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Siglo XXI Conference Keynote Address

I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to

provide the conditions in which they can learn.
Albert Einstein

Latinos and Higher Education

I appreciate your invitation to share some of my personal reflections on Latinos and Higher Education.  Gracias, Dra. Hernandez, Director, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute and Dr. Cárdenas, Executive Director, Inter-University Program for Latino Research, University of Notre Dame, for the joy of this morning.  First of all, I begin by recognizing an institution that shaped and guided my life: The City University of New York.  I am a proud alumna of Queens College and of the Graduate School and University Center.  I learned to be a professor with the support of my colleagues and students at York College where my first twenty-three years in higher education were happily and purposefully spent.  Hostos Community College where I served as Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for almost seven years taught me to love community colleges and fully underscored for me the transformative power that community colleges have when teaching is conducted with a flexible mind and an open heart.  The CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at The City College is a wonderful place.  I have collaborated closely with colleagues at the Institute for many years and feel a tremendous pride for the work being done there.  My colleagues at the Centro, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, supported many Caribbean Women Writers Conferences and published a number of important anthologies.  I am truly at home in CUNY, with colleagues who are “familia” in all of its beautiful colleges.  CUNY is a vibrant, transformative and generous institution.  Many of us immigrants, eager to learn and to grow, over so many decades have found in CUNY a generous home:  Gracias, de todo corazón.  The teachings of CUNY have served me well in my present position as President of my beloved Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut where since my assuming the presidency in the summer of 2008, I have strived to create the conditions under which our students can learn.

What were those conditions provided by CUNY when I attended in the early 1970’s that were able to turn a reluctant immigrant and young mother into the only college president of Dominican descent in the U.S., an academic leader whose work is appreciated by many communities:

  1. I was able to attend Queens College because I could afford to do so: there was no tuition then. 
  2. I was able to attend Queens College because there were rich course offerings in the evenings and multiple summer program offerings, and three different calendars to work with.
  3. I was able to select courses from very rich liberal arts offerings that allowed me to study from Western Civilization and History of Art to Black Studies and Women’s Studies.  There were language requirements that engaged my curiosity and study of not only Spanish, English or Italian, languages I already knew well, but also French, Portuguese and Latin. Evening course offerings supported my choice of a double major in Spanish and English literatures.
  4. I had professors who looked after me and who were inclusive in their teachings.  I think with tremendous gratitude about Professor Rafael Rodriguez, Rafi, “que en paz descanse”, who went out of his way to make sure that I read the works of the Dominican poet laureate Pedro Mir and about Professor Bette Weidman who encouraged my incursion in Women Studies and Native American Studies.  It was the golden age of CUNY and a period of tremendous intellectual growth for me.  Undergraduate education was as fine as it can be on any college campus in the U.S. I benefitted greatly from open admissions and a rich and supportive liberal studies program that was inclusive and inviting and that recognized the importance of having students see themselves in the curriculum.

The importance of a strong liberal arts education cannot ever be overstated nor can it be accurately measured by metrics, however thoughtful the design.  At its best it is life transforming and it lasts through the multiple career changes contemporary life expects. Reflecting on the importance of a liberally educated mind, the distinguished 19th century Puerto Rican educator, philosopher and fiction writer Eugenio María de Hostos said:

“No basta enseñar conocimientos hay que enseñar a adquirirlos; no basta dar ciencia hecha; es necesario enseñar a formarla; no basta sujetarse a la enseñanza en un método; es necesario enseñar a manejarlo.  En una palabra; hay necesidad de enseñar a razonar.”

Teach our people to reason; teach our young people to be life-long learners.  Create a space for education to have meaning for them, to enter the imagination as a very real possibility for their lives.  I often reflect also on the importance of home.  For me, these principles manifested themselves in the presence of a grandmother who taught me to love books and to believe in myself.  Consequently, I insist when I speak with Latino groups about the importance of creating at home “conditions in which they can learn” to allow their imagination to impose no limits on the possibilities education can bring. For mothers and fathers to help their sons and daughters understand that they can be free to imagine a future that is meaningful to them, even if it means that they follow a career path not normally expected, for instance, for girls in our culture-from mechanics to rocket scientists; or for boys from Allied Health to the Arts; or for both from literature to College top administration.

