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Miami-Dade College President Madeline Pumariega has had a courtside seat to the growth of the country’s largest public college. Listen to her conversation with SalterMitchell PR President Heidi Otway about the importance of basketball in her life, her journey to become a statewide leader in education, her former role as Chancellor of the Florida College System, and the vision she has for the future of Miami-Dade College.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State's brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida, and its millions of weekly visitors. In this episode, created by SalterMitchell PR, our executive producer Heidi Otway, the president of SalterMitchell PR, talks to Miami-Dade College President Madeline Pumariega.
Heidi Otway: President Pumariega, we are so thrilled to have you on this Fluent in Floridian podcast. Welcome to the program.
Madeline Pumariega: Thank you so much for having me. I'm delighted to be here today.
Heidi Otway: I want to start at the beginning of your life and what got you to this illustrious position where you are at Miami-Dade College. So tell us about your family and how they made their way from Cuba to Miami and what your life was growing up as a first generation American and Floridian?
Madeline Pumariega: As you said, my parents came from Cuba, they were fleeting a communist regime, and they were processed through the Freedom Tower, which today, Miami-Dade College serves as a steward of. So it's certainly near and dear to my heart and heard so many of the stories of my family members coming. I grew up bringing... my parents were focused on bringing family members from Cuba, and so I often joke that you gave up your room. And I didn't know it was called a rollaway bed because we called it a [foreign language 00:01:33], which is a bed that opened in three. And later on in my life I learned it was a rollaway bed. But you slept there because you had an aunt or an uncle coming and they were trying to get their start.
My mom started out as a factory worker in Hialeah, and then went to Dade Junior College, that was the first name of Miami-Dade College. And there she studied English and started her path to get re-certified as a teacher. And actually Congresswoman Meek, Carrie Meek was at the college then as a director of education programs. And I have a little card that she signed as a certificate for my mom's beginning her teaching program. She then went on to be a teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. And my father went on to do banking in the Miami community. So I grew up in a home of parents who taught you hard work and loyalty and family and faith. And like any normal kid probably in Hialeah, I went to schools around my home. I graduated from high and I played sports at the local parks and then went on to play sports in high school and then at Miami-Dade College as well.
Heidi Otway: So you were a student athlete. What was the impact of sports on your life?
Madeline Pumariega: I think I'd love to say that sports prepares you for life. Because the skills that we hear so many times that employers want are team building, good communication skills, collaboration. And sports does that in a way, your sense of belonging, your sense of purpose, doing something that you're passionate about every day, and then executing at high levels. You don't know that in middle school and high school when you're playing and probably not even college, but as you grow in your career, you realize that some of those foundational skills you learned through hard work and through executing and winning and losing you then apply in your professional career. So I do think that I'm a bit competitive and that probably came from playing. But also try to approach leadership as you approach basketball, you can't be caught looking down at the ball, you've got to be looking down the court and knowing where the next play is and then utilizing the best people on your team to run the best plays possible for the highest impact. And I think that I lead very much that same way.
Heidi Otway: Your first position at Miami-Dade was as the basketball coach, an assistant basketball coach. Can you tell me how you moved into that position there?
Madeline Pumariega: Sure. I worked at a bank locally. I was working at a bank, Ocean Bank at the time, and I still had a bug for basketball. So the coach said, "Come and coach." And so I was a part-time assistant women's basketball coach, traveled with the team, did recruitment and built really, with then coach Summons and Coach Redmond, a great team and a very competitive team. That's what I did. And so I was coaching and working full-time outside of Miami-Dade and eventually I decided to leave the bank and take a leap of faith and come work at Miami-Dade College. The coaching position wasn't a full-time position, it was a part-time position. So then I became a part-time academic advisor. I'm not sure my dad thought that was the smartest thing to do, leave a bank, a full-time job, health insurance and a 401k and come to Miami-Dade, then Community College, and take two part-time jobs on. But I think it worked out.
Heidi Otway: That's interesting. And then your mother was an educator. Did that influence your career trajectory? I mean, when you were growing up, what did you want to be? Did you want to be an educator?
