A preeminent figure in America’s educational landscape, Dr. Eduardo Padrón, President of Miami Dade College, blends the histories of many immigrants into one great story.
By Ivan Luque
A preeminent figure in America’s educational landscape, Dr. Eduardo Padrón, President of Miami Dade College, blends the histories of many immigrants into one great story. This paradigm of overturning adversity in the face of overwhelming challenges, from his humble beginning in Cuba to the realization of his full potential as an educator, is a tale worth telling. His pursuit of academic equality and opportunity has led a revolution in education, turning MDC into the largest institution of higher learning in the US. The unprecedented growth of the school is a guide for many urban colleges and universities around the nation and has been replicated with success in other cities. For over 40 years his life has been associated with the college in a symbiotic relationship that has proven beneficial to both parties and to millions of students. Padrón has guided, educated and enabled students to reach their full potential and change their lives forever. Through the arc of his journey he has seen integration, exodus, and wave after wave of new immigrants reaching success. The realization of his vision has turned out to be, well, indispensable. Dr. Padrón sat with us in the English style library of the art deco house he calls home to recount the all American saga that is his life.
Dr. Eduardo Padrón.
Eduardo Padrón was born in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city and the cradle of Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. His was a close-knit middle class family, the kind that took great pride in their closeness and honored hard work. “Everyday we would have dinner together. That was almost like a religion. It was important to be able to go home everyday–and for dinner to be served, and everyone being at the table was precious.“ says Padrón, reminiscent of his early years. His father’s work with a British pharmaceutical company took the family to Havana when Padrón was an adolescent. But the events of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought fears of communist indoctrination and possible removal of parental rights to many families. The pained aftermath of the revolution led the country into a precipice of violence that heralded the groaning reality of exile. It was the early 1960’s, and the world at the brink of nuclear disaster was as frightening a place as it had ever been, when his parents had to make the decision of letting their children leave Cuba without them. More than 14,000 children came to the U.S. under Operation Peter Pan, the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western hemisphere. Frightened children came to the U.S. unaccompanied under the auspices of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. Padrón and his younger brother were among this group. The struggle of allowing the children to leave to a foreign country alone was unbearable, but it was the only way to make sure they would live in freedom. His mother’s farewell advice to pursue an education at all cost was singed in his resolve forever. “She said, you can go finish high school and go to college no matter what sacrifices you have to make. Even if you have to go hungry, go to college,” Padrón remembers with a hint of nostalgia.
At age 15, he arrived in Miami and faced the daunting task of supporting himself and his brother in a strange land without knowing the language. His blithe attitude towards life will forever change after his arrival in the U.S. The young man was forced to maintain equanimity in the face of the challenges that lay before him. There was no time to traipse around his new life. He had to grow up and do it fast. He enrolled in school while holding part time jobs in restaurants, delivering newspapers and washing cars. He recalls that time with decorum, acknowledging his parents’ sacrifice and his own personal challenges. “I didn’t know the language, the culture; I didn’t have any money; I had no family; I came without my parents and became my brother’s father. So that part was tough.”
With little English, he graduated from Miami Sr. High. The goal of his youth was to fulfill the complex reality of the American Dream his parents had sacrificed so much for. “At that time my idea of the American Dream was to be rich. I always wanted to work for a large corporation–become a CEO. I wanted to one day perhaps have my own business”, says Padrón of the time prior to discovering the catalytic strength of education, before pausing to recognize his true calling. “I never planned to be an educator, because teachers did not make enough money. And I didn’t see educators at that time as making much of a difference. My life changed drastically when I had the opportunity to teach for one year, and I decided that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. I saw the opportunity to change peoples’ lives. And I can tell you that I never became rich financially, but I’m the richest guy you will ever meet.” After high school, he applied to 12 different colleges and was rejected by all of them. The exception was Dade Junior College (which later became Miami Dade Community College and eventually Miami Dade College), an institution that to this day provides immigrant and minorities the opportunity to go to college. Dr. Padrón credits this event as the moment that changed his life; “I’m very grateful and passionate about Miami Dade College, because it was the institution that changed my life.” His gratitude would later be expressed when he returned to teach and lead the school that prepared him to become America’s foremost educator.
Dr. Padrón received over 35 job offers when he graduated with a PhD in economics; he accepted a job with DuPont in Delaware, at the time the largest corporation in the world. Before he was absorbed by his new life he visited his former college professors, who convinced him to stay with the institution that had once believed in him. Padrón decided he would teach at the college for a single year, a decision he has never regretted. “That was the best decision I ever made in my life because I cannot find more satisfaction than what I do. I have been with the institution for many years, and I see the tangible results of my work all the time.” Serendipity would reveal his true mission, which was to teach.
