Lester Rápalo: In the Business of Changing Lives

Administration December 2023 PREMIUM

Dr. Lester Edgardo Sandres Rápalo, the first Latino and Honduran president of Rockland Community College, is pleased with a 6% increase in enrollment, However, he yearns for more and prioritizes boosting enrollment, addressing facility constraints, and pursuing national recognition like the Aspen Prize.

It was a beautiful October day on the campus of Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY – seventy degrees and sunny. President Lester Edgardo Sandres Rápalo had just received some news that made him happy. “We’re excited because our enrollment is up compared to last year, about six percent up. And our returning student enrollment is up eleven percent,” says Rápalo, Ed.D, president of Rockland Community College.

Although satisfied with the school’s current enrollment jump, he sees room for growth, considering RCC’s enrollment is down 30 percent from its pre-pandemic numbers. “I have asked my cabinet members, faculty, and colleagues to help us boost enrollment. This is a team effort,” says Dr. Rápalo.

 Rockland Community College (RCC), which Dr. Rápalo calls the jewel of Rockland County, lies twenty-five miles north of New York City. An HSI, RCC’s student body is more than 30 percent Hispanic and welcomes students who bring a variety of cultures from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, and Honduras.

Being the First is in His DNA

Born in Honduras, Dr. Rápalo came to the US at 11 and settled with his family in Springfield, Massachusetts. His superior grades earned him a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I was one of the very few Hispanic students in my cohort,” says Dr. Rápalo. He navigated the American higher education system, graduating with a BA in romance languages and a master’s in Hispanic literature. 

He started his academic career at Valencia College in Florida, working as an adjunct professor and then earning a doctorate in higher education leadership from Nova Southeastern University. He also earned his MBA from Syracuse University, which helped him develop his finance and business acumen. “I wanted to learn more about finance and accounting,” says Dr. Rápalo. When Union College in New Jersey offered him deanship, he broke new ground. “I was the first ever Latino dean at Union College, in charge of the business, social sciences, and history departments,” says Dr, Rápalo. “Within my tenure I was promoted to be the campus dean provost at the Elizabeth campus in charge of the entire operations of the building, faculty, and staff,” says Dr. Rápalo. “A lot of people ignore how pivotal and important it is to actually run an institution. It is a business. We are in the business of changing lives,” says Dr. Rápalo.  

When CUNY was searching for a provost, Dr. Rápalo jumped at the opportunity and was named provost and vice president for academic affairs at Bronx Community College (BCC), making him the first Honduran provost and vice president in the history of CUNY. “It’s always good to be the first, but it comes with a lot of responsibility,” says Dr. Rápalo. On July 1, 2023, Dr. Rápalo was named president of RCC in the SUNY system, making him the first Latino president in the school’s history. “I’m probably the first Honduran president in the entire SUNY system, and for me that’s something I take to heart. Being first has been part of my journey since I started,” says Dr. Rápalo. “I’m also the first Latino president at Rockland Community College.”

Leaving a Legacy at BCC 

Although his stay at BCC was just over three years, his legacy is significant. One of his greatest accomplishments was increasing the school’s three-year graduation rate to 20 percent and its four-year graduation rate of CUNY transfer students to 46 percent. Under his leadership, BCC established a summer STEM bridge program that prepares students to enter STEM majors through tutoring and advising. To gauge the climate on the campus and in support of the college assessment report, he administered over 90 surveys to faculty, staff, and students. “We wanted to make sure that we understand the struggles and needs of the students,” says Dr. Rápalo. 

With assistance and support from his faculty, Dr. Rápalo established new programs, including online courses like cyber security and digital design, and BCC acquired approval for 12 online programs. His hard work was recognized nationally when BCC won The Harvard Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government Award, which recognizes and promotes excellence and creativity in the public sector.   

Chasing a Prestigious Prize

Immediately after being appointed president at RCC on July 1, Dr. Rápalo embarked on a “learning and listening tour,” meeting face-to-face with every stakeholder and hosting round-table discussions with students, soliciting their input on improving RCC. 

To get RCC’s enrollment back to its pre-pandemic numbers, Dr. Rápalo attends endless events in Rockland County and meets with high school principals and elected officials, sharing the litany of reasons why RCC is of great value. “We live and die with enrollment, so that is my short-term mission,” says Dr. Rápalo. 

Although he is ready to welcome more students, the physical facility is not. Last year, RCC was forced to turn away 200 would-be nursing students owing to its lack of labs. “That is unacceptable. We just came out of a pandemic…this is national security. We cannot have a country that has a shortage of nurses,” says Dr. Rápalo. He’s in talks with the dean of nursing to develop a plan for building new labs.     

  Dr. Rápalo has brought an impressive track record to RCC, but perhaps the most striking of his accomplishments is his association with schools that have won or have been considered for the Aspen Prize, which Barack Obama called the Oscar of community colleges. The Aspen Prize awards $1 million to an American community college every two years. “When I was at Valencia Community College, we were the first community college to win this prestigious award. When I was at Union College, we were nominated. When I was at CUNY, several schools were runners-up. I know for a fact that with the help of faculty and the programs that we have and the changes we’re going to implement to move RCC forward, we’ll be able to at least attempt to win the Aspen Prize,” says Dr. Rápalo. 

LookingForward: Ensuring Continued Diversity and Upward Mobility

Aside from aspiring to earn national accolades, Dr. Rápalo hopes to diversify RCC’s student body, operating under the philosophy that students learn more when exposed to a variety of cultures and points of view. 

In the area of workforce development, RCC has acquired $2 million in grants. “We were perhaps the only institution that I know of who has won three Title Vs consecutively. And that comes with a lot of commitment to help students get to the finish line,” says Dr. Rápalo. “If we did it three times, we can do it again.” 

Dr. Rápalo is leading RCC through an era in which community colleges are facing financial difficulties. He believes the only way RCC continues to serve as a gateway to upward mobility for Rockland County residents is to invest in the school’s human capital. “For me as a president, I take that to heart, and I want to make sure I continue to cultivate that fabric of helping our students move within our community and become life-long learners,” says Dr. Rápalo.

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