Jill Biden Brings Obama Initiative to Mercer County
March 29, 2012
Mercer County Community College had a special guest yesterday with a strong interest in the role community colleges have in helping students enter the work force and build careers.
Jill Biden, a community college professor and the wife of Vice President Joe Bidden, led a roundtable discussion that included students as well as experts on education.
"As a community college teacher, I feel right at home," said Biden, settling in during the talk yesterday. The Hammonton, N.J., native currently teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, close to her husband's job at the White House.
During her 18 years teaching at community colleges, Biden said, she has seen "moms juggling jobs and child care, workers getting skills they need, high school graduates take another step toward four-year colleges and (people) in their 40s and 50s almost give up hope and then get a second chance."
Biden's visit follows the launch of President Obama's Community College to Career Fund, an $8 billion investment in his 2013 budget "that would train two million workers with skills that lead directly to good jobs in industries that need workers, including advanced manufacturing, clean energy, and information technology," according to a White House statement. The program was announced in February.
Biden's "college to career" tour has taken her to five states so far.
Recent statistics confirm Biden's observations about the importance of community colleges. Many adults in New Jersey have studied them.
The Lumina Foundation released a report Monday showing that New Jersey ranks sixth in the country in the percentage of adults with at least a two-year college degree (45.3 percent).
The speakers at yesterday's roundtable represented different programs at New Jersey colleges, such as nursing, radiography and medical lab technology.
During the discussion, MCCC officials highlighted their pharmacy technician apprenticeship program with CVS Pharmacy and the college's culinary programs, where students prepare as professional chefs and managers.
CVS employs community college students and covers their tuition and other expenses. Meanwhile, hospitality industry partners advise on curricula and sponsor scholarships and pay for students' chef jackets. Many employ interns and hire graduates, according to the college.
"I gained experience in pharmacy," said Maryann Rowneki, who is in MCCC's pharmacy apprenticeship program. The money she earned at CVS "helped me with expenses like books and transportation." She graduates in May, and wants to attend pharmacy school.
Frank Caponi, 28, an MCCC 2010 graduate, is now a sous chef at Mediterra Restaurant in Princeton.
"I was able to have a full-time job, go to school and live my life without being stressed out," Caponi said.
Caponi's employer, the Terra Momo Group, hires MCCC graduates at all four of its restaurants in Central New Jersey, according to the college.
"The partnership has been a real success for us," said Rauoul Momo, owner of the Terra Momo Group, about the college's culinary arts interns.
Speaking via e-mail, MCCC president Patricia Donohue said the attention from the White House is very helpful to the college's mission.
MCCC's regular funding comes from the state and county, but what the federal government does provide comes to colleges through student aid and special grant programs, Donohue said.
"We are so pleased that community colleges are receiving more attention for the great work we do. It is a wonderful thing because now many more people -- potential students -- know about the opportunities available to them at community colleges.
Also, more employers are aware of the partnership opportunities that are possible, and how we can work together to prepare the skilled workers they need," Donohue said.
One of yesterday's participants, Jacob Farbman, a spokesman for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said that community colleges have predominantly had more part-time than full-time students. Community colleges, Farbman said, were "set up for people who had families or working full time and taking classes on their own schedules."
That all changed about 10 years ago when the state approved the New Jersey Student Tuition Assistance Reward Scholarship (NJ STARS) which provide tuition at community colleges for students who graduate from high school in the top 15 percent of their class.
Paul Shelly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, said NJ STARS also has contributed to the increase in students transferring from community colleges to four-year schools.