Daughter of Cubans, first woman to head largest US university

By Ivonne Malaver

Miami, Mar 10 (efe-epa). When she was a little girl, her parents hosted in their Florida home relatives who – like them – had fled Cuba, and in January Madeline Pumariega became the first female president of Miami-Dade College (MDC), the largest university in the US by enrollment with 83 percent of its graduates of Hispanic origin.

Smiling, she told EFE that her parents had the famous “Pin Pan Pun,” the name the islanders gave to the folding bed they kept ready for exiles to sleep on.

She likes to think back on her childhood in Hialeah and she said that the Miami-Dade County city which has a large Cuban population instilled in her the moral “principles” that she teaches to her 16-year-old daughter and to the student community she oversees.

“I always say that I’m that girl from Hialeah, that I carry it close to my heart because I think that growing up in an immigrant family taught me about struggling, working hard and humility,” she said.

Pumariega said that the “most important thing” she learned growing up in the city that welcomed thousands of Cuban immigrants in the 1960s and ’70s was “knowing who she is” and “where she comes from.”

She emphasized that the story of her parents and many aunts and uncles who were political prisoners in Cuba and lost their businesses on the island “enriched” her learning experience.

The daughter of a banker and a teacher who came to the US “to remake their lives,” Pumariega said that the university has linked its programs to the different massive migrations of Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Puerto Ricans for political or natural reasons, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.

The immigrants roots of the president of MDC, who is also a professor there, help her to understand the needs of her students, currently numbering more than 100,000 from 167 countries and speaking 63 languages.

“We’re the institution of the community. We reflect our community in all that we do,” she said in her office on the downtown Miami campus.

Pumariega succeeds as MDC president Eduardo Padron, a Cuban immigrant who arrived in the US as a boy with his younger brother, separated from his parents, to avoid being indoctrinated by the Cuban Revolution on the island.

Padron led the university for 25 years until he retired in August 2019, and Pumariega said with pride that she worked with him for 20 years and learned his values such as “putting students first.”

In addition to being the first woman to head MDC, Pumariega is also the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as chancellor of the Florida College System, with its 28 academic centers and some 800,000 students.

MDC, she said, graduates more Hispanics (83 percent) and African Americans (12 percent) than any other such institution in the US.

Pumariega said that 60 percent of Florida’s university student body is female, but just 29 percent of the academic institutions are headed by women, and she said that – for her – the difference between a male and female university president is the “balance” that women bring, with greater empathy and being people of “vision, purpose and passion.”

She said that what makes MDC, having just celebrated its 60th anniversary, strong is the fact that “we all come from other places, and Miami-Dade College has served as that site where everyone comes, which opens its doors to having conversations, setting goals that help students (and) the community and also gives a voice to the countries” from which they come.


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