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“Remember to do something out of your comfort zone, take advantage of everything you have, and always find your ways!” said Dr. Gail O Mellow who has been the President of LaGuardia Community College for the past 20 years, and has announced she is stepping down in August.
Dr. Mellow is the face of LaGuardia and has represented its students nationwide, that includes meeting Dr. Jill Biden, who is an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College and the wife of former Vice President, Joe Biden. The Second Lady was in New York promoting the ‘Heads Up America’ initiative, a program aimed at eliminating the tuition costs for community college students throughout the country.
Dr. Mellow has also met with local officials throughout Long Island City who recognize her determination to be an advocate for community colleges.
In a casual conversation with Dr. Mellow she sipped her cup of coffee and made sure this reporter was comfortable. Having been a longtime advocate for the college’s students, I asked her how they could pay her back. She said, “you can pay me back at being great at whatever you do, and of course, do not forget LaGuardia!”
Dr. Mellow holds an associate degree from Jamestown Community College, a SUNY school located in Jamestown, a small city in north west, New York state. That experience is what shaped her to recognize the need for all the opportunities LaGuardia offers students today. “If I were president of a four-year elite school, it would be as if I were taking a step back-wards,” she said. “Students who are in these elite schools almost always have a resource to go back to when they’re accepted in these universities.” She talks about these students having free time to study and not worry much about financial problems. However, because of her experiences she’s decided to take a stand against the inaccurate image of community college students.
“When you’re here at LaGuardia you see different types of cultures surrounding you and you meet all kinds of students from different backgrounds. You meet people with families’, single mothers/ fathers, and you also meet those with the passion of learning English who were not born here. It’s much more impactful on the world and without LaGuardia you would not have these opportunities,” she said, as she stared out the window of her Thomson Avenue office, that she will soon no longer walk into as LaGuardia’s president.
According to “Fast Facts,” a section of LaGuardia’s website, “over 57,000 students from more than 148 countries come to LaGuardia each year, about 70 percent of the students come from families whose annual income is under $30,000.” LaGuardia is ranked fifth among U.S two-year colleges in economic mobility. This shows the way students at LaGuardia have set their selves up to continue pursuing their associate degree while working full-time and having to provide for themselves, their family and paying tuition. This is one sacrifice Dr. Mellow was encouraged to make during her time at JCC.
Having grown up in a religious household Dr. Mellow was the first in her family to attend college, even though her mother discouraged her. Following one semester at the University of Michigan she was forced to return home because of family problems. “I was working full-time, taking about four classes. My father had just filed for bankruptcy, and it was impossible for us with just my mom doing it all.” Most of the students who attend LaGuardia tend to face similar challenges while trying to figure it all out themselves. Kaleygh B, a freshman at LaGuardia agrees.
“I have to work full time and provide for my two kids. I got pregnant young and unfortunately this is the reality. But it will eventually pay off now that I am accepted into Hunter College to finish my bachelor’s in social work,” Kaleygh said. “It’s a lot on people’s plates.”
For Dr. Mellow she understands why students have to sacrifice so much. “Students here are not born with the privilege to deal with their problems and talk about them. You don’t really see that. Your driver did not take you from your house to high school. You did not go skiing in Aspen every winter. You live what I call a scrabble life. You’ve had to be resilient, you’ve had to face life whether it throws good or bad and can believe in yourself. That’s where my students are from!”
She has dealt with a number of personal problems of her own, which creates a connection to the students attending LaGuardia. Dr. Mellow had the honor of publishing an Op-ed for The New York Times, she describes the overall lack of support for community colleges.
While she was in high school and considering which college to attend Dr. Mellow said, “I don’t think a high school counselor ever said the word ‘community college’ or talked about how far you can get with it, too. It’s like they reminded students how scary it can be when you attend a two-year school rather than a school that can get you in debt.”
Among her accomplishments at LaGuardia are establishing the Foundation Scholarship, the Honors Internship Program, and the NYC Welcome Back Center. The Foundation Scholarship is awarded based on a students’ financial need and academic performance. It helps them pay tuition, and the cost of textbooks, transportation and fees. There is also the Honors Internship Program, which provides students internships offering real-world work experience. LaGuardia students receive stipends throughout their internships.
A very successful program which illustrates how much Dr. Mellow is doing more for the school and its culture is the NYC Welcome Back Center, a program where healthcare professionals from other countries are guided through the process of acquiring a nursing or health care license so they can work in the United States in the healthcare profession.
A second-year student, who would like to be identified as C.S, is a recipient of a foundation scholarship, and, it has helped her tremendously throughout her time at LaGuardia. After arriving from Uzbekistan two years ago, there were certain instances where she would connect with other students at LaGuardia who could relate to her situation while trying to manage her own personal life.
“It was very difficult for me to adjust. There were various times where I had nobody. I was completely lost. I cried a lot at home too. When I found out about these opportunities, I was surprised. They could do this in the states? Is this allowed? But eventually I found out all the hard work I had done has been paid off by these programs, which I am grateful for,” she laughs while eating the rest of her salad.
“I remember when I first told my friends back at home where I’m attending college, and they all cut me off, like ‘no way??! NYU!? Columbia?’ And I just hesitated and did not respond to that because they were expecting a good prestigious school, which was a reason why I left,” C.S, said.
Many students who have attended community colleges have shamelessly held back telling their friends where they currently are, especially when they’re an intern and they see their coworkers are from prestigious four-year schools.
As August is the last month of Dr. Mellow’s term as president before her retirement, she wants students to know how proud she is of them. She understands the hard work students, faculty, and administrators do at LaGuardia. What is the best piece of advice she can give them? “Talk to the person next to you, make a network, have an open mind and pay attention to the faculty and do not be ashamed to ask for help,” she said.
Throughout the past 20 years, Dr Mellow has created programs which have supported students – some of whom may have reached their breaking point – and helped them “dare to do more.