Dr. Marta Yera Cronin started work July 1 as president of Columbia Gorge Community College.
This is the second of a two-part interview with Cronin, with Kirby Neumann-Rea, Hood River News editor, in the commons of the Indian Creek Campus.
Part one appeared in the Aug. 29 edition and is available at hoodrivernews.com.
HRN: Overall do you have a sense of the college’s greatest need and aspects you would like to address as new president?
Cronin: Yes, we’ve been talking about ways to increase enrollment. Ideally I’d like for this to become a destination college. When I first came here I thought, ‘How do people not know about this place?’ There is so much that is up and coming here, a lot of industries that are getting stronger. We’re doing a lot of surveys to determine what training programs do we need to have that we don’t have, and what programs do we have that are no longer relevant? We’re trying to put our resources to where it’s most needed in the community. We’re in conversation for a new skills center and housing combination, with the board and talking about that potential to help provide housing and bring students to the area. I had trouble finding housing, even temporary housing. So we can‘t get students to come if they have nowhere to stay.
Dr. Marta Cronin on her youth and upbringing, and journey as an educator:
“I was born in New York City. My father was Cuban, my mother was from Spain, so my brother and I were first generation Americans.
“At home, it was always Spanish growing up, so when I got to school I was always at a little bit of a disadvantage. My grandma didn’t speak any English and she took care of us at home and she always spoke Spanish, but my mother always said, ‘It’s God, me and your teachers, in that order,’ so education was always so important. God forbid you got in trouble at school, it would be worse than if you got in trouble at home.
“She was a single mom, my dad was out of picture since I was 5, and we grew up in a terrible neighborhood in New York (Washington Heights), so it was one of those things where you are taught early you get the education or you don’t ever get out of these circumstances, ‘that’s our ticket out.’ She taught us at a young age that education was important. My brother and I did well in school and went on to college in Florida.
“I became a teacher but by accident. I was going to be an interpreter, with a French major and Russian minor, but in order to be an interpreter, I needed a master’s degree, so I thought, ‘I need something while I work on my Master’s degree: I’ll just teach French.’ And I loved it , so I changed my major to education. And as I taught I always thought, ‘I want to be a professor. I want to teach teachers and keep them up to date so I became a professor,’ and the first institution I taught at I was able to stay and I made dean and then vice president.
“It’s something that just happened. I never learned how to be an administrator. I thought I would just teach forever.”
Also, we need to work harder to keep the students already here, in college. So we want to partner more in the high schools and involve more of the students in those early credit classes.
For example, Hood River County School District is expanding that through the Options Academy.
We’ve had conversations about that, with all the superintendents, and we’ve talked about the role of Community Education. How can we partner both in Hood River and Wasco counties?
We’d like to reach more of those rural students in the counties we don’t officially serve, for us we’re trying to pull in virtually. I’d like to expand the virtual options. For some students, it’s a necessity. Often they don’t have transportation and can’t come here, or have children and it’s not an option to come to campus. They take their classes at 1 o’clock in the morning when everyone else is asleep. They need those virtual options. I’d like to see our presence in the virtual world a little stronger.
What are other examples of innovations you’ve like to have?
We’re moving more in the direction of high tech industry, and we’d like to see what’s necessary; cyber-security is a big issue, maybe that’s something we go into. But we definitely need to expand our virtual presence and we need to teach virtually as if we were alive, to have virtual science labs and things of that nature that people tend to shy away from.
How does that work?
Those are things that are being experimented with. I’ve never taught a virtual science lab but we were dabbling with that. I know, who wants to go to a doctor’s office where the nurse was trained completely online, that they didn’t get the hands-on that they needed? And there will be professions where we won’t be able to because we don’t want to compromise the training in any way, because we want people to be prepared when they’re finished.
So that will all be analyzed one program at a time to see what we’re looking at.
What’s been your contact with industry representatives in the Gorge and what have you learned so far?
I learned from Amanda Hoey (Mid-Columbia Economic Development District director) the need for more higher degrees and the need for industry (partnering). She took an interest in the fact that I had created bachelor’s degrees through my college in Florida, and we talked about the possibilities here in this state.
I need to get more information about what we can do but certainly we can partner more with OSU and other institutions if we are not able to have them get that higher learning they need other than what we can provide. We did talk about the skills center and the skills we need to provide. We’ve seen a lot of interest from people on that skills center.
What is the status of the skills center, and where will it be located?
The board is considering signing off, looking at the costs and what it will look like. Once that’s approved, if it’s approved, we can proceed with conversations about what programs are involved. We can’t make commitments until we have the commitment for the center. It is set to be on The Dalles campus. We’ll have to wait and see, the (grant) deadline is in January, so a decision needs to happen soon. A lot of things are in the works.
How is education changing, particularly at this level, and how is the college going to meet those changes?
I think education is moving more into the virtual space and out of the live space, unfortunately. We’re seeing a lot of colleges nationwide that are having to minimize their on-campus presence because they’re in the cloud somewhere. That’s a direction we need to move into; we need to be prepared for that. Even though I think there will always be a need for live education, because there will always be students who learn that way and don’t choose that (virtual) way. That’s the biggest thing in education now as far as innovation and education is ‘virtual everything.’ Via social media, people are taking classes on their phones at home, so we need to make sure everything is mobile friendly and adapt, so we have a little work to do in that area.
In Florida and other places, you became qualified to help this institution move in these kinds of directions.
One thing I noticed when I came is that some of the areas they were struggling were things I had worked on: Bringing alternative sources of funding. I had good luck or good experience with bringing grants, so as the funding in the states gets lower we need to seek alternative sources in order to make these innovative things happen. We’re working on a few grants now simultaneously.
For the third year in a row (Indian River) was in the top 10 for Aspen Prize for excellence, so we do a lot of innovation, and we’ll do a lot of innovation here, at a different pace.
It was a different environment, with 30,000 students and five campuses. This (CGCC) is more Zen. It’s a very different pace from Florida. It’s much nicer, and people are nice, too just because people are not in such a hurry.
Are there types of sources you can point to?
We’re looking at a Department of Labor grant, the big push now is apprenticeships and internships, so we’ve been having conversations with local businesses and industry about, ‘would you be willing to work with apprenticeships?’ and there is a lot of interest in that.
We’re working on a grant to expand our GED service to rural areas where they can get it via electronic means where we provide the technology that they need to do that. We saw one about open resource text books, we already have a few of those, and another (grant) coming up.
We are looking at anything we can do to enhance what we’ve got, and make moves in that direction.
What have you heard from students?
I have talked to a few students and have not met all of the faculty. Many of the students I have talked to were Hispanic students, and they were happy I was coming, so they can kind of relate. And so can I. I was a Latino student going through school and I know what that’s like.
I walk through the cafeteria every day hoping to run into students and the library and it’s so quiet. I can’t wait until fall starts where there’s activity on campus.