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The World's Community College
Diversity in action at LaGuardia
By Ron Feemster
Queens, New York
Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, understands why institutions like hers are important. She began her
higher education at Jamestown Community College in the
southwest corner of New York State. She juggled classes,
a full-time job and a two-year-old daughter. She knew
then--and remembers today--that school was not her most
urgent priority. At the same time, it was a life-transforming
process that opened up opportunities beyond any that
she might have imagined for herself. "If there hadn't been
a community college in my town," she said, "I might be
working for Wal-Mart today."
A look of consternation passed briefly over Mellow's
face, as if she were considering the possibility that remarks
about working at a retail chain are somehow insensitive,
when hundreds of her full-time students are hoping to
keep similar jobs in a tight New York job market. What she
meant, she pointed out quickly, is that she couldn't have
gotten here without her beginnings at a local community
"Here" is a spacious corner office in one of the
refurbished factory buildings that LaGuardia calls home. A
photo on the bookshelf over her head shows Mellow and
four other community college presidents shooting rapids
in a rubber raft. The American Association of Community
With students from 140 nations,
the annual Outward Bound-style initiation in Colorado for
newly appointed presidents. She took
the trip in 1998, the summer after her
is a microcosm of
first year as president of Gloucester
Queens, perhaps the most ethnically
Community College in southern New Jersey.
Two years later she diverse county in the was being considered
for three vacant community college
presidencies in the
City University of New York system. LaGuardia, she told
the Search Committee
s, was the only job she would take in
New York. If they had asked, she would have told them that
running LaGuardia was the only job in the country that
could have lured her from the comfortable position in the
suburbs of Philadelphia.
Photos by Lisa Quiсones, Black Star, for CrossTalk
What was special
Dozens of challenges
that start and end
with a single fact:
With students from
140 nations, speaking
some right off the
plane--the school is a
microcosm of Queens,
perhaps the most
county in the United
States. If Queens is
a microcosm of the
world, LaGuardia is
the world's community
lived through war
in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, guerrilla kidnappings in Colombia, even
Richard Elliott, LaGuardia's vice president for finance and administration, says the college was seriously underfunded during Rudolph Giuliani's years as mayor of New York.
slavery in the Sudan. When political violence struck New
York last September, the campus was shocked but not
cowed, according to Mellow. At a spontaneous school
assembly convened last September 12 (which would have
been the third day of classes) students reflected on their
strength as well as their vulnerability, on the richness
of a campus community whose members hail from five
continents. "This place is so diverse, you can't drop a bomb
anywhere in the world without hurting someone on this
campus," said a student the college president likes to quote.
A walk around campus The community college--which was named for Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City's flamboyant mayor form 1933 to 1945--was founded 31 years ago in spaces where an earlier generation of immigrants worked. The Ford Instrument Company was the original LaGuardia facility. The Equitable Bag Company, which once stood across the street from Ford in the Queens industrial neighborhood known as Long Island City, was opened in 1992. They are the two main campus buildings today.
LaGuardia by the Numbers
Enrollment (fall 2001) Total: Full-time: Part-time:
11,427 6,908 4,579
Median student age: 23
Racial/ethnic composition Hispanic: Black non-Hispanic: Asian, Pacific Islander: White: Other: Unknown (no response):
34 percent 16 percent 16 percent 14 percent 5 percent 15 percent
Students from 140 countries, speaking 104 languages
Operating budget (2001-02):
Tuition and Fees: New York State full-time students seeking degrees pay $1,250 tuition per semester, plus $60.85 in fees. Out-of-state students pay $1,538 tuition.
A few hundred yards to the west, at the foot of the 59th
Street Bridge to Manhattan, LaGuardia is slowly renovating
a third factory building, which still has a few manufacturing
tenants. Classes are held on three of the nine floors of the
former Loose Wiles Sunshine Biscuit Complex. The school
envisions a business incubator on the top floors.