Madeline Pumariega: Yeah, I think that being a daughter of a school teacher, you see the power of education. I could see in my mom, her love for her students, oftentimes I was helping her check papers and put little stickers, smiley faces. So I think that was always kind of inside of me in a sense of knowing that compassion and love for education and the difference it makes. But I think there's a lot of who my dad was in the professional being in banking and working with entrepreneurs and small businesses. So I think I end up being a hybrid of a little bit of both of them. I think a path through campus presidency and chancellor and now back as a college president has a lot to do with, I think that feeling of making an impact and making a difference, but also utilizing those corporate and professional skills you need to really lead an institution the size or a system the size the college system was. I think it's a, it's both, but certainly my mom taught me what the power of education and the difference it can make in people's lives.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. Walk us through a little bit of your career trajectory from the assistant basketball coach advisor and then you made your way to Tallahassee. Can you tell us about that path there?
Madeline Pumariega: Sure. As I said, I started out at the college as a part-time coach and then part-time advisor. An opportunity became available to step into a full-time advisor position. So I did that. And once I did that, I left coaching and I was a full-time academic advisor and then started to work on my master's degree. And then I got my master's degree and like anyone else, you apply and you see if you can move up. And I moved up to an assistant dean position. At that time I was at the Kendall Campus and I came to the Wolfson Campus as an assistant dean. And so I was here doing that. And then I became a dean of students at the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami, right in the heart of downtown. And I did that for a couple of years. And then I went on to the medical campus of Miami-Dade College and I was a dean of students at administration.
And that's an important moment in my career because understanding the administrative side of the college means you begin to understand the budget aspect of it, the facilities aspect of it. And that, coupled with the student dean part of it, which is knowing student services, admissions, recruitment retention really does start then to shape a combination of the love of students and the impact you can make with the organizational structure of an institution.
And then I came back in 2011 to the Wolfson Campus to be the campus president. And right around, I would say 2013, 2014, about that time, I decided I'd been at the college for 20 years. I was on the board of Take Stock in Children, an organization that breaks the cycle of poverty through education throughout the entire state of Florida. And we were looking for a president and CEO. And we were just in the middle of a transition at a critical time of the organization and at the urging of my colleagues on the board, they said, "You should come lead Take Stock, you would just be perfect." And I was at that 20 year mark at the college and I decided I'd leave and lead a non-profit organization focused on breaking the cycle of poverty with a footprint across the state with a 21 member board.
And I did that. And then in 2015, Governor Scott appointed me to lead the Florida College System and returned back to the college, not Miami-Dade College, but to serve in a capacity that helped benefit the community and state colleges across our state as the chancellor. So in August of 2015, I did that and moved to Tallahassee.
Heidi Otway: And then from there you moved into your role at Tallahassee Community College?
Madeline Pumariega: Yes. I served as chancellor of the Florida College System that oversees the 28 community in state colleges and serves about, at that time, 800,000 students. And then decided to pivot back to a campus. I loved the feeling of a campus. I had now learned so much statewide as chancellor. We created the Excellence in Innovation Symposium where we brought together the 28 institutions and we shared best practices. We had implemented performance based funding, we had done developmental education reform, and I almost, I was so antsy to go back and put it into practice. One thing is you can collect them and you could think, now I really wanted to.
And so I went to Tallahassee Community College as executive vice president provost. And I wanted to stay in Tallahassee for the next few years, only because my daughter was in high school finishing up. So making a transition at that time, I really wanted to stay in the community, love Tallahassee, and really rooted there in the community and serving on the United Way of Big Bend and doing those things. So I went over to TCC and really just working with Jim Murdaugh and the team there was just phenomenal. After being in a system, which in a sense takes you away from students, to be back on a college campus with students, with faculty, with staff, was like, oh yes, this is what I've been missing. I love this. And that feeling again. So it was great. And then COVID hit. And boy, what a time to be at TCC at the time and working with the leadership team as we navigated through COVID.
Heidi Otway: You have such a remarkable career, and you earlier mentioned Carrie Meek and the letter that she gave to your mom. So in the course of this amazing career that you've had, who are some of the people that have influenced you or played a role in helping you achieve this position that you're in now? Which, we'll talk about in a little bit.
Madeline Pumariega: So much influenced by my family. And I say my family, I think about, yes, my mom as an educator, my dad as a businessman, but I have to tell you, cousins. My mom is one of eight brothers and sisters and I have lots of cousins and we're all the same age and we're all always lifting each other up. So my family has influenced so much of who I am as a professional and as a person and the things that I value. And so I think that's an important aspect. I would tell you that when you become a mom, your kids certainly influence you. My daughter, and just the way you want to be the best version of yourself for them. You want to show them what it is to lead and be kind and compassion and have a vision. So I always believe Alyssa makes me better every single day. And that's been an influence.
