand to those in need, especially those trying to make a better life for themselves by pursuing higher education. Thank you, F&S Produce.

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on July 3, 2017.

One Cumberland: Reaching for Higher, Fulfilling Our Potential

Cumberland County is an exceptional community. These were the exact words of Google executive, Steve Vinter, who was one of two keynote speakers at our recent Business Leaders’ Summit. Vinter joined the community for an intimate dinner the evening before the conference and a community leaders breakfast the morning after. Impressed with the business leaders, politicians and students with whom he met, he promised to come back next year. Similarly, Michelle Drolet, CEO of Towerwall—an information security company—asked why she hadn’t heard of Cumberland before. The event also showcased our best talent in the county, a range of entrepreneurs and their businesses, and our two hospital networks: Inspira and Complete Care.

The leaders who attended the breakfast spoke of the role that Cumberland County College can play as a convener and facilitator for helping the community reach its potential. Beyond educating students, as a community college, part of our mission is to help advance the economic vitality of the county by securing resources for our businesses and engaging in activities tailored to the specific needs of the community.

By working together as one cohesive community, being inclusive, and approaching our work with the understanding that we can set high goals for ourselves and attain them through collaborative efforts, we can excel at the College and as a county.

Over the next few months, Cumberland County College will be developing its strategic plan for 2018-2023. This is an opportunity for us to articulate our goals and map our strategy for high performance on traditional indicators such as increasing enrollment and graduation. It is also an opportunity for us to authentically engage the external community around the College’s role in supporting a stronger, more economically vibrant Cumberland that is not at or near the bottom of key socioeconomic indicators in the state. We will need your insights and feedback.

We know that Cumberland County, as a community, has immense potential. We know that. It is also validating when others visit and can see the unrealized potential that we know we can unlock. Our time is now, Cumberland!

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on April 26, 2017.

Giving Hope and Opportunity to the Incarcerated

Across our county, many community members are concerned with the incarcerated population. Their concerns are well founded, not just for those who are within the prison system but for their families also. We know from existing research that kids within families with experience in the corrections system have a higher probability of engaging in the kinds of risky behaviors that can lead to incarceration. It’s bad enough to have one family member impacted, but worse for multiple generations. It’s a concern for the entire community, not just those directly impacted.

Recidivism is also a concern. Our Freeholders, County Prosecutor, a number of community-based organizations, and concerned citizens have worked together to make great strides in reducing the recidivism rate. Working with Rutgers University, the County has working groups that meet regularly to make measurable and preventative differences in the lives of our youth. The outcomes of such efforts would be enhanced significantly if coupled with robust higher education opportunities for those locked up and their at-risk families.

Consider this: a person sitting in jail has ample free time. Without a trade, technical, or vocational skill, or even an associate degree, when they are freed they are much more likely to engage in the kinds of behavior that landed them in a cell to begin with. With some sort of credential, they have hope and the opportunity to earn an honest living. This is why as President of the College, I support the reinstatement of the federal Pell grant for incarcerated people. It is good for the individual, good for the local economy, and good for other honest taxpayers who help support those in need. It is in our best communal interest to see to it that folks are given the opportunity for redemption and the means for dignified, honest work.

While some may have good intentions of leading an honest life upon release, without the skill, the means, and the opportunity, intentions never become reality. Cumberland County College is committed to educating all people for the purpose of a healthy, safe, and self-sustaining community.

Previously published on thedailyjournal.com on March 30, 2017.