Embracing our Role as the County’s College

Several weeks ago, the Cumberland County Improvement Authority held the State of the County annual event and Business Expo on our campus at Cumberland County College. We welcomed more than 250 attendees to explore the businesses in our county and network with colleagues in the region. As part of this gathering, I spoke about how the College is embracing its role as the driver for higher education attainment, workforce development, and as contributing agent for economic development. I shared some of the ways we are doing this.

We are introducing several new initiatives and events this year. On December 8, we will hold the College’s first Open House. This will be an opportunity for members of the community to explore the range of academic degrees and workforce training programs that we offer at Cumberland County College. Prospective students and families will have opportunities to learn about college financing options, the value and savings associated with starting at our community college. In addition, prospective students will be able to sit in classes related to the degrees they are interested in pursuing.

This fall, we are launching an initiative called First to Go, or Primer-A-Ir in Spanish. This initiative targets students who are going to be the first in their family to go to college. We understand how scary the process of applying to and entering college can be for first generation students. We want these students to feel a sense of belonging in college and we want them to persist through completion. So, whether you are just graduating college this year or took some time off, we welcome you and will be there every step of the way.

For those who are not the first in their families to attend college, we have the Legacy Students program. We know that all it takes is one generation to lose the economic edge. Our student retention programs for legacy students focuses on ensuring that families don’t lose the gains they made with the prior generation.

We are also instituting mentoring and internship programs to ensure that students acquire professional experiences to build their resumes as part of their undergraduate studies with us. These programs are also intended to ensure that they are aware of proper business etiquette, know how to write a compelling cover letter, and how to market themselves on their resumes. We plan to draw on the expertise of local business leaders and retirees to help with mentoring our students.

Lastly, we are investing more in educating the adult learner population. Whether it is a specific skills-based training program or an associate degree, we want to raise the skills level within that group. There, we are targeting young parents, displaced workers, the unemployed and under-employed people, the previously incarcerated, high school and college drop-outs.

Our message is simple: it is never too late to start again and improve your economic plight.

Previously published in The Daily Journal on November 10, 2016.


Celebrating a Half Century of Accomplishments at Cumberland

Welcome to the fall 2016 semester! This is a special year for Cumberland County College. This year, we turn 50 years old. For half a century, the College has been preparing students for the first two years of their undergraduate degrees. We are a college for the financially savvy students who understand that, in the knowledge-driven economy of New Jersey, a Master’s degree is needed to be solidly middle-class. Hence, our students start at Cumberland County College and transfer to any public or private school in New Jersey, or elsewhere in the country, to complete their Bachelor’s degree while minimizing their debt.

As a parent, I would prefer holding on to the savings to help my children purchase their first home or purchase their first stocks. I want to help them build wealth. Our Shirlee and Bernard Brown University Center also offers students the opportunity to finish their BA/BS and Master’s degrees through Montclair State University, Wilmington University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Franklin University and Seton Hall University without ever leaving campus or Cumberland County. Cumberland County College offers pathways to the middle class.

As I am new to the region, I spent the summer and the current fall season getting to know South Jersey and Cumberland County. I have attended our summer festivals, visited farms, nurseries, our cultural and arts centers, our scenic coastal regions and preserved wetlands, our once-prominent homes and neighborhoods, and the sites of once-booming industries. I have also met with community leaders, everyday citizens, and immigrants from Mexico and Central America hoping to achieve the American Dream in Cumberland County—much like their Italian, Jewish and Irish predecessors did generations ago. I have also enjoyed the local fare.

In all, I see Cumberland County as a region full of promise and possibilities. I am delighted to lead a college that is one of many leading institutions working to advance the county. My administration is prioritizing the community aspect of our mission as a community college. Whether our students are looking to take a winter or summer course while attending another university, or starting fresh at our college after high school, or returning after a delay or military service or just looking for training to help them advance their career, Cumberland County College is deepening its commitment to service and excellence to the community for another 50 years.

I encourage readers to become reacquainted with Cumberland County College. Come play tennis on our courts, enjoy lunch on our beautiful campus, take in a college athletic or Little League game, hold a training or meeting at our George Luciano Conference Center, or see a show at our Frank Guaracini Jr. Fine and Performing Arts Center. If you are retired or are looking to give back, volunteer at the college. You can email us at Cumberland50@cccnj.edu

Lastly, follow the college and follow me on social media. We are hip and modern. We embrace tradition while innovating for the expected and rapid changes of the 21st century. Rediscover Cumberland County College!

Previously published in The Daily Journal on October 3, 2016.