And then I have had the opportunity to work with really amazing people. Working with Jim Murdaugh at TCC at that time in my career. He's a special college president. His style was one that I just thought you can really do great things by influencing. And so I think he certainly has influenced. And people here that I worked at the college, the provost, one of the first things that I did was name a new executive vice president provost, and she happens to be Dr. Malu C. Harris and someone I worked for many years while I was at the college. And it was my first call to tell her that we have to do this journey together, get reunited and lead the college. And so she's someone who I admire and respect tremendously. And just so many others that have influenced.
Heidi Otway: What was your reaction when you learned that you got the position at Miami-Dade College as the first woman president? In my understanding, it's one of the largest community colleges in the southeast.
Madeline Pumariega: Yeah, largest college in the country, when you think about community colleges and commuter colleges. Overwhelmed with such gratitude, such a blessing. I have to tell you, probably one of my first initial reactions was, I know my mom was watching, but she had to be watching from heaven. She had passed a month before that. So I think I was still certainly in the grieving process. So I think I immediately thought about her and thought, "Oh, I wish I could be here just to hug her." And my dad called, I think I was in the middle of a board and I said, "I got to take this call. It's my dad." But just the overwhelming sense of pride to be able to come back home to a college that made such a difference in my life, gave me such wonderful opportunities to grow my career.
And then a lot of just gratefulness in the board and their confidence. And then to come back in a room. After I interviewed, I was sent back to the hotel for their deliberation process. And then it came, I got a call from, I think the search firm, but I think before that I was getting the breaking news hit of the Miami Herald. So my daughter FaceTimed me and she was in school and she saw me, "Oh my God." So it was a lot of all that emotion. But then they were like, "You have to come back to the college." So I was trying to figure out how do I get back from this hotel, not far away, but not walking distance [inaudible 00:16:47]. So I'm like, "Okay, I guess I got to get an Uber, how do I get back there?"
So I have to tell you that the first couple of minutes was trying to figure out the logistics to get back to the college because now the board was waiting for me to come back and there were lots of people now in the room waiting for me to return and say a few words. So those first couple of minutes was just working out the logistics and taking the phone calls, but especially from family.
Chris Cate: The Fluent in and Floridian podcast is brought to you by SalterMitchell PR, a communications consultancy focused on helping good causes win. We provide strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation's third most populous state. Learn more SNPRFlorida.com. Now back to Heidi's interview with Miami-Dade College President Madeline Pumariega.
Heidi Otway: But still an exciting moment in your career. You and I were on a board here in Tallahassee with the United Way and I have since been watching you in your role through social media and I just have to tell you that you look like you're having the best time of your life in this new position.
Madeline Pumariega: I say to students and to young leaders, "Find your purpose and find your passion." And sometimes they'll say, "Well, how do you know what your purpose is?" And I said, "For me, it's threaded, it's the intersection of my faith and what I'm passionate about." And when you find that, hold onto it and have fun with it. And I think that I'm internally an optimist, I think everything can be done, we can get through anything, we're going to figure this out. With that, even on the days that are most challenging, you will find me cracking up or saying a joke, probably at the most inopportune team. The whole time the team's in there and I'm joking and they're just like, "Oh my god." Don't know whether to take me serious some days.
But anyway, the point is that we're going to get through it. And if you can find the joy in anything that you're going through, you can hold onto the joy when things are great and that you can find joy even in disappointments, for the most part, you'll radiate that happiness. And then that becomes who you are. I always tell my daughter, "Your attitude in your persona walks in the room before you."
Heidi Otway: That's true.
Madeline Pumariega: So making sure you're always working on your persona and aura in a joyful way is important because it is in the sense, you remember reading The Four Secrets, The Law of Attraction. When you do that, then you attract those positive people around you as well.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. What is your vision for Miami-Dade College?
Madeline Pumariega: The first 100 days I spent listening, visiting every campus, talking to community leaders and being informed by where I thought the college needed to go, based on what they said, based on listening and based on my own experience of the landscape of higher ed.
