LaGuardia Community College has a club for just about every interest and skill. Photography, chess, creative writing, women in stem, tabletop board games, psychology, cooking, anime, economics, are all clubs organized by students for students. Despite the presence of these clubs at LaGuardia, each offering leadership and community-building opportunities, a growing number of LaGuardia students […]
Paul Arcario walked into the classroom for Remedial Math, took out his notebook and pencils, and settled in. He was determined to attend four classes a week, every week for the entire semester. While he was a model student, he was also the Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College.
Arcario attended the class at a time when more than seventy percent of the student body were required to enroll in Remedial Math as part of their degree requirements, but LaGuardia students were struggling to pass the course. It was a problem that would require careful consideration.
“I really believe that if I want to ask people to try something and get involved, I should know what it’s about,” Arcario said.
That was a long, long time ago, he said.
In the summer of this year, Arcario retired as Provost after a 34-year career at LaGuardia. Billie Gastic Rosado succeeded him as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs. Arcario was born and raised in Ozone Park. Arcario began his career as an English as second language professor 1988.
Arcario realized that without first-hand experience, he couldn’t advise his staff or his students on what to do about Remedial Math. Therefore, he made the decision to enroll himself into the class.
“You can’t be off in the ivory tower, isolated from everything. “You need to know what’s happening and what people feel,” he added.
Chuckling, he recalled being required to take placement tests like any other LaGuardia student before he could join, “I think they wanted to discourage me, and they told me I had to take all these remedial math exams and I did. It was funny because I forgot all my math from 40 years before and I had to study.”
Intent on his course of action, he committed to testing and placement after which he qualified to take a semester course.
It was precisely this style of hands-on oversight that earned him the nickname “The Undercover Boss,” a dreaded title he insists on dispelling.
Laughing, he set the record straight, “Everybody knew that I was doing it, so I could learn and collaborate with people. There was nothing undercover about it.” In other words, the nickname was meant as a compliment, but it clashed with his views on leadership.
Arcario was reflective, gathering his thoughts to show why it was important to him to dispel the nickname. “How can I say this in the way it needs to be said? Leadership isn’t about spying on or controlling people but it’s about hands-on practice and ground level relating so that everyone is involved and contributing,” he said.
In 2016, he would take on another similar project when LaGuardia was challenged with how to begin incorporating online models of learning. In a hands-on approach, he decided to teach his own linguistics hybrid course so that he knew precisely “what he was asking his faculty to do.”
Deeply influenced by one of his doctoral advisors at Columbia University who inspired his style of pedagogy that reflects the ideals of inquiry and curiosity that he values today, he recalls his academic role model fondly:
“He did not say this is what you teach and what you do but he had various rubrics, ways of analyzing what you did and what your experience was. The biggest influence on me was curiosity and inquiry, that stayed with me.
Arcario’s willingness with remedial math was just one layer to his multifaceted approach to higher education and leadership. As he puts it, “It’s important that the whole institution view itself as being involved in learning, not just the students.”
During his time at LaGuardia, his fundraising efforts helped the school secure more than $30 million in grants. Through these grants, he has been able to put into action his educational philosophy. For example, one grant from the U.S. Department of Education helped him establish the Center for Teaching and Learning, which supports faculty in continuing their education. He explained why he viewed the Center for Teaching and Learning as so important: “I am very proud of our Center for Teaching and Learning. We have over a hundred faculty. They are often whole semester long workshops that they might be learning”.
In addition to establishing the Center for Teaching and Learning, he also created the Provost Learning Space.
“I created the Provost Learning Space which is an opportunity for faculty to inquire into their teaching, but I did not do that by myself. Inviting people and giving them that opportunity to grow is very important. With some faculty you might have a doctorate but still may not have a lot of experience in teaching.”
The fondness he exuded for the faculty was evidenced in the smile he wore when speaking about their willingness to take advantage of the programs that would further their growth as teachers.
Praising the efforts of LaGuardia’s teaching staff, he notes that, “In the last six, seven years, we were able to double graduation rates and you have to attribute that to an institution that is committed to doing better for the student.”
Since his time at Columbia, Arcario has been developing and refining his own teaching philosophy. Some of his current questions for higher education and its direction are “What things can help students be fully present in the experience?” and “How can students gain more agency in their education?”
Arcario insists that education is not just about the faculty bestowing knowledge on the students but is about accessing each student’s unique perspective and wisdom.
His thirty-four year long career has been firmly rooted in his teaching philosophy and his management principles, which he describes as being rooted in collaboration. He said, “You can’t do anything by yourself. I’m very proud of this college because we do everything in a collaborative way, across divisions and departments. I really think that’s what helps the school to be part of a good institution.”
Arcario expressed what he wished for in higher education and what he felt needed to occur to bring students to the next level.
“To open up to new perspectives, new ways of thinking. Human beings can be somewhat narrow, but education is an opening up and a bringing forth. He added that educators must strive to find ways “for students to feel more ownership of their education process.” Reflecting on life after LaGuardia, Arcario concludes that in some ways it is still about giving back to LaGuardia. His new interests and plans include a possible meditation mindfulness program that he is now laying the groundwork for, musing that this may be his “parting gift to LaGuardia if all goes well”
He considers a metaphor that appropriately sums up his orientation towards leadership, education and what it means to leave behind something of significance.
Referencing his favorite hobby, he recounts that, “As a gardener, you want your plants to grow. You want that for people. It’s very rewarding to watch people flourish and that’s something you have to look at about a leader-are the people around a leader flourishing?”
He pauses and then adds, “That’s what should be happening.”