Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Full Circle

Madeline Pumariega had a childhood common to the offspring of Cuban immigrants in working-class Hialeah. She and her brother routinely gave up their room to aunts, uncles and other relatives newly arrived from Cuba and in need of a place to stay. Home meant family — cousins as close as siblings — along with dominoes, Catholic Mass on Sundays and only Spanish spoken at home. Little Madeline didn’t really speak English until kindergarten.

After high school, she earned an associate’s degree at Miami Dade College. She wanted a bachelor’s degree, but between work and family expectations it took her another two colleges and until she was 25 to get one. “I have that connection with students,” Pumariega says. “I understand that life gets in the way. I understand that sometimes you think you’re going to go away but you come back for that summer and all of a sudden you need to work and that’s it.”

That connection, she says, bolsters her ability to see Miami Dade College “through the lens” of a student. Making MDC better at serving those students has driven Pumariega since she became its president in 2021. “Some leaders are really in it for the title,” says Nicole Washington, vice chair of MDC’s board of trustees and principal of her own education policy advisory firm, Washington Education Strategies, in Miami Beach. “She’s the opposite. She’s in it for the students because she was one of the students.”

All of Florida’s 28 public state colleges do yeoman service, bridging the gap between where students (both new high school graduates and those already working) are academically and financially where they want, or need, to be.

MDC, though, stands out in significant ways. It’s the largest in Florida and — depending on the yardstick — the largest in the nation about 76,000 credit-seeking students and about 107,000 students attending in some capacity. It awards more associate degrees than any college in the country. MDC also serves more Hispanic students than any other institution in the country — three-fourths of credit-seeking students are Hispanic. Another 17% are non-Hispanic Black. Just 5% are non-Hispanic White.

It’s a gateway college. Foreign-born students comprise 37% of enrollment. More than 10,000 students take English learner courses. Graduates at a recent commencement represented 107 nations and 63 languages. Half of MDC students are the first in their families to go to college. More than half come from low-income families. A quarter of students are over 25 years of age.

And in a city renowned for its ever-shifting dynamics, the college is a stable power center. Pumariega is just its fifth president in 63 years.

Her predecessors built a national leader in higher education. Robert McCabe, who was president when Pumariega was a student, grew MDC into the nation’s largest. His influence as a thinker and innovator in community college circles won him a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Pumariega’s immediate predecessor, Eduardo Padron, who came from Cuba as a teen and graduated from MDC, made such an impact in education that he held national appointments from six U.S. presidents. Padron received America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from then President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony in 2016.

But in just three years, Pumariega has put her own stamp on the college as an institution willing and capable of keeping up with the fast-evolving needs of students and the demands of a region reaching for global status.

Working her way up

Pumariega’s parents, Miguel and Aleida, left Cuba in 1960, first settling in New York and later among other Cuban exiles in Hialeah. “The importance of family and faith and humility,” Pumariega says she learned early. “My parents lost everything … and started again. Never once complained. Just the gratitude and gratefulness for this country, for this community.” Her father worked as a butcher and then for 50 years a banker, not retiring from his post as an executive vice president at Iberia Bank until he was 85. Her mother learned English and earned her teaching certificate at the college.

Pumariega says her love of education comes from her mother, and her love of sports from her father. She played basketball at Hialeah High and for MDC. After earning her two-year degree, she went off to the University of Central Florida. Like many Cuban parents, hers didn’t like her being away from home. She returned after a year, took a job at a local bank and helped her old college team as an assistant coach. She eventually completed her four-year degree at what’s now St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. She joined MDC as an academic advisor and assistant coach. Over 21 years, Pumariega climbed the administrative ranks until she became president, under Padron, of the downtown Wolfson Campus.

A block off Biscayne Bay, the campus is in the center of ever-under-construction Miami. The campus view encompasses the Freedom Tower and historic Gesu Catholic Church, the city’s oldest Catholic church built on land donated by railroad magnate Henry Flagler. While Pumariega was pregnant with her daughter, she would avail herself of its peaceful interior. “My favorite thing to do is go sit there in the middle of the day. It’s just quiet. It’s just like, if you can just silence yourself,” she says. Her daughter, Alyssa, was baptized at the church. “(I) really believe that faith is important,” Pumariega says. “And I don’t hide that. Number one is just the gratefulness. And the blessing of God in our lives and faith in our lives. There’s got be something much bigger than any one of us and that perspective I think gives you humility and gives you a different way to see something. I say faith shines brightest in our darkest moments. When you’re in the darkest place in the darkest room, you’re like, ‘See any lights?’ The only way to get out of there is because you turn on the internal light.”

After two years as Wolfson president, she left to become president and CEO of Take Stock in Children of Florida, a non-profit that provides mentors and scholarships to low-income students. From there, she became the first woman and first Hispanic chancellor of the Florida College System, which oversees the community colleges. In her career, she says, she wants to provide a woman’s perspective. “I do think the window from where women leaders see things is going to be different from men because of our life experiences and I think that’s an asset to an organization,” she says.

Three years as chancellor gave her a statewide outlook. She implemented the Florida’s performance-funding accountability measure, which incentivizes colleges to move students to graduation in a timely manner by providing support in advising and planning and assuring there are sufficient slots in needed classes. In 2019, she became Tallahassee Community College’s executive vice president and provost.