And I think one of the big priorities is that we reimagine the way students experience college. When you and I went to college, maybe we stood in line and that was the way that it was. But I think today that the generation that accesses college is going to do it in a different way. And so I think modernizing the system and reimagining that experience is so important for us. And it's a bit easier when you're doing it in a single campus institution, when you're doing it. When there's eight campuses across the largest county in Florida, it's a little bit easier to say it than to actually bring everyone together in a really thoughtful way and look at every one of our processes at the college and identify where there's a friction for a student. And is that based on turf and tradition or trust? How do we break those down so that we can have a student experience, which is second to none?
I think it's building on that academic excellence and innovation like we've done in launching the AI center, artificial intelligence, getting the National Security Agency to name us a Center of Excellence in Cybersecurity, but at the same time working with the superintendent so we can produce and expand the number of teachers that can have that impact in our community. And working with our hospitals to make sure they have the nurses that they need. So I think it's so important to keep your eye on the prize, which, for academic institutions, it's academic excellence. And then staying innovative to be able to be responsive to what the community needs.
An area that I have really focused as a leader here is a culture of care. Making sure that we are creating that culture of care, not just for our students, but each other. In everything that we do, ensuring that we are connected, that we have access to each other, that we have the resources that we need to do our jobs and to lead. And that we're engaged, that we're the ones, as the leaders of the institution, the faculty and the staff, really leading collaboratively and together. And that we're engaging with students so that they are at the center of every decision that we make. And that we always put students first. They are our why and why we do what we do every day. And so I think that's a really important aspect in my leadership and priority.
And then I would just say, as we look out to the future, how do we continue to grow enrollment? How do we make sure we meet students where they are and what support they need? And how do we make sure that we align to continuing to serve as the workforce engine of this community, which in turn is for the state? And also the cultural engine and catalyst too, paying attention to the arts and music and theater and the things that we're also great partners in the community with.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I actually attended Miami-Dade College when I was in my summers from Florida A&M University, and I took Spanish classes just to keep my mind fresh in between. And you think about Miami-Dade as a catalyst for education, but then also you're in this multicultural dynamic community. How are you leveraging that? We have a lot of people that are moving into Florida, South Florida is becoming a hub of new innovation, technology, new business development, growth, all of those things you mentioned. And how are you positioning Miami-Dade? And you kind of touched on it a little bit, but how are you all positioning this tremendous growth that's happening in the region to make Miami-Dade the place for folks to come and get that education, that support, those resources that they need?
Madeline Pumariega: One of the things that we've done as part of this tech momentum and movement is we launched MDC Tech. And MDC Tech is the umbrella for all of our tech programs. For example, artificial intelligence, last year we had 500 faculty go through artificial intelligence workshops. And then we set aside money for them to write innovative grants on how they would use artificial intelligence and analytics to strengthen learning outcomes and student success. That's one of the things we're doing.
Through MDC Tech, we put together BILT, BILT is business industry leadership grouped together. And so that group, BILT, informs, and they're the advisory committee if you will, they're the advisory team of industry leaders telling us here's where the puck is going around cybersecurity, around data analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, building partnerships with Amazon Web Services, with Google, with IBM. We launched a program AI for All with IBM. We have our students working on investing in trading and cryptocurrency as well as regular through a partnership with TradeStation. I think building those partnerships that lead to students' internships and opportunities and designing a curriculum that's responsive to that industry need, I think that's one aspect through MDC tech.
But one of the things we found too, it's just not tech talent, we needed healthcare talent. And so we sat down in a round table with legislators and key hospital leaders and mapped out a plan that we would increase our nursing programs by 40% and launch CNA programs, LPN programs, and increase the number of our RN students and then BSN students. Teaching is another area where we see... We once again hosted a round table with the commissioner of education and the superintendent to find solutions on how we could figure out on growing teachers in our community. And we've done that.
So I think it's working collaboratively with industry, working collaboratively with the county mayor, the city mayor, working with statewide leaders, the kind of investments that the governor and the state Board of Education's done around apprenticeships, career technical education and certifications has really been important. Because I do think that students might access college differently. It might not be a four year pathway. They may come to us for a certification. And then that certification needs to lead right into an associates. And they might come to us for an associates, but how does that lead to a bachelor's? So really stackable credentials, giving us that leverage point I think's been important for us, how we've responded to what you said so eloquently, really harnessing this energy around Miami and people coming to Miami around entrepreneurship and tech and FinTech and doing all of that. I'd like to say we're the community's college and we are producing the human capital that this community needs to continue to grow economically.
Heidi Otway: As a leader in all of this, I want to look to the flip side of your life, what do you do when you're not doing all these amazing things at Miami-Dade College?