It was also our venerable Hostos who insisted in his belief that young girls should be educated in the sciences, yes for the sake of their families and nations, but for the most part, for their own sakes so that they could become complete human beings.

We Latinos need to be aware of the need to create or to guide the creation in our homes, in the schools our students attend and in the curriculum that is taught “the conditions in which they can learn.”  These conditions need to be created now, this burning impatience I feel is real, if we are ever to sit at the table, not in a state of crisis, but having acquired the tools to thrive under changing conditions and in a knowledge economy.  This requires having an educated mass.  Nothing moves a community out of crisis like education. I believe that it is probably the only way to do so. 

I speak before you this morning to say that the gains of my generation are in jeopardy today when more than ever high school completion and a college education are required for the health of our community and for the future of our children.  Yet, free public higher education is no longer a possibility.  States are supporting significantly less the cost of education.  Cultural wars in many states are beginning to make a dent in the curricular offerings in public institutions.  Our young people are having difficulties with their own sense of self-worth and in finding relevance in what we teach in our classrooms.

Getting young Latinos on the path to a college education, college completion and career needs to be the top priority in the Latino agenda for the 21st century.

From where we stand today, Latinos and higher education in the U.S. today present a picture of significant gains and multiple challenges.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Diversity in Academe supplement of September 30, 2011, Hispanics earned 5.8% of the total number of doctorates awarded in 2009 or 5.8% of 32,231.  On the higher side of percentages of degrees earned were education (6.9%), social sciences (7.1%) and on the lower side physical sciences (4.2%).  According to the same report, Black and Hispanic doctoral recipients were more likely to carry large debts in 2009, on average $29, 471 for Hispanics, with 14.7% exceeding $70,000 and 32.6% carrying no debt at all.  States like California and Texas are home to many colleges with large numbers of Hispanic students, yet the percentage of Hispanic faculty members lingers around 12%.   About thirty-thousand dollars in debt on average for a doctorate is a heavy burden to carry.  Prospects for the cost of undergraduate education are not much better.  According to a recent article in the Winter 2012 issue of The Presidency, the Journal of the American Council on Education: “Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others.” (29)  The impact of what has been identified by a PBS Documentary as “Declining by Degrees” has begun to be felt throughout the country.  State Colleges in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas, for instance, have eliminated computer science and engineering departments.  (NYTimes, March 2, 2012) Additionally, if we consider the time to completion for many of our students who leave high school without a diploma or with a diploma and without the preparation to be college ready, the prospects for a comfortable future appear difficult at best.  In his insightful publication The Latinization of U.S. Schools, Successful Teaching and Learning in Shifting Cultural Contexts,  University of Connecticut Professor Jason G. Irizarry points out that:

Dramatic population growth among Latinos in the United States has not been accompanied by similar sizable gains in the academic achievement of this group…Estimates suggest that approximately half of Latino students fail to complete high school and too few enroll in and complete college….If current trends continue 5.5 million of the 11 million Latinos currently enrolled in U.S. high schools will not earn a high school diploma and will effectively be cut off from any chance of achieving the American dream. Of the half of Latinos who are able to successfully complete high school, only 2.8 million will attend college, with most of these students attending community colleges not four year institutions. Of those who attend college, only 770,000 of the 11 million, or less than 7 percent, will be awarded bachelor’s degrees and fewer than 250,000 will earn master degrees.” (7)

  “Better must come”, as the song goes, but when and how?

