May 1, 2017

Bringing higher ed to the masses

Luis Pedraja, the president-elect at Quinsigamond Community College, visited campus after his selection with his family to house shop. He said he was attracted to the job by its stable leadership.
Sue Mailman, the QCC trustees chairwoman.
Pedraja, who was born in Cuba, said his parents pushed him to earn an education because it would be something that no one could take from him.

Having grown up in Cuba, attending school in the United States as a boy who knew almost no English, and later being the first in his family to go to college, Luis Pedraja has dedicated his career helping people like him get an education.

"Higher education was able to transform my life and open opportunities and doors for me, and I want to pay it forward," Pedraja said in an interview at Quinsigamond Community College, where he is poised to become the new president following the end of the school year.

"I want to help others who are like me: first-generation, or people who may be from low-income families, people who are recent immigrants, even adults who feel like life passed them by, they've missed the opportunity and had to go to work, and feel they wish they had gone to college and weren't able," he said.

Pedraja was appointed last month by the college's board of trustees and hasn't waited until formal state Board of Higher Education approval to start his work at QCC. He spent time on campus in April while in the area house-hunting and started laying the groundwork for his tenure, including working with Gail Carberry as she wraps up 10 years as QCC president.

Pedraja said he was attracted to QCC by its stable leadership under Carberry and the potential he saw in the college.

"I thought this might be a good place to live, to raise my daughter," he said of his 13-year-old.

Reaching more students

The QCC board of trustees felt he was someone who understands the social justice mission of the community college, said Sue Mailman, the trustees president.

"Any time change happens, it brings new thinking and excitement," Mailman said. "We're looking forward to having his background and expertise in higher ed, and to having his family move to Worcester and be part of our community."

Pedraja will join QCC at a time when it and most other Massachusetts community colleges are seeing enrollment fall from a peak during the Greater Recession, when members of the workforce returned to school for additional training as available jobs were limited.

QCC's enrollment has declined by nearly 12 percent from the 2011-'12 school year to the 2015-'16 year, slightly higher than the statewide community college drop, according to the state.

Pedraja sees several ways of attracting and keeping students, including dual-enrollment programs with high school students to get them earning college credits and show they can succeed in a college environment. Once students are on campus, he said, the school should put students on what he calls guided pathways, with sets of classes and cohorts that keep students moving in a clear way toward their diploma.

Community colleges can better serve their students by better preparing them for jobs they'll enter after graduation – teaching a profession, not just a discipline, as he put it – and to keep up with a changing job field, Pedraja said.

"What's going to be the job market when they graduate? What's going to be the job market five years from now?" he said. "That's a challenge for us, and I'm willing to pick up that challenge."

Creating funding, business partnerships

Quinsigamond, one of the state's largest community colleges with more than 5,000 full-time students, has had state funding remain largely flat in the past 15 years, with about $20 million coming from the state this year. Higher education funding overall in Massachusetts has fallen by 14 percent since 2001, according to the nonprofit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, even as enrollment rose sharply during that time.

QCC needs to look beyond state funds for revenue, Pedraja said.

"Education is an economic driver, and I think people forget that," he said, touting the value colleges give to an area he said isn't always appreciated.

States should support colleges better, he said, but schools like QCC must partner with businesses that can help provide students with internships and other training opportunities.

The Board of Higher Education is scheduled to vote on Pedraja's appointment May 9 at QCC.

An influential upbringing

Pedraja's upbringing brought him toward a career of what he says is helping those like him.

He was born in Cuba and moved at age 6 with his parents to Spain in 1969. When the Cuban government found out his family was leaving, they took his father's produce shop, leaving him to work in forced-labor camps cutting sugar cane in the short period before the family actually left.

After two years in Spain, the family moved to the United States, with Pedraja in awe at the time of a what he called a magical place of color television and opportunity. He entered school in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, excelling in math and science but struggling to speak English. His father told him to work hard because an education was something that could never be taken from him.

"That seeped into me and became part of my DNA," he said.

Without an example for how to get to college, he wasn't sure where to go. Princeton was deemed by his parents to be too expensive and too far away, so he picked nearby Stetson University.

It wasn't until a mentor at Stetson told him to imagine the title "Luis Pedraja, Ph.D." that he was able to see it for himself. For first-generation students, an example to follow and a support system can make all the difference, he said.

"I want kids to be able to dream beyond their current circumstances."

Pedraja's path wasn't always headed in the direction of a career in higher education. He first thought to study philosophy and religion. The impulse to give back first led him to the church. He became an ordained Baptist minister.

"I felt I could do greater good through education," he said.

Pedraja's career has taken him since from the University of Puget Sound in the Seattle area to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in Philadelphia. Since August, he has been the interim vice president of academic affairs at the Peralta Community College District, which includes four community colleges in or adjacent to Oakland, Calif.

"He's an integral part of our district," Peralta Chancellor Jowel Laguerre said. "He's very versatile in his knowledge."

Peralta hired Pedraja for a one-year term until they could find a permanent hire. In his time in the role, Pedraja has brought a greater faculty focus on academic affairs and student services, Laguerre said.

"He has a calmness about him," Laguerra said, "a way to address people and see the goodness in others and to help them move forward."


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