Madeline Pumariega: Oh, I am spending time with family. Catch me playing dominoes. I love the beach. I think that one of the things that I've always loved as a kid is being near the water. I think it replenishes the soul. And so you can find me, and I love being back in Miami because there's water everywhere. And I try to get in my walking or running a couple of times a week. You can't give what you don't have. So you have to make sure that if you're giving the energy that you're bringing every day, that you also replenish yours by doing the things that you love and just taking care of oneself. But spending time with family, spending time on the beach. And my daughter's at Alabama now, so I confess, I've caught two football games. Loving college football and she's like, "Mom, come and come for parents' weekend." I'm not traveling around the world, but traveling to Alabama and around Florida for sure.
Heidi Otway: Well I love that. Well, President Pumariega, I would love to continue this conversation, but I know you have some big things that you need to do to keep moving Miami-Dade College forward. We always like to wrap up our show with asking our guests four questions. And the first question is, who is a Florida leader who you admire? It can be someone from any different industry or field from the past or someone who is still active in their work.
Madeline Pumariega: Probably someone that many won't say, but I think of Stanley Tate, who created, really when we thought of Florida pre Florida Prepaid and the STARS Scholarship Program. And I'm reminded often, Take Stock in Children, students receive a Florida Prepaid through the STARS program, which is a matching program of the legislature. And I think that people don't recognize him enough for transforming the lives of thousands of students who've had access to colleges like Miami-Dade College or universities like FAMU and FSU because they've earned a Stanley Tate Florida Prepaid scholarship. He came top of mind right now, probably because we're hosting Florida Prepaid Board at the college. But I so admire his visions for making sure that students from low income homes in our state had access to a pathway to education with mentorship and scholarship and hope.
Heidi Otway: That's great. What is a person, place or thing in Florida that deserves more attention than it's currently getting?
Madeline Pumariega: Something I mentioned very early, and that's I don't think that Florida knows enough about the Freedom Tower and the Ellis Island of the South. It will be 100 years old in 2025 and it should really be as a monument in Florida that stands for freedom and stands for opportunity and hope. And people in Miami might know about it, but I'm not sure that the rest of the state and what it represents.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I'm from Miami and I know what it means and it's such an iconic building and I'm thrilled to hear that you all are helping preserve it for years and years to come. What is your favorite Florida location to visit? You mentioned the beach, but any other places?
Madeline Pumariega: I love really the beach. And you think about the beaches in Florida, just from... I think one of the things that I've appreciated living in Tallahassee is the drive over to St. George's Island and to Destin. Before that you only thought Miami Beach, but if you go up the east coast, you find beautiful beaches in Daytona. But if you go up the west coast, you have the same and up into that. So I think we don't treasure enough of the beaches across the state, from east coast to west coast to South Florida to North Florida. I love visiting them and really get a treat out of seeing the differences of each one of our beaches, really a Florida treasure.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, I totally agree with you on that. And finally, do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Madeline Pumariega: It's hard to not fall in love with Miami Dolphins team. But I love sports. I have to tell you, I catch a lot of the Marlins game. My dad loves baseball, and so the Marlins and the World Series teams were pretty special. And what can we say about the Miami Heat? And certainly as a basketball lover, certainly love to see them on the court. But we're so fortunate, if you think in Florida to have the Tampa Bay Bucs, look at what they've done with Brady. You look at the Florida Panthers, but the Tampa Bay Lightning and what they've done in hockey and dominated. It's hard to pick one, but I have been fortunate to go to many of them and support all of them, including the Jacksonville Jags up in North Florida.
Heidi Otway: Yes. All right. Well, I'm a huge sports fan and you know I got to ask you, do you still play ball? Do you still get out on the court every now and then?
Madeline Pumariega: A little bit. A little bit. But I'm not sure that I would look good in some knee splint or something else. So I understand it won't go well with the heels, but yes, anytime I can get on and take a couple of shots, I do.
Heidi Otway: I love that. Well, President Pumariega, thank you so much for being a guest on this Fluent in Floridian podcast. I've learned some new things about you and I know our listeners have as well. So thank you again. We really appreciate you.
Madeline Pumariega: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to be with you today.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent and Fluidity and podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter, with additional support provided by Heidi Otway and the team at SalterMitchell PR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchell PR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchell PR at SNPRFlorida.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian podcast and listen to every episode of the show FluentinFloridian.com or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.
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