The decision to accept a job at MDC may seem like it came out of left field, but in time it would prove prophetic. He was committed to the premise that education should be available to all as the most important tool to share the metrics of success. With an engrossing personality and intuition, stringent rules, stamina and optimism, he embarked in the adventure of a lifetime. Since graduating from the college, Dr. Padrón has worked as an assistant professor of economics, department chair, division director, associate dean, dean, vice president, campus president and by 1995, he had become the President of Miami Dade College. During his tenure, the school has seen the most impressive growth of any college in America. He has overseen the transition of the school into a full 4-year curriculum offering diplomas in a wide array of disciplines as well as 2-year associate programs in existing and new disciplines. The college has received national recognition for its longstanding involvement with its urban community. The school’s enrollment reaches more than 170,000 students from 192 countries who speak 93 languages. Half of these students are the first in their families to attend college. His spirited embrace of minority students has led him to become an advocate for the Dream Act, which offers equal access to higher learning for undocumented youths who where brought to the US as children. His vaunted success means less to him than his dedication to teaching in a fair institution. Purposeful and optimistic he has embraced the zeitgeist of a new, more tolerant time when compassionate action is needed.
The educational initiatives launched by MDC have consolidated the school as the culture hub of Miami, a city whose cultural renaissance is closely tied to the college. He has been influential in changing Miami’s hidebound mentality of yesteryear. With metronomic precision he has left his moniker in countless cultural projects. These include the Miami Book Fair International, the Miami International Film Festival, the MDC Live! Performing Arts Series, the national Historic Landmark Miami Freedom Tower, a sculpture park, and a large art gallery and theater system.
Dr. Padrón has been the recipient of countless awards, recognitions and honorary degrees. Internationally he has been recognized by numerous nations and organizations including the republics of France, Argentina and Spain, and his leadership extends far into the nation’s leading organizations. Throughout his illustrious career six American presidents have selected Dr. Padrón for posts of national prominence. Most recently President Obama appointed him Chairman of the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans.
The toughest challenge for Dr. Padrón as MDC president has been to provide high quality education in the face of increasing funding cuts for education. “I don’t let any of that get in the way of doing our best to become more efficient and provide the students the best education they can have. It’s a matter of just working with a lot of organizations and the community to make sure that people understand and are supportive of the institution. That is when I’m at my best. If I didn’t have all the challenges I have today, I think I would lose interest,” says Padrón. He subscribes to a philosophy of “success breeds success” and has enlisted the work of esteemed alumni to highlight the work of the school, which graduates more minority students than any university in the country.
Dr. Eduardo Padrón.
The right combination of discipline, structure and flexibility, as well as his ability to overcome obstacles has been essential to his success. Prioritizing, being open to new perspectives, balancing executive functions and task-oriented work are some of the lessons he has learned through the years. “I have developed the ability to deal with big ideas, but also to be very attentive to details,” Padrón comments. His resilience has demystified the role of the educator as an inspirational figure rather than a teacher. When asked whether he had a special talent for this, he replied “both abilities have been in me, but I have learned to understand when to apply one and when to apply the other. Everyday of my life I learn to do something different, to look at things in a different way. I think, having that flexibility and understanding, that you may not possess the truth all the time, that there are different points of view and you need to really put yourself in the shoes of the other person before you make your decision. But you need to have the interest first.”
While reflecting on someone whose whole life has been a constant strive for excellence, one wonders if he finds this lifestyle taxing in its own right, if he has achieved harmony. According to Padrón, “it’s a question of being able to understand why you do things. There must be a very important purpose. And as long as you are pursuing it–and it’s something that satisfies you and gives you tranquility–then harmony comes naturally.” No matter what the future holds for Dr. Padrón, it is certain that he has left and indelible mark on the structure of education for the new century. With eight campuses and an extensive online program, MDC continues to train and inspire a new generation of future leaders who will greatly benefit from the example set by Dr. Padrón. Who knows, maybe the next President of the College has already enrolled in one of its programs.
At the end of our interview, I asked a few personal questions to get to know the man behind the myth.
What is luxury to you? Having a job that you enjoy.
Favorite book: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Favorite movie: An Affair to Remember.
Favorite meal: anything with shrimp.
Favorite vacation spot: Paris.
Favorite memory: Riding with his parents in the car.
Favorite art movements: Art Deco and Art Nouveau.
Favorite restaurant: Tuyo.
Favorite historical person: John F. Kennedy. ■
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