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Leeward Community College's chancellor tackles challenges during pandemic

By Mary Andom

Photo by Shaina Marie Iloreta

During the pandemic, Leeward Community College Chancellor Dr. Carlos Peñaloza was faced with a myriad of challenges: a university-wide hiring freeze, budget cuts and maintaining the safety of students and employees.

“Those are some of the challenges, but I also see many opportunities,” Peñaloza said. “I love what I do because of who we serve. There could not be a better time to make it clear to the world the value of community colleges and the value of higher education.”

For Peñaloza, community colleges hold a special place in his heart. As a first-generation student from Venezuela, he felt thankful for what community college offered him.

“Few people know that I am a community college graduate. I went to community college for reasons that were not only academic. It is a lot less expensive, it was close to home and I was treated as a human and not a number. I feel I am sitting here today because of the confidence I built as a community college student.”

Peñaloza continues to advocate for community colleges through a social movement called “End CC Stigma.” The campaign aims to dispel the myths of community college being a “last-chance college” or second-rate option.

Since becoming chancellor July 1, 2019, the broadest challenge the college has faced has been budgetary. Operating on lean staffing and fewer resources, the University of Hawaii as a whole has experienced close to $40 million in cuts, he said.

Finding a happy medium and understanding from all parties has been Peñaloza’s goal from the start.

“As a chancellor, I am the face of the good and bad,” he said. “What is important to some may not be important to others… one of the challenges as a chancellor is meeting our students and meeting our community where they need us.”

Despite these setbacks, Leeward has maintained steady enrollment with a slight increase in the student body.

“If you look at what has happened to the community colleges on the mainland and other community colleges here in Hawaii, enrollment has gone down for them,” he said. “I think Leeward is positioned really well because of our geographic location, the West side of the island continues to grow and we also have a diversity in what we offer.”

A mass exodus of American workers during the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to “The Great Resignation.” Roughly four million Americans have quit their jobs, according to the Labor Department’s Sept. 2021 report.

With many reassessing their career paths, Leeward can provide opportunities to develop and sharpen skills, he said.

“We are beginning to pivot to more people, who quite frankly want to change their career choice,” Peñaloza said. “I think the pandemic has demonstrated to many that hospitality and tourism is still a good means for the workforce, but if the pandemic continues to persist then maybe having other careers where you can work remotely and have a little more flexibility is more attractive.”

Leeward has been preparing for a return to traditional face-to-face classes since March 2020, he said. Most classrooms have incorporated hybrid technology with cameras and audio visual equipment to bridge the gap with in person and online students.

During Spring semester, social distancing will no longer be a requirement.

The number one precautionary step the University has taken is to ensure 100 percent vaccination from employees and students to mitigate exposure challenges, he said.

With mandatory vaccination required from students and faculty who will access the campus, Leeward will begin to offer traditional in-person classes starting Jan. 10, 2022. The college will continue to offer hybrid and online classes. Unvaccinated students are permitted to register for classes online.

As for employees, mandatory vaccination is required Jan. 3. However, students and employees can apply for a religious or medical exemption.

“We are going to be cautious, so masks will be required for everyone on campus,” Peñaloza said. “In addition, you still have to clear yourself through the UH LumiSight daily check-in app to access the campus.”

Campus entry will also be monitored by staff in common areas such as the library and the cafeteria. Currently, there are plans underway to reopen the theater and allow larger gatherings for those who are vaccinated.

“We want to allow more activities to happen on campus,” he said. “We want to allow more of that social engagement that you pick up in college.”

Peñaloza said he understands the pandemic has altered the classroom experience.

“Come to campus if it is allowable, because the social engagement is critically important for our growth,” he said. “We want to be able to collaborate again. We are taking all the precautions necessary to reduce the chance of spread on campus.”

For students who will remain online, remaining engaged is key.

“Make friends in the classroom, do not do this on your own,” Peñaloza said. “It can be a little isolating and lonely, but you can build the same relationships online with students and staff and you can achieve the same outcome.”

Note: Visit the UH COVID-19 page for the latest guidelines and updates.

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