"We want them to have enough experience
Back on the main campus, LaGuardia had the street between buildings "demapped" by the city of New York and transformed it into a
on the job to begin to courtyard, the only bit of outdoor space on campus.
think about the world LaGuardia houses four high schools in addition to the community college.
of work. We offer hope, Middle College High School, one of the nation's first schools for at-risk
encouragement, and a little bit of reality."
students, encourages its 500 students to do college work during high school and seek an associate's degree. International
--Jack Rainey, director of
High School gives 500 fresh immigrants with limited English skills their first
cooperative education at LaGuardia
taste of American secondary education
. The Robert Wagner High School, named for another former New York
City mayor, focuses on the arts and
technology. LaGuardia is also the temporary home for Frank
Sinatra High School for the Performing Arts, which was
founded by fellow singer Tony Bennett.
Visitors never quite know who will be waiting around the
next corner on LaGuardia's campus. Two Chinese students
hammering a table tennis
ball back and forth, or a tight
circle of Young Women
, heads covered by shawls, conversing quietly outside a classroom. Many ethnic groups have their formal or informal meeting places, but everyone comes together in a three-story atrium off the courtyard. At this campus (and world) crossroads, it seems that everyone hails from somewhere else. Simply stopping passersby for fifteen minutes highlights the disparate goals, academic histories, cultural values and language backgrounds LaGuardia's students bring to the school. Some, like Wumi Daramola, 21, are living the almost universal story of second-generation immigrants in New York. Her father practiced as a medical doctor in Nigeria, and traveled alone to England and later Canada on sabbaticals before settling in New York. He is working as a School Nurse
to support his family. Daramola, who came to LaGuardia after graduating from Evander Childs high school in the Bronx, is at home on the streets of two big cities, New York and Lagos. And she is torn between the future her family sees for her and the one she is discovering for herself. "I told my father that I would study nursing," she said. "But I think I want a career in business." Daramola's tale is as old as the CUNY system. But Dhruba Saha's story is more typical of LaGuardia's recent students. A 26-year-old native of Bangladesh, he was studying botany and zoology there two years ago when Saha received word that the United States had granted him a student visa. Without finishing the semester, he dropped out of school, took the next flight to New York, and enrolled in the computer science
program at LaGuardia. Asked if he always wanted to study computers, Saha President Gail Mellow believes LaGuardia Community College offers valuable opportunities for its many foreign-born students.
offered an answer that new immigrants have given for generations. "I just want to improve myself," he said. "I am interested in having a better life." Computers are fine, but he is considering a change to the nursing program, because it offers immediate steady employment
upon graduation, even in an otherwise tough job market. LaGuardia has grown from 500 students in 1971 to nearly 12,000 degree candidates today (9,500 full-time equivalents). But now as then, the school is a predominantly female institution. Almost two thirds of the students are women. Many are working mothers with tight schedules who depend on a complex web of family relationships for childcare and financial support. Mellow says the school lost 700 registrants in the wake of September 11
, largely because the Family members
who had provided or paid for childcare were no longer able to do so.
Writing--everybody's problem Saha was relaxing at midday with Bill Mazza, his former tutor at LaGuardia's writing center, which is at the heart of the school's remediation program. For most non-native speakers
of English--and for many others who simply are not ready to do college work upon leaving the New York City Public Schools
, the center is the key to survival at LaGuardia. Students who can follow a lecture, read a textbook and participate in a class discussion cannot necessarily write a paper or pass a written exam. About half of the student body takes at least one of the remedial English course
s. All of them convene for a onehour writing lab in addition to regular class meetings
every week. Some 3,500 other students show up for tutorials every year. Any teacher in any course on campus can suggest that a student attend the writing center. Writing and remediation are not among the sexiest programs at the community college, but everyone from Gail Mellow on down brings up the writing center within the first few minutes of conversation. And why not? Two thirds of LaGuardia's students are foreign born. If the school wants to maintain or increase enrollment, it must teach students to write in English. "I get excited when people learn to write a simple, fairly well argued essay," said Bert Eisenstadt, a senior staffer at the center, whose credits include writing at Soap Opera Digest and teaching autistic people. "The first step is the biggest. I get an enormous kick out of being responsible for that step." Tutors like Mazza, who typically make significant progress toward a graduate degree before they are offered a job, start at $10 per hour. The hourly rate doesn't climb beyond $12, according to Eisenstadt, who says he loses tutors constantly because they become classroom teachers
for higher pay. "You don't do it for the money," said Mazza, who, true to form, is angling for an adjunct faculty position in English. Most students meet their tutors in a warren of tiny cubicles with four or five chairs around the table. The furniture points up the biggest problem LaGuardia's writing teachers face. "Teaching writing is all about relationships," Eisenstadt said. "One-to-one teaching works the best. You can still accomplish many of the same goals in a two-to-one
The LaGuardia campus is located in three former factory buildings in the New York City borough of Queens.