Building on and Retaining Talent in Cumberland County

Over the course of the last few months, I have met with a number of groups and individuals. Many have lamented the brain drain that has been taking place in the county. I, too, share their concerns. The rate at which our educated young people are leaving is not sustainable. The narrative that I have heard goes something like this: the post-World War II generation of primarily Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans who settled in Cumberland County brought this area to an unprecedented level of success. Along with groups of other races and ethnicities, they practically built this county.

The major cities of Vineland, Millville, and Bridgeton developed their unique identities around the industries that were created there. The cities and townships flourished. The children of these early entrepreneurs took those businesses to the next level of success. Most of them remain in the area. However, few from that third generation remain here locally. As businesses succumbed to a changing economy, the younger generation sought opportunities to attend colleges and universities, and to work outside of the county.

In my five-month journey in Cumberland, I have come to know an incredible group of inspiring leaders and professionals whose businesses are on the cutting edge of innovation, technological advancement, and whose leadership and management practices, I believe, put them among the top tier in the country. They’ve evolved their enterprises to keep up with and anticipate changes in the external environment. Their ability to innovate, evolve, accurately respond to opportunities with speed and agility enabled them to survive and flourish during and after economic downturns. Their stories are fascinating. Analyses of these businesses and their trajectories would create fascinating case studies for business and management students. They are the type that one reads in the Harvard or Stanford Business Review.

As Cumberland County reinvents itself, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Our challenge and opportunity are to figure out how to build on the human capital that is here to accelerate our rate of progress, to help the new wave of immigrant businesses being created primarily by Mexicans and Central Americans to prosper, to bring and retain businesses in the County so that our young people can have opportunities to keep them here.

Cumberland County College plays a central role as convener, accelerator of educational attainment, human capital developer, workforce trainer, and economic development engine. We embrace these roles and are strengthening our foundation so that we can help propel the county to a new level of prosperity.

Living and Breathing Student Success: Our Mission at Cumberland

Tempus fugit! Where has all the time gone? It seems like Labor Day was just yesterday and now we are getting ready for registration for the winter session and the spring semester. Over the last few weeks it has just been lively on campus. As president, my new days are filled with back-to-back meetings and events in the evenings as well as the weekends. It is such a respite to walk to our cafeteria for lunch and find students rock climbing, playing a leisure game of volleyball, or see the cross country team running their laps around our beautiful campus!

Over the last few weeks, we have had such a range of exciting events take place on campus. I had one student comment to me that she didn’t expect college to be fun. At Cumberland County College, we work hard and we play hard!

I have been impressed with our Student Senate and all of the activities around which they have shown leadership. Their passion and their vision for the College are admirable and inspiring. This month, we celebrate veterans, Hispanic culture, men and women who have survived and are coping with domestic violence. The activism and service learning ethos of our students and the faculty and staff who help them facilitate these activities help define who we are as a campus and what we strive to achieve for all of Cumberland County working with our partners.

If you are looking to develop your leadership skills, we have a range of clubs, activities, and projects to do so. We also want our students to have a leadership role in creating their own college experience. In addition, as a designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions, we have a number of programs that target our at-risk Hispanic learners—youth and adults. We are extrapolating our learnings, findings, and successes from that group to apply to all at-risk populations in our region. We take pride in preparing the current and next generations of leaders for Cumberland County and to continuing to help raise the college attainment rate, working collaboratively with our partners.

Cultivating a Formidable Group of Scholar Athletes

Over the last three years, Cumberland County College has been building its athletics record and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.  We have been attracting a growing cadre of superbly talented athletes who are trained and mentored by coaches not only dedicated to their athletic success, but also to their academic achievement. Throughout the summer, while other students were still relishing the summer, our athletes were getting in shape physically and mentally to prepare for the school year. They are the pride of Cumberland!

At Cumberland County College, our culture around athletics is to embrace the whole athlete. We see our athletes not as students but as scholars. We see them as people who are gifted in sports in a way that most of us aren’t but whose career and success in life will depend not just on their athleticism and their physical ability, but also on their intellectual might. So, we cultivate them as scholar athletes.

As one who has been athletically-challenged all my life, I have a deep appreciation not just for the ability of our athletes but also for their contributions to our campus culture and campus life. Our athletes consistently demonstrate a high level of discipline and ability to focus, to work as a team as well as independently, to balance their commitment to the sport and their academics, and to support one another. Most importantly, they show grace in defeat and in success. They know how to deal with failure. They know how to pick themselves back up and try again. They are resilient and they show grit on and off the field. There is a lot that our campus, that our non-athletes, learn every day from these gifted female and male scholars on campus.

I look forward to attending more of our men’s and women’s games and to cheering on our talented athletes in success and in defeat, on the field and on social media because I know the effort that they put in. Here’s to our scholar athletes! You are Cumberland’s pride.