As our distinguished educator and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral often observed: “El futuro de los niños es siempre hoy.  Mañana sera tarde.”  For children, the future is always today.  Tomorrow it is just too late.  Following on our Maestra, I venture to say that better needs to begin earlier in a person’s life.  That a clear path to high school completion and college degree attainment needs to be attended to with great care, if not, we will continue to be only 5% of doctorates when we should be at least 20%; 12% of the faculty when we should be more than 20%.  In a paper presented to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Diane Ravitch, a professor of Education at New York University, summarizes the present state of some national efforts designed to improve public education.  She reflects on the lessons learned from the Bush years as Governor of Texas and as President of the U.S.:

  • First, there was no Texas miracle.  On the federal tests called the National Assessment of educational Progress, Texas is in the middle of the pack, nowhere near the top. Its high school graduation rate is below the national average.
  • Second, No Child Left Behind left many children behind.  Indeed, the students who were left behind in 2002 are still left behind in 2012.  The law identified the achievement gaps but never provided the tools to close them.
  • Third, NCLB has changed the language of education. We no longer talk about the needs of children, the conditions of their lives, the external factors that affect their learning, or the resources needed to help teachers and students. Instead, policymakers are focused solely on test scores as measures of productivity and punishment.  Unpublished paper, untitled, dated January 30, 2012

Professor Ravitch is equally discouraging in her assessment of current activities designed to support the Race to the Top Initiative. She observes:

The mindset that has unleashed so much harm in our K-12 schools is now moving inexorably towards higher education.  Just a few days ago, President Obama says he wants a Race to the Top for higher education. Race to the Top has been disastrous for our public schools and teachers, but he now Wants to share the pain of government-regulated accountability. (6)

I quote Professor Ravitch because I share with her a fundamental concern about policies and mandates that are not funded.  Where I disagree with her, I believe very fundamentally, is in my firm belief that federal and state governments need to stay involved in education and need to fund higher education in a more meaningful and equitable manner.  We owe it to the poor and to those who are struggling to achieve the American dream. Whether we agree with Professor Ravitch’s assessment of past and current efforts, however, it is clear that state and federal government are taking stock of the current state of decline of public education.  As real investments are planned, it is crucial that Latino researchers and Latino organizations have a voice at the decision table.  This is an area of advocacy that needs to be fought for and organizations need to coalesce to advocate for strategies that support teaching and learning for our young people.  We have even more reason to be concerned for Latino families because of the relative youth of the population.  While the median age is 37 for Latinos is 27.  In an interview for The Chronicle in Higher Education’s supplement on Diversity in Higher Education of September 30, 2011, Dr. William Harvey, dean of the School of Education at North Carolina A & T University commented:  “In a society that is becoming increasingly one of people of color, how can we endorse courses that scrub free the contributions of people of color”(B19).  As we consider the education of our future Latino students in Arizona, for instance, there are difficult challenges ahead, because as Roberto Cintli Rodriguez reports in outrage: “First the Tucson school district came for the Mexican American studies program. Now, it’s come for its books.” (Three Sonorans, p. 1)  Can it be possible that the clock will be turned back in our time, under our watch?  More needs to be done to support and to stop this terrible situation.  Some significant advocacy is taking place in that state.  If this organization has not done so, it needs to weigh in and to protest this abuse.   Further, consider other abuses as well, as reported in the front page of the February 17, 2012 issue of the NYTimes, The Los Angeles Unified School District, within days multiple allegations of abuse ranging from, for instance, photographs on the internet of teachers covering eyes and mouth of children and allowing roaches to crawl over them to sexual abuse and lewd behavior by coaches, staff and teachers.  The February 18, 2012 NYTimes reports on NY Public School’s failure to keep track of teachers’ inappropriate behavior toward students.  The Chancellor has now vowed to fire those who engaged in sexual misconduct in the last ten years.  It is not pretty.  If you consider the percentage of Latino students in both of these big cities’ public school systems, the need to monitor and to get involved is clear.