setting. But three-to-one is too much like a small group."
"Fluency does not proceed in a straight line," said Sandra
Hanson, chair of the English department, and inhabitant of
the most arresting office on campus. (Posters of Elvis Presley
share wall space with advertisements for John Deere tractors
and an aerial photo of her family's farm in Iowa. Framed
Norwegian American embroidery complements a collection
of African dolls.) "You can't assume that a student who
finished ESL 099 last fall with a good
LaGuardia has grown 300-word essay will succeed in remedial English. They could stay on the same
level for a while without the writing center and other supports."
by expanding adult
Even at the depressed tutor wages, there simply isn't enough money at LaGuardia to teach writing one-on-
and continuing education
one. There is no formula for creating productive groups. In general, group
teaching slows progress, Eisenstadt says, which in turn feeds the political
in 1996 to more than
28,000 in 2000. objections to community college education. New York City has decreased
its share of community college funding,
even during the boom years of Rudolph Giuliani's mayoralty,
with the argument that too few students graduate on
time. "One percent of our students graduate on time,"
Eisenstadt said. "I find it surprising that any graduate on time. They work in factories. They have spouses and parents who don't speak English. They write term papers in a second language
. Why would they graduate on time?"
Community, cooperation, direction
If the writing center is what gets
new arrivals and underachievers on
track in the classroom, the Cooperative
Education program helps students
chart a future course in the outside
world. Every LaGuardia student must
complete two semester-long internships
to graduate. In addition to getting
their feet wet in a field that interests
them, students attend seminars to
help decide if they want to pursue a
four-year degree or go right to work
after graduation. Employers include
large manufacturers and banks, small
shops specializing in photography or
design, magazines, television networks and newspapers, nonprofits and government agencies.
Wumi Daramola, whose father was a medical doctor in Nigeria, intended to study nursing at LaGuardia Community College, but might switch to business.
"We sometimes offer occupational training, as in travel of work. We offer hope, encouragement, and a little bit of
or hotel reservations
," said Jack Rainey, the director of
cooperative education at the college. "But sometimes the
career exploration is much less specific. It also depends on The best and worst of times
what the company needs. At Verizon (the local telephone
In 1991, two years before Giuliani was elected mayor
provider), students have been repairing derelict equipment of New York, the city contributed $121 million dollars
and building new networks."
to CUNY's community colleges, or 42.4 percent of the
At Community Board 3 in Queens, a local government
budget. Tuition payments of $61.5 million represented
advisory body funded by the city, one LaGuardia student
21.6 percent of the budget. By 2002, when he left office, the
per semester works on a prototype for a Community Board city contribution in current dollars had dropped to $101
website. Tom Lowenhaupt,
million, or 28 percent, while tuition payments had more
"I get excited when
one of 50 volunteer board
than doubled to $135.5 million, or 37.5 percent. State aid
members whose own company remained nearly constant in percentage terms during the
people learn to write a simple, fairly well argued essay. The first step is
donated server space for the site, explains the scope of the project, gives students direction and sends them home to write the code. "This is not just
same period, falling to 34.5 percent from 36 percent. Tuition has doubled, in current dollars, to $1,250 per semester for full-time students. "We suffered during those years," said Richard Elliott, LaGuardia's vice president for finance and administration.
