In his first stint as president, Jose Fierro will be leading Cerritos College, a community college located in Norwalk, California near Long Beach, California. Fierro was named president this year. Previously Fierro served as chief academic officer at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming and was academic dean at Florida State University. Hence, he knows what issues community college students face and is tuned into what Latino undergraduates encounter in pursuit of higher education.
In spring 2015, 23,652 students attended Cerritos College. Of that number, 67 percent were Hispanic, eight percent Caucasian, seven percent Asian-American and four percent African American. Of Cerritos’ students, 67 percent obtain financial aid with an average grant of $852.
Most Cerritos students major in liberal arts and science and pursue careers in social and behavioral sciences and business administration. The top certificate programs include culinary arts, cosmetology, child development and early childhood.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Fierro was raised in Bogota, Colombia where his father was a researcher for the Department of Agriculture. Fierro emigrated to the U.S. at age 24 where he learned English. He has a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership from Northcentral University in Prescott, Ariz.
Here’s what Jose Fierro said about embarking on the presidency of Cerritos College:
HO: This is your first stint as president of a community college. Ready for the challenge?
Jose Fierro: I’m ready for the challenge. My previous jobs have prepared me quite well to take on the presidency. I have experience in large community colleges as an instructor of Biological Sciences at Valencia College in Florida and at Florida State College. I moved to Laramie County College in Cheyenne to a smaller campus, which was great. There I learned to interact with many people in a small setting. What you do often rests on relationship-building.
HO: Describe the skills you learned as chief academic officer at Laramie C.C.
Jose Fierro: Academic affairs is usually the largest area on a campus. You have to work a lot with outside constituents and internal constituents, be very aware of the impact of faculty on student learning and work with different school organizations. I had to become very aware of curriculum changes, economic development, economic partnerships and strategic planning, which are essential in the president’s role.
HO: Describe the typical Cerritos student.
Jose Fierro: Cerritos students are extremely engaged. When I first came to be interviewed, I took time to walk around campus. For a commuter campus in the middle of a large city, students were as engaged as I have seen on campus. They’re engaged in student life, student government and campus initiatives. For example, they started a number of initiatives on sustainability. They love the institution and take pride on being part of Cerritos.
HO: To what do you attribute to the extreme engagement not common on most community college campuses?
Jose Fierro: It stems from the diverse students we serve. We are a minority-serving institution, so students connect by way of family. They feel safe here, feel that this is their college and their place to be. That helps to drive student engagement. In addition, the college has made significant efforts to provide student services to ensure that they feel comfortable here.
HO: Why call your student body diverse if 67 percent are Latino?
Jose Fierro: When I say diversity, it’s not just about racial components. I see it as a diversity of ideas, diversity of thinking and diversity of socio-economic backgrounds. Even with Hispanic students, you find a diversity of groups though many of our students are Mexican-Americans.
“When I say diversity, it’s not just about racial components. I see it as a diversity of ideas, diversity of thinking and diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds. Even with Hispanic students, you find a diversity of groups...”
President Fierro, Cerritos College
HO: How specifically can you help community college students succeed?
Jose Fierro: I think it’s essential to harvest the culture of academic excellence and student-centered culture. What Cerritos traditionally has done is to build a culture in which we think of the students first. We’re considering introducing a completion program where we help students identify missing classes and make sure these classes are accessible. We may choose to do shorter sessions like eight-week courses. We’ll also strengthen online programs. It must be an effort where student services offer tutoring, academic advising and counseling.
HO: What specific issues do Latino students face?
Jose Fierro: If you’re from the lower economic strata, your level of attainment is lower than people from higher economic ranks. According to the National Education Association only 52 percent of Hispanics that are 25 years or older have higher education degrees beyond high school degrees compared to 85 percent of Whites. If you go to baccalaureate degrees, only 10 percent of Latinos receive four-year degrees compared to 27 percent of Whites.
HO: Most newly named presidents have one or two key initiatives that they’d like to accomplish. Name your priorities.
Jose Fierro: The first one is community engagement. My second initiative would be to establish a culture of excellence and a culture of student-centered initiatives.
HO: How specifically can you help community college students with financial aid?
Jose Fierro: The first one involves education plans to make sure students don’t ask for more money than they need. To help them compensate for their expenses, I’m planning to engage with Cerritos College Foundation to increase scholarship partnering programs.
HO: How can you increase the 30 percent of Cerritos’ students that transfer to four-year colleges?
Jose Fierro: We want to continue to work with our transfer university partners. California has a good system of transferring. In fact, California created an associate degree for transfer that guarantees your admission in the California State University system when you complete 60 transferrable units (including a minimum of 18 units in a major)
HO: In your first year as president, what can Cerritos students and faculty expect?
Jose Fierro: I see my first year as a time for me to build connections with all the groups at the institution, learn the culture, identify what the institution does well, identify ways to improve, build connections with business partners and donors and transfer institutions and community leaders to develop a joint vision to move into the future.
HO: Bottom-line, what do you hope to accomplish as president of Cerritos College?
Jose Fierro: There is an award called the Aspen Award that ranks community colleges based on their performance. I’d like Cerritos to win it based on student performance, student achievement and services provided to students, how many students successfully transfer, awarding of certificates, professional development for faculty and staff and the quality of education. It’s not about the award but what the standards of the award means for our students.