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By Ron Feemster
Queens, New York
G
ail 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
college.
“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
Colleges sponsors
the annual Outward
Bound-style initiation
in Colorado for
newly appointed
presidents. She took
the trip in 1998, the
summer after her
first year as president
of Gloucester
Community College
in southern New
Jersey.
Two years later she
was being considered
for three vacant
community college
presidencies in the
City University of New York system. LaGuardia, she told
the search committees, 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.
Spring 2002
The World’s Community College
Diversity in action at LaGuardia
What was special
about LaGuardia?
Dozens of challenges
and opportunities
that start and end
with a single fact:
LaGuardia’s diversity.
With students from
140 nations, speaking
104 languages—some
second-generation
immigrants and
some right off the
plane—the school is a
microcosm of Queens,
perhaps the most
ethnically diverse
county in the United
States.
If Queens is
a microcosm of the
world, LaGuardia is
the world’s community
college.
Students at
LaGuardia have
lived through war
in Bosnia, ethnic
cleansing in Kosovo,
guerrilla kidnappings
in Colombia, even
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.
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.
With students
from 140 nations,
speaking 104
languages, LaGuardia
is a microcosm of
Queens, perhaps
the most ethnically
diverse county in the
United States.
Photos by Lisa Quiñones, Black Star, for CrossTalk