2 min read October 2021 — Rolando García, president of North Hennepin Community College, spoke to Invest: about an eventful year. The college has taken measures to improve diversity and inclusion initiatives but is also looking at a world where return on education and upskilling will be increasingly important. “What we’re trying to do in the next few years is offer pathways that will help students connect with us to pursue a baccalaureate degree and then, with our career center, help get them placed into companies that are looking for highly trained employees,” García said.
What measures have you taken to encourage diversity and inclusion?
Being intentional about racial equity and racial healing work was (and still is) of the utmost importance for our community, particularly as a college located close to ground zero of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. A number of initiatives were implemented to accomplish our goal, such as our C.O.R.E. Program (Conversations on Race and Equity) designed to engage students in critical conversations as a springboard for civic engagement. Our Social Justice Speaker series has also helped to amplify the diverse histories of our community members, which has both served to increase our awareness of issues salient to differing identity groups while also creating for us a culture of compassionate allies.
I moved here from South Florida just a few days after George Floyd was killed and during the midst of the protests. Having driven an RV here, I was able to see this play out across the country, so one of the things I asked my associate vice president of diversity to do was to look outside the college, especially with everything else that was going on. In response, a Racial Healing and Anti-Racism Community Outreach initiative was designed, and to date the diversity office has led a combination of learning opportunities and racial healing circles with the cities of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and local educators in an effort to build respectful and inclusive communities. Similar opportunities are certainly offered to our faculty and staff as well.
We’ve also looked at building capacity, at how we deliver courses and the policies and practices that we have in place right now which, in some cases, can increase the equity gap that we have with our students. I instructed our team to focus on the community, particularly if our students are going to be successful. Those things have evolved in working together to meet the needs of the community. It goes back to taking care of basic needs and security so that they can focus on higher-level learning and moving forward in their life.
How is lifelong learning changing approaches to education?
I like to think that we’re always working on ways to improve ourselves, we just don’t always realize it. Every time you listen to an audiobook or browse through a magazine, you’re learning. All through my career, I’ve seen folks coming back for self-improvement. I think it’s even more important now. Obviously there has been a huge change in our world. I think that during the pandemic, people took the time to learn new skills — photography, maybe, or programming — and it has been amazing to watch folks cultivate these skills. And then there are people who are older and deciding they want to learn to play tennis or golf. This is lifelong learning. It’s important that colleges and universities help meet that need in their community. It’s something that we’re looking to add. We have a huge project called Center for Innovation and the Arts that we want to create with our city partners, which is a cultural and arts center for this community. There will be courses that offer the community opportunities to learn things like pottery, ceramics, singing and instruments, in addition to multicultural events that will educate and bring this community together. We’re in the midst of trying to secure bonding from the state as well as fundraise capital dollars from private donors, foundations, and the community. It’s an exciting project to meet the needs of a very diverse community and provide lifelong learning in the arts.
What is your outlook for the next five years?
I’m optimistic in the sense that I believe we’ve seen the worst at this point. There are some challenges. Nationally, with the latest census, the population of younger adults and children has stayed relatively flat, while the population of the country overall has gotten older. We’re going to need to focus on things like lifelong learning specifically having people coming back to reskill or upskill, even pursuing an advanced degree. I think people working in a technical field or those working in the service industry may want to upskill and move into a new career. What we’re trying to do in the next few years is offer pathways that will help people connect with us to pursue a baccalaureate degree and then, with our career center, help get them placed into companies that are looking for highly trained employees. Those are the things that we are putting into place to address the needs of current and future students.
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