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Meet new Leeward Community College Chancellor Carlos Peñaloza

By Joseph Wargo

Photo by Shaina-Marie Iloreta

This semester, Ka Mana’o was able to sit down with Carlos Peñaloza, the newly appointed Chancellor of Leeward Community College, and talk about his life and his plans for the college.

What can you tell us about yourself and what brought you to Hawaii?

Chancellor Peñaloza: I was born and raised in Venezuela. I moved to New York City in high school and attended college at Queensborough Community College. I experienced research while at my community college, fell in love with Biology. I transitioned to Queens College where I completed my Bachelor’s degree, and then the graduate center from the City University of New York to complete my Masters and PhD in Biology.

Being born and raised in Venezuela is a different environment, a culture where people are much closer to each other. Lots of beaches and things that I grew up with that are in my blood. My wife, she was born and raised in New York but she’s of Hispanic descent as well, so we really enjoy going on vacation to islands.

Very quickly, [we] grew a bit of a dislike for the really strong four seasons. Back in New York, in the fall I would fill up thirty big bags of leaves, in the winter I’d break my back shoveling snow, in the spring the allergies got us all, and in the summer the heat just really wore us down. I didn’t have a chance to really enjoy my family because every time you get used to something, like soccer, all it takes is another two weeks and the season’s over.

Last year, I took my family on a vacation to Cuba. We had been to Hawaii on vacation, as well, and I just, you know, it clicked. It’s a better life for our family. It’s what we were raised with. We didn’t have it in the East Coast. We didn’t have it in the Midwest. Most recently, we came from Missouri. When I saw the opportunity with Hawaii, I said, “Well this checks off a lot of our bucket list items.”

As an immigrant to this country, what are your thoughts on the current administration’s anti-migrant rhetoric?

Chancellor Peñaloza: It touched me very deep. I came to this country and I’ve benefited from this country incredibly. I now have my own children that were born in this country. There are challenges whether they are legal [or] political agendas. The current climate is a challenge emotionally to me.

While I do recognize that financially it is very difficult to support the migrant community, these people represent a lot of the workforce that we have. We can’t speak from both sides of our mouths. We have a great need to fill workforce needs. There are lots of jobs that no one wants to do. They can contribute to society.

Myself, to have not had the opportunity to come or to have come and be sent back to my country would have been very detrimental. I don’t know if anyone here is following what’s happening in my country Venezuela, but it’s very difficult. There’s absolutely no access to certain essential things like medicine. When you think of what people are running away from and what they can contribute, we need to balance those out. In terms of providing resources to the migrant communities, it’s difficult.

We’re challenged right now, our own U.S. citizens and U.S. born folks are challenged financially. It’s difficult to reroute funding to cover the expenses of immigrants, but at the same time this country was built on immigrants. We need to be supportive of that.

I don’t necessarily have an agenda. Being an immigrant myself I know that there are some people that have come to this country and that have abused the system. We can’t hide that fact. To shut the doors entirely is detrimental.

What do you hope to accomplish at LCC and what do you envision for its future?

Chancellor Peñaloza: What Leeward represents and what Hawaii represents is public institutions where the majority of the students are the underserved population. It allows me to do what I love doing in my work in a bigger capacity, and it brings my family closer to what we enjoy and love doing.

It’s the culture and environment, that’s really big. What makes for really good institutions is how happy people are. When you look at the longevity of people here, whether it’s students, staff, or faculty, everyone is staying here a little bit longer than the average. Whereas in most other places you’re seeing a lot more failing. So that makes for a really good environment, and that just means that the dynamics among the employee groups and the students are really good. That puts us in a very strong position.

I did research for over a decade. I loved what I did. My work was on cell death and apoptosis. I really enjoyed what I was doing, but as I did that I came to this awful realization that there are many people like me that start but very few of us that make it to the end. This bubbled up because years ago I received an award from the National Institutes of Health, and when they introduced me they commented and said that I was the million dollar scholar, that the government invests a million dollars to get at least one of me to make it through the education pipeline.

I started looking more at the data. I started working more with the colleges, and I submitted for some grants that helped strengthen the pipeline [and] helping underserved populations, whether you’re Hispanic, African American, Pacific Islander...etc., to getting through in the STEM disciplines.