the biggest. I get an
about programming in HTML "The mayor was not an ardent supporter of community
or Java," Lowenhaupt said. "I
colleges, probably because he did not have as much control
enormous kick out of being try to teach them to solve a
over CUNY as he would have liked."
communications problem. They
Elliott described the 1990s as a period of trying to get
responsible for that step." need to learn to think about
by from year to year. Even today, he sees paying day-to-
the site from the user's point of day expenses as one of the greatest challenges facing the
--Bert Eisenstadt, an instructor view."
community college during the next five years. LaGuardia is
at LaGuardia's writing center
Every intern is likely to have a slightly different work
about to settle a faculty contract dispute and has agreed to a labor settlement with its civil servant employees that will
experience, since each company cost the school about $1 million.
tends to develop its own co-op model, Rainey said. One
There is no money in the budget to fund the settlements
technology firm that uses LaGuardia interns on a help desk as of yet, according to Elliott. The school has made cuts
hired LaGuardia graduates (former interns) to supervise the where it could--everywhere from cleaning and building
rotating crop of workers. "We want them to have enough
maintenance to leaving vacant staff positions unfilled. With
experience on the job to begin to think about the world
a new mayor in City Hall, the school hoped for additional
funding from the city. But faced with a budget deficit of $4.8 million, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for cuts across nearly all city agencies. Reaching out In an attempt to make up the shortfall in city funding, LaGuardia has aggressively pursued grants. In the 1991-92 academic year, the school brought in $6.4 million in grants. In 2000-01, LaGuardia received $13.4 million in grants from government sources and private foundations. "We doubled the dollar volume of grants in the last ten years, but it isn't nearly enough," Elliott said. The school also has a private foundation that will eventually produce an income stream. Community college alumni rarely make significant financial contribution
s to their alma mater. Among the larger grants the school has received are two federal Title V grants for $3.5 million, awarded to institutions that serve large Hispanic populations. One dedicates $400,000 per year for the next five years to
upgrade Computer Networks
and fiber-optic data lines. But introducing technology into a greater number of classrooms is only the beginning of the tasks set by LaGuardia. In the long run, the school wants to require almost every student to create an online portfolio that would become part of the school's graduation requirements. In addition to posting term papers and similar projects, LaGuardia would ask students to put up videos of final speeches or dramatic performances, original music, or photos of sculptures and paintings. "We will have the portfolio project going as a pilot project in a few classes first," Elliott said. "If it works out, we see it as a campus-wide requirement." To ease the introduction of this requirement among the school's senior faculty members, many of whom were hired in the 1970s and have not hurried into the computer age, LaGuardia has designed a program in which students become technology mentors for faculty. The school was among several singled out for recognition this year by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Based in
Update Steady Growth at LaGuardia
L aGuardia Community College, which was described as "the world's community college" in a spring 2002 National CrossTalk article, has been living up to its reputation in the years since.
In fall 2007 the college, located in the New York City borough of
Queens, enrolled students from 156 countries, speaking 118 different
native languages. Fifty-nine percent were foreign born; 53 percent
were first-generation college students
. A majority were low income.
There has been steady growth. Fall 2007 enrollment included
15,169 credit students and 58,281 non-credit.
Although the number of white students has increased in recent
years, they remain a minority. In fall 2006 the student population was
38 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian, 20 percent black, 15 percent
white and six percent "other races and ethnicities."
Since most LaGuardia students must combine their studies with
jobs and family responsibilities, they often take longer to earn degrees
Fall 2007 enrollment "We continue to look for ways to enable our at LaGuardia included students to earn degrees or
certificates in two years," said Gail O. Mellow, LaGuardia's
students and 58,281
president since 2000, in a 2008 interview.