Welcome Back, Faculty and Students

It is going to be a great year! This year, Cumberland County College celebrates its 50th anniversary. We have a rare opportunity to showcase the great talent and passionate individuals—faculty, staff, board members, donors, and countless others—who have propelled our students to great success for 50 years. We also have half a century of accomplishments by our students and alumni to share with the world. Our impact on the broader Cumberland county community has been deep and profound. We are proud of the officials, private citizens, and inaugural board members who saw it fitting to establish the college to provide opportunities for higher learning and socioeconomic mobility for the people of Cumberland County.

As important as our celebration, as we enter our 50th year, we have an unprecedented opportunity to envision what Cumberland County College in the 21st century should look like, how it should serve the community, and what kinds of impact in should have on the lives of the people residing here and on the environment.

As a sector, higher education has been facing a range of challenges from over-reliance on underpaid adjunct faculty, to high cost for students and families that are disproportionate to the economic returns at the undergraduate level, and a perception of being too slow to evolve, to cite a few of the issues. Our sector also faces challenges like an aging workforce, high health care costs, and the need to adapt and innovate with speed, agility, excellence, and responsiveness to a rapidly changing world, changing consumer preferences, demographics, and technology. As we look back 50 years, we also need to look forward so that we can nurture the kinds of leaders and citizens needed in the 21st century and create the conditions that will allow us to not just survive, but thrive for another 50 years.

As president, I am committed to leading a highly adaptable institution that is idea-driven with empowered individuals throughout the college and the hierarchy so that we can anticipate some of the changes that we can expect in the near future and evolve with the world that exists outside of academia. Our institution is going to embrace technology in a way that we have never done before. We will breathe and live our community mission. We will work as partners with our stakeholders with a level of cohesion not previously experienced so that we can maximize our collective impact. Most importantly, we will have fun as we work hard.

Cumberland County College is an institution that is change-ready and future-ready. It is my privilege to be a steward of this great college. We are creating a new model for higher education here in South Jersey and we are proud of it. We are not afraid to get our hands dirty and not afraid to take educated risks because our people and our community are worth it.

Welcome to the 2016-2017 academic year! Let’s build something great and agile for the 21st century.

Our Farms as Assets in our Wealth Portfolio in Cumberland

My father grew up on a farm and from the time he became a teenager, his goal was figuring out how to get off the farm. He succeeded in that. He became the first person in his family to attain beyond a 4th grade education. My uncle is a farmer and I have always admired the breadth of interdisciplinary knowledge it takes to be a farmer. Plant genetics, plant physiology, meteorology, soil science, and other sciences such as ecology, earth science, biology, chemistry, engineering, and economics are just some of the major areas of knowledge a farmer needs to succeed. While my father ran far away from the farms of Haiti, I am running into the fields of corn, eggplants, jalapenos, and other produce in South Jersey.

This past week, I had the privilege of spending some time with two generations of farmers at Tom Pontano & Son Farms. They own 300 acres of farmland in Vineland. It was the most time that I have ever spent on a farm and one of the most enlightening experiences of my career. I always knew that it takes hard work to be a farmer, but the economics of farming even in the wealthiest country in the world are intricate and often do not favor those responsible for our sustenance. The agriculture business is a complex, extremely regulated, and an expensive enterprise. Needless to say, I walked away with a deep appreciation for my local farmers and a commitment to support them as part of my lifestyle and where my family chooses to shop for fresh produce.

On the professional front, as an institution located in a primarily rural area, Cumberland County College needs to better understand the business, challenges, and opportunities for local farmers. It is at the very core of our mission to serve the community. Farmers today face an array of issues including international competition which affects the prices they are able to command in the produce market, labor shortages, wage regulation, changing and less predictable weather, a strict regulatory environment, and managing the environmental impact of farming are among some of the issues. These challenges, for the most part, are not even related to the actual production of their produce. There, plant breeding, plant physiology, crop rotation, soil fertility, irrigation and drainage, weed control, and insect and pest control—to name a few—are major factors dominating farmers’ time with respect to the actual production of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Needless to say, I was impressed with my visit. The farms of Cumberland are one of the many natural assets in our collective wealth portfolio. They are also a way of life, the livelihood of many generations of immigrants old and new—from the more established Italians, Jews, and Puerto Ricans to the more recent Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans. The academic in me also sees the farms as large field stations for more than just scientific learning and scientific knowledge generation. Our farmers, I learned, develop their breadth of knowledge mostly from field experience. Constant experimentation is a way of life for them, as are constant risk assessment and risk taking. They are constantly evaluating their business model in light of what appears to be always changing external factors.

Thank a farmer today. Buy their fresh local produce. It’s a job that fewer and fewer people want to do. Volunteer at a farm. Give back in whatever small way that you can. Thank you Tom Sr. and Jr. for an incredible experience and great insights.