The Story of Miami-Dade College's Eduardo Padrón
When Eduardo J. Padrón’s mother put him on a plane leaving Cuba in 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro had taken power, Padrón made a promise: In the United States, he would get an education.
Keeping the promise wasn’t easy. In Miami, as a 15-year-old who spoke no English, he found high school terrifying. He lived in a family friend’s cramped one-bedroom apartment and worked three jobs: delivering newspapers, stocking inventory at a department store and cleaning clothes at a dry-cleaning shop.
His grades suffered. Every college he applied to rejected him. Finally he got into the community college now known as Miami-Dade College. His English improved and so did his grades. He transferred to Florida Atlantic University and went on to get a PhD in economics at the University of Florida. .
Now, years later, Padrón is the president of Miami-Dade. With 174,000 students on eight campuses, it is often referred to as the largest of the nation’s colleges and universities.
Under Padrón, Miami-Dade has become a model of higher-education opportunity for poor and minority students. And he has become one of the most respected educators in the country.
In April 2011, President Obama was the commencement speaker for the North and West campus graduation ceremonies. “Community colleges like this one,” Obama said, “are critical pathways to the middle class.”
Miami-Dade built its reputation by opening doors to newcomers like Padrón and others struggling to better themselves. Even now, anyone with a high school diploma can enroll. “We call it a dream factory,” Padrón told The New York Times. “We give people who ordinarily wouldn’t have the opportunity a second chance.”
And some graduates have become stars. Manny Diaz, who served as mayor of the city of Miami and president of the United States Conference of Mayors, got his start at Miami-Dade. So did Emilio Estefan, creator of the Miami Sound Machine, actor Sylvester Stallone, major league baseball player Alex Sánchez and United States Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The average age of students is 26 now. And, with an enrollment that is 69 percent Hispanic and 19 percent African-American, Miami-Dade has the highest percentage of minority students of any college or university in the country.
According to Miami-Dade statistics, 84 percent of its students advance to four-year colleges, mainly in Florida. “It’s about combining open access and excellence,” Padrón told Time magazine.
Called Dade County Junior College at the time, Miami-Dade opened in 1960, shortly before Padrón landed in Miami on one of the flights of Operation Pedro Pan. That was the major relocation project in which thousands of middle- and upper- class Cuban parents sent unaccompanied children to the United States, fearing that Castro’s communism would mean a loss of opportunity.
The influx of tens of thousands of Cuban refugees was one reason for the creation of the college. The first classes were held in a section of Miami Central High School and an adjacent farm. Some referred to it as “Chicken Coop College.”
It had grown to 5,000 students when Padrón enrolled. Tuition was low; most students could not afford to study elsewhere. Some, like Padrón, could not get accepted elsewhere.
Will Holcombe, chancellor of Florida’s 28 community colleges, says Padrón “represents the aspirations that people have — and the opportunity to fill those aspirations.”
In 2009 Padrón represented the United States at the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education. He serves as Chair of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. He has been named one of the nation’s 10 best college presidents by Time magazine and one of the eight most influential college presidents by the Washington Post.
When Padrón studied at Miami-Dade, a professor sometimes drove him to school. They talked about the future and Padrón’s potential. Those conversations, Padrón says, helped him find confidence. As the college president, he urges his faculty to embrace students and help them dream.
“I have seen so many kids that come to me under the worst circumstances — broken homes, drugs, poverty, gangs,” Padrón told PODER magazine in Miami, “and they’ve been able to become millionaires.”
At Miami-Dade, he said, they found someone “who took an interest in them, somebody who cared.” #