A Leader in Education Cuban Brings Community Colleges into Limelight in the U.S. 'TERRIFYING' EXPERIENCES 'ENCLOSED IN A FIST'

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 2, 2010 | Go to article overview

A Leader in Education Cuban Brings Community Colleges into Limelight in the U.S. 'TERRIFYING' EXPERIENCES 'ENCLOSED IN A FIST'


MIAMI -- (AP) Eduardo Padron sat in his high school counselor's office, ready to discuss his future and fulfill the promise he had made to his mother before boarding a plane and leaving Cuba.

But the counselor told Padron he wasn't college material. You should apply to a trade school, she said.

"When she said that, the voice of my mother in the back of my head was telling me, 'No, you're going to college and you can do much better,'" Padron recalls.

Rejecting the counselor's advice, he applied to many schools. He was accepted at just one: Miami's community college.

"If I'm passionate about this place," Padron says from behind his desk at Miami Dade College, where today he is the school's president, "it's because of my understanding of how this institution changed my life."

Padron -- a man with a gentle demeanor and determination -- is one of the greatest proponents of the nation's more than 1,000 community colleges.

His enthusiasm is shared by Barack Obama, who also believe in the importance of community colleges.

As educators and officials look to reconfigure higher education, they'll be looking to Miami Dade College and Padron, who has transformed the urban school into one of the largest colleges in the United States, graduating more black and Hispanic students than any other public institution.

"What Eduardo has accomplished is a marvelous demonstration that open access and high quality can live together successfully in American higher education," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

In the last year, as Padron fostered a close relationship with the White House, regularly conferring with top education officials on policy recommendations, Time magazine named him one of the 10 best college presidents in the United States -- the only community college leader on the list.

It's a long way from the day a teenage Padron left Cuba with just a suitcase full of clothes, landing in a country of which he knew almost nothing.

Padron describes his first experiences in U.S. schools with one word: "terrifying."

"I got to the school and I didn't understand a word and everything was alien to me," he says.

In Cuba, his family had lived in middle-class neighborhoods. His father worked for a British pharmaceutical company and his mother was a housewife. Neither had received much formal education.

Both grew nervous after the initial euphoria surrounding Fidel Castro. So they sent 15-year-old Eduardo and his 12-year-old brother to the United States.

Before they left, Padron's mother made him make a promise: "No matter what, I would go to college, even if I had to do without food for one day or two," Padron recalls.

A family friend took the boys into her one-bedroom apartment.

Padron enrolled in high school.

The first days were filled with small tremors, the kind that could have easily set him on a different course: "The teacher and students are talking to you and you don't know what they're saying. …

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