It is a bittersweet moment for LaGuardia Community College president Dr. Gail O. Mellow, who announced that she is stepping down after more than 20 years of service to the institution.
A champion for community colleges and their work to educate, graduate and boost the social mobility of underserved students, Mellow’s tenure as president has been marked by significant increases in domestic and international student enrollment, new and innovative degree and workforce programs and a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, notably in faculty hiring.
She will step down in August 2019.
“I will miss this place tremendously,” Mellow said in an interview with Diverse. “It has just been the honor of my lifetime to serve the incredible colleagues and these amazing students here.”
Mellow, who began her presidency in 2000, added that her departure is also an opportunity to reflect on LaGuardia’s accomplishments and successes over the years.
During her tenure as president, LaGuardia has become a national leader for community colleges to holistically serve their students through academic, professional and personal development opportunities. The college saw a 64 percent increase in enrollment for degree-seeking students and a 155 percent increase in non-credit students. Investments in faculty development have increased, and faculty diversity increased from 30 percent to 44 percent, Mellow added.
In addition, LaGuardia’s nearly 50,000 learners gained access to 50 new academic majors under Mellow’s tenure, including in the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, environmental science, industrial design and philosophy.
The college is also home to often-replicated programs and initiatives such as the Bridge to College and Careers Program or First Year Seminar, as well as community partnerships that bring workforce development and support to small business owners and entrepreneurs such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program and NYDesigns. An emphasis on wraparound supports provides students with access to a food pantry, on-campus employment, emergency funds and scholarships and affordable day care for parents.
Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality placed LaGuardia in the top one percent of U.S. community colleges who have the greatest success elevating low-income students into jobs that ultimately lead to fulfilling lives for themselves and families.
Mellow’s determination to make LaGuardia a place for students to earn a high-quality, affordable education rests on her belief that America’s future lies in the necessary investment into more community colleges – institutions that educate more than 50 percent of low-income and students of color.
“That’s a remaining challenge that I wasn’t able to get enough traction on,” Mellow said. “We still have to think much more seriously about how to fund community colleges if we are going to create the kind of equity that we want to see in the United States. … What I don’t want is an America where having been born poor condemns you to a life of poverty.”
For this reason, her advice to LaGuardia’s next president is twofold.
“Enjoy this role,” she said, adding that she hopes the next president – like herself –revels in the “extraordinary” talent of the college’s students, faculty and staff.
“The next president has to revel in the joy of watching the return on investment. When those students are given a first class education, they just go everywhere,” Mellow continued. “The next president of LaGuardia has to fight to hang onto the robustness of a community college that deeply combines the workplace skills, the technical skills, the healthcare skills with the broader liberal arts agenda that allows people to think, develop humility and cultural agility, creates curiosity and lets them live a full and enlightened life.”
City University of New York Interim Chancellor Dr. Vita C. Rabinowitz praised Mellow for her service to students and for spearheading innovations at LaGuardia that have inspired community colleges across the nation.
“One would be hard-pressed to find another educator who has done more than President Gail Mellow to champion the value of community colleges within the overall landscape of American higher education,” Rabinowitz said. “She has also drawn on her keen understanding of LaGuardia’s students, addressing their needs, using their strengths and positioning them to attain both academic and workforce success. Gail may be embarking on a new chapter in her career, but her legacy is assured as one of the great leaders of CUNY and of public higher education in the United States.”
Sivan Ron, an international student majoring in communications at LaGuardia, said whenever he hears Mellow speak at events such as during student orientation, he can tell that she truly cares about students, their development and their access to transformative opportunities. One of the reasons he chose LaGuardia is because he heard of its accessibility and support of international students.
“Anyone who’s stepping down after 20 years at the same place has obviously been a big part of the institution and all of the things it represents,” said Ron, who is in his last semester at the college. “This place being home for international students and immigrant students obviously says a lot about her and what she has achieved here.”
The charge Mellow gives to her students as she prepares to step down is to hold on to the American dream, although they may face burdens like homelessness, poverty, racism or anti-immigrant sentiments.
“All of those things are real challenges for these students,” she said. “But when a student connects, when they ask for help sometimes, when they make a friend, when they help someone else, they really create a network that allows them to thrive and that’s really where I want them to go.”
Post-retirement, Mellow will continue to support the work to position community colleges as an incubator of talent for America’s future.
“We have got to double down on making education the strategy that America uses to create a more prosperous and more equitable future,” she said.
Moniva Levitan contributed to this report.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.
This article first appeared in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.