Where I come from [is] to try and sway in some priorities. I’m seeing the trends that are happening on the mainland and in higher-ed eventually do get here, but it takes a little bit of time. I come with a lot of those [trends] as carry-on luggage. I want Leeward to be more sustainable. Sustainability means that we are able to maintain what we have without too much of shaking the grounds. That means that on the faculty, staff, and leadership, I want to make sure that we try to keep people a little bit longer.

That historical perspective is really important, anytime you bring in someone new like myself it’s an opportunity for things to change. Change is not bad, but a lot of change can be detrimental. We’re having a lot of people retiring, so it’s an opportunity for us to bring in people and work our way to keeping them longer. It makes for a stable environment for or students, and that’s key.

The other thing that I consider a major priority is working on reducing achievement gaps among different student populations. When you start to look at data you come to notice that a certain population you don’t have to do anything, they’ll come in and they’ll finish. Then there are other populations where if you don’t have interventions, then the likelihood of finishing is very low. That is a major priority for Leeward, I think, primarily because the majority of our students are represented in these groups. Whether it’s military students, Native Hawaiians, [or] English as a Second Language, there are a lot of components that make for students that need a lot more support. That doesn’t mean that they’re not smart, it just means that you need to know the way.

For example, I was born and raised in another country and I never understood what a community college was until I finished my graduate degrees. Even as a student I didn’t recognize the place. It took me a very long time to understand that if you take a English class at a community or a university, it’s the same class. It’s the same rigor. That’s important. Educating, providing support services for our underserved students is key to the success here at Leeward.

The last priority is really encouraging more of what makes Leeward really strong. We have what I call my Subject Matter Experts, the faculty and staff that have been doing their work for a really long time. They understand what’s happening in the classroom, and they’re creative every now and then in doing something that is gonna make a big difference.

For example, I don’t know if you guys are aware of the Open Educational Resources, the OERs. Leeward right now is leading at the very least in Hawaii on Open Educational Resources, which means students are able to get textbooks that are open access. You don’t need to pay for them. When you look at why students can’t complete, one of the big reasons is money.

The faculty and the staff have come together to work on this educational model. Now we have faculty that have engaged in putting together books that are free to our students. That creativity and that approach is what I want to continue supporting, letting it bubble up we support it, invest in it, so there is buy-in from our own people and the students benefit in the long run.

Leeward is really in a very good place right now. It’s kind of difficult to say what are some things that I want to change because there are a lot of things I’d like to keep the same. Primarily because I have experienced other community colleges and what we have going for ourselves here is really good.

Are there any other things that the school is doing to help out the students financially?

Chancellor Peñaloza: We understand it’s important at times for students to work while they go to school. In fact, if you looked at our numbers the majority of our students are part-time. That’s a challenge that we won’t be able to necessarily mitigate, but what we can do is provide more support. Working by chatting and assessing what students’ needs are.

Right now we have some faculty and staff that are working on creative ways to support our part-time students. Whether that means more online classes so that the students don’t have to worry about their commute and working, or childcare for example. Offering maybe evening classes or weekend classes for those that need to work. The idea here is that we won’t be able to work against the continued increasing costs of living, but what we can do is provide more access so that students aren’t challenged. Mitigating the cost of attendance by empowering ways in which a student can work and still attend.

The other way is continuing to grow in our early college model. A lot of high schools are benefiting from the instruction of our own faculty. Students are able to complete a good portion of their college credits while they’re still in high school. In fact, some have graduated with their Associates degree while still being in high school. That’s at a reduced cost to the student and also reducing time to completion. Those are all ways in which we’re working very intentionally to address some of those financial challenges.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the students of Leeward?

Chancellor Peñaloza: Philosophically, everything that we do here at the college level is to empower our students, so it’s important that the students remain engaged. Whether it’s through Student Government, or participating in any focus groups or surveys that we send out. Being honest is really critical, there’s no other way for us to know exactly what you are going through.

Like I shared in one of my welcoming messages that we sent out at the beginning of the semester, I learn very late. We’re all pretty late bloomers when it comes to learning. It’s like we learn after we should have learned it. The reality is when you as a student are experiencing something whether it’s a challenge or whether you’re seeing something that you find to be unusual, it’s never too early to communicate with someone.

Here at the college I feel that our faculty and staff are always willing to listen, so it’s important that you communicate these challenges. If you wait too long it can be too late. It’s never too early to share with us what may be happening so we can be supportive. I walk around [campus] a lot, so feel free to come and chat with me.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue.

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