In recent years the college has been "trying to create
career paths, so students can
move from lower-paying jobs like cleaning rooms in Manhattan
hotels to something that pays better and is more interesting," Mellow
For example, after taking ESL and other remedial classes, a
student "might move to classes for home health aides, then to a
certified nurse program, after that training to be a phlebotomist or a
similar job, and perhaps eventually to a nursing program, either LVN
(Licensed Vocational Nurse) or RN (Registered Nurse)," Mellow There has been an
said. There has been an
on electronic increasing focus on electronic portfolios, in which students
portfolios, in which keep a record not only of their educational progress but also of
students keep a their personal life experiences. These portfolios make it
easier for "students whose lives are quite complex--they have families, or hold part-time
record not only of their educational
progress but also of jobs or perhaps are in drug recovery--to get a community
college education," Mellow said. "We think this is a very
their personal life
experiences. important development--it has become the singular pedagogy
of the college."
"These `e-portfolios' are both a record of students' work and a
reflection on their learning experience
s," said Bret Eynon, executive
director of the LaGuardia Center for teaching and learning
are a mix of the academic and the personal. They allow students to
capture what's happening to them, to reflect on how they're changing."
Since the program began in 2001, between 13,000 and 15,000
students have compiled e-portfolios, Eynon said. Enrollments have
risen from 5,000 in the 2005-06 academic year to more than 7,500 in
"This e-portfolio is basically a showcase of my best works and
pieces that I've done to date," Abigail Philip, an aspiring teacher who
was raised on the Caribbean islands
of Antigua and Barbuda, wrote
in her electronic journal. "This tool is basically one of my tickets
into the workplace or a four-year institution. This is a perfect way
of displaying my abilities, not only academically but socially and
personally as well."
large part on work done at Middle
College High School, a total of $40
million was awarded to a number of
foundations, which will distribute
the money to community schools
doing similar work throughout
the United States. The grant aims
to replicate a secondary education
model pioneered at LaGuardia. At
Middle College, students at risk
of dropping out of high school are
placed in smaller classes within
smaller schools and challenged to
do college work. Instead of merely
finishing high school, students
are expected to earn an associate's
degree within a five-year span.
LaGuardia has grown by
expanding adult and continuing
education from 19,000 enrollments
in 1996 to more than 28,000 in 2000.
The heart of the growth strategy is figuring out what services the public
Dhruba Saha (left), a native of Bangladesh, was a student of Bill Mazza at LaGuardia's writing center, key to the college's remedial programs.
needs. The school was among the first to train taxi drivers; it admits. It does view its greatest challenge as its greatest
has developed a program to help deaf adults transition from opportunity: The same mind-boggling diversity that makes
high school to college; and it has become a leader in training simple communication an adventure guarantees a fresh
paramedics and Emergency Medical Technician
s. Enrollment point of view every day. "We don't really know what's next,"
in the ESL program grew by 25 percent between 1996
Mellow said. "Sometimes we have to say, Let's just learn our
and 2000, topping 2,000 registrants that year. Participants
way through this." u
ranged in age from 16 to more than 60. Spurred mostly by
immigration to Queens, the English language
program has Ron Feemster has been a freelance writer based in Germany
also become an inexpensive option for free spirits like Kazu and New York. He currently teaches at the Indian Institute of
Miyoshi, 33, an architect from Japan who quit his corporate Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India.
job to become a sculptor. He wants to learn English before
traveling the world to look at art. "Friends in Japan told me
The school hoped for
to come here," he said. And when the student
additional funding from
cannot come to LaGuardia, the community college comes to
the city. But faced with
the student. LaGuardia receives $1.3 million from the New York
a budget deficit of $4.8
City Department of Corrections each year to teach high school
million Mayor Michael
equivalency courses in jail.
The program serves a highly
Bloomberg has been forced transient population, given that
to call for cuts across
most city inmates are awaiting trial, and no convicted criminal
nearly all city agencies.
serves a sentence longer than one year in a city facility. "We
have to set short-term goals,"
said Linda Gilberto, the head of Continuing and Adult
Education at LaGuardia. "But we sometimes have a lasting
LaGuardia is the kind of community that challenges
assumptions, whether about the way to teach a diverse
group, or the goals appropriate for at-risk high school
students. As an institution, it has enjoyed great successes,
but it does not have all of the answers, as Gail Mellow readily