Having barely touched the surface of the challenges before us in creating the pipeline for Latino youth and college attainment, it is hopeful to note the dramatic increase of 18 to 24 year-old college enrollment for academic year 2009-2010. According to a report by Richard Fry, “Hispanic College Enrollment Spikes, Narrowing Gaps with Other Groups,” Hispanic enrollment in 2009-2010 of 349,000 students which brought the total of Hispanics enrolled in two and four year institutions to 1.8 million, and represented 15% of the total enrollment for that age group.  Latino students then are entering our doors in larger number, the challenge now is to continue that growth in enrollment and translate it into retention to graduation.   There are multiple projects in place, working with discrete number of students that are yielding good results for limited cohorts.  Professor Irizarry’s book illustrates what can happen to a class of students in high school when there are interventions by a Latino university professor.  There are significant projects elsewhere in Connecticut Community Colleges, for example, the Bridge to College Program or the WAVE program at my own Naugatuck Valley College Community College or right here in New York at CUNY the Early College High School projects or the College Now program or in Texas the College Bound project at South Texas College or male- students  retention programs in these three states.  These are just a few of many individual projects that are successful but that need to be scaled-up.  We as Latino educators must come together, bring our organizations and leaders to a summit to create a plan of action that will help bring attention to the need to take these best practices for our students and elevate those practices to a magnitude that can have a long and lasting impact.  It is also essential that we do protest schools of scandal.  Parental participation, parental inclusion and parental close monitoring are more than ever a necessity.  Finally, turning back the clock on ethnic studies is not, should not be permitted.  We need to go beyond Arizona and consider how we can bring our common voices to create a Latino Advocacy National Agenda.  The need for a better-articulated and more profoundly pan-Latino engagement is articulated wisely by Eugenio María de Hostos who continues to instruct us about the power of community in the creation of conditions in which our children can learn:

Una idea fructífera no puede dar frutos en la soledad de un pensamiento. Por innata que aparezca en cuanto al soñador la enuncia, necesita arraigar en varios, en muchos, en todos o casi todos los cerebros de un pueblo, de una raza, de una porción de la humanidad, para desarrollarse y fructificar y hacer el género de bien y la cantidad de bien que le sea esencial. (HSD-1, 135-136, (121)

An idea cannot bear fruit in the loneliness of a thought.  As essential as it may appear as soon as the dreamer articulates it, it needs to take root in some, in many, in all or almost all of the brains of a people, of a race, of a segment of humanity in order to develop and to bear fruit , and produce the well being and the amount of well being that its needed. (DCDF)

 The time to act is now. 

Publications Consulted

“Diversity in Academe” Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Section B.

      September 30, 2011.

Hoogeveen, Paul.  “Closing the Education Gap:  A Surge in Hispanic College    

       Enrollment,” The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education,   XXII, 3, 1/30/2012,

      10- 21.

Hostos, Eugenio María de.  Estímulos de vida para cada día.  Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: 

      Universidad de Puerto Rico, Instituto de Estudios Hostosiasnos, 1998.

Irizarry, Jason G.  The Latinization of U.S. Schools, Successful Teaching and Learning in

          Shifting Cultural Contexts.     Boulder, Colorado:  Paradigm Publishers, 2011.      

Mortenson, Thomas G.  “State Funding: A Race to the Bottom”.  The Presidency,   The   

         Journal of the American Council on Education.  Winter 2012. 26-29.

Mistral, Gabriela.  A Reader, tr. Maria Giachetti, edited by Marjorie Agosín.  New York:

     White Pine Press, 1993.

The New YorkTimes,  February 17 and February 18, 2012.

Ravitch, Dianne.  Untitled Presentation to the American Association of Independent

          Colleges,  January 30, 2012.

Rodriguez, Robert Cintli.  “Arizona’s ‘Banned’ Mexican-American Books,”  Tucson,

        The Citizen.    January 19, 2012, 1-4


Latinos and Higher Education
Keynote Address
Forging the Future of Latinos in a Time of Crisis
Fourth Biennial IUPLR Siglo XXI Conference
February 23, 2012
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Daisy Cocco De Filippis, Ph.D.
Naugatuck Valley Community College

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