A Homecoming

When her mother passed in 2020, Pumariega gave thought to returning to family and home in South Florida. Padron had retired in 2019 at age 74 after nearly 50 years at MDC, 24 years as president. In the interim, enrollment by credit-seeking students was down from pre-pandemic levels and total enrollment was off 10% to below 100,000 for the first time in years. Falling enrollment is a state and national trend due to the robust job market, societal changes and pandemic aftershocks.

After an initial search became politically contentious, the board launched a second try. Pumariega entered her name. She held no doctorate but had an institutional memory that went back to her late teens. She was acquainted with MDC board members. They liked that she knew the community, the nonprofit sector and had local and Tallahassee connections. Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson wrote her a letter of recommendation, as did former Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

One search committee member, then Voices for Children Foundation CEO Nelson Hincapie, already knew Pumariega when she emerged as a candidate for the job. Hincapie, who has been outspoken about his difficult childhood, was a Miami Dade student in the late 1990s and credits Pumariega for helping him overcome his past. “I had just left drug and alcohol treatment,” Hincapie told public radio station WLRN. “I had no idea what my life was going to be, and I was literally at the edge, ready to jump off. She made a huge, huge difference.” Hincapie now serves as the CEO of the college’s foundation.

In January 2021, in the first full year of the pandemic and nearly two years after the search began, she took office as MDC president. “Only in America and through the grace of God does a young girl who grew up in Hialeah come back and lead her alma mater as the president,” she said.

Her first 100 days included a listening tour of campuses, students, faculty and staff. She instituted a “culture of care” focused initially on COVID measures that has since broadened into a wide effort to encourage and empower staff and faculty.

The United Faculty of Miami Dade College supported Pumariega’s selection as president — they liked that she had come up through the college but also had the chancellor and Tallahassee experience. Initiatives such as the “culture of care” bolstered their support. “The professors are not a monolith,” says United Faculty President Elizabeth Ramsay, but “I can say with some confidence the perception of President Pumariega is really positive. She always has a genuine respect for faculty and that comes through with all her interactions with professors.” She recalls working with Pumariega, then in student services, years prior on the Miami Book Fair. “She’s smart and she’s fun,” Ramsay says, and is a leader with a “deep humility.”

Upon taking office, the new president quickly presented trustees with a digital dashboard on enrollment trends at MDC campuses and strategies to improve them. A college-wide strategic plan developed by the campus community after Pumariega settled into the presidency covers more goals — underserved populations, data-driven decision-making — but in an interview she highlights personalizing the education experience for students through technology. “The future of education is very much a personalized future,” she says. Pumariega ecourages students to pursue “stackable credentials,” which include work and training experience and industry certifications that can count toward a degree and improve employability.

Pumariega draws on her time as chancellor when she carried out a directive of then Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. He pushed agencies to eliminate outdated, burdensome regulations on Floridians. Pumariega has had MDC examine whether its practices actually serve its customers. Change inevitably bumps up against “turf, trust and tradition,” she says. “It was people’s turf. ‘This is the way we’ve always done it traditionally’ and ‘I don’t trust you enough to do it your way.’ And before you know it, that’s the business protocol, that culture becomes your business rules and those business rules no longer serve your customers.”

She says the college must do more with innovation. MDC in 2024 will become the first public higher education institution in Florida to offer a bachelor’s degree in applied artificial intelligence. MDC also has been quick to implement programs to support the city’s fast-rising tech sector in health, hospitality and finance by creating programs that allow students, including those already in the workforce, to take classes and immediately implement what they’ve learned in a job. Many of the programs are partially underwritten by the companies most in need of those skills.

Pumariega also is particularly sensitive to higher education’s reputation for being expensive, dashing the dreams of students and families with no college experience. She cites a noxious refrain: “In order to go to college, you have to get in debt.” Says Pumariega, “That isn’t true in Florida. And that isn’t true in Miami.”

Enrollment has recovered somewhat under Pumariega with MDC having 75,644 credit-seeking students at the start of the current academic year, the best year since 80,437 pre-pandemic. Total enrollment has bumped up to 106,935. Nationally, enrollment is stable but uneven, with states such as Florida performing better than other states.

“The headline is always ‘the student debt crisis.’ The headline is always about how much it costs,” Pumariega says, “but that’s a private university or that might be in another state that hasn’t invested in higher education the way Florida’s invested in higher education,” she says. “We’re affordable because we’ve had the support of the Legislature. Florida leads the nation in higher education because of affordability. I’m proud that less than 2% of students at Miami Dade College take on any loans.”

Growing clout

As MDC president, Pumariega also has seen her national profile rise. In 2022, she joined the board of the American Association of Community Colleges and in March, she was elected to the board of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating and advocacy group for the nation’s colleges and universities.

She’s also leveraged the college’s role as convener. Last year, the Economic Club of Miami needed a venue to introduce Citadel founder Ken Griffin, who had relocated his hedge fund to Miami from Chicago. Pumariega gathered MDC students to meet with Griffin privately. Griffin came away impressed enough that several months later he donated $20 million — the largest single gift in MDC’s history — to fund scholarships and student support. Griffin, in a statement to Florida Trend, noted that more than half of MDC students are first-in-family to attend college and the college enrolls more Hispanic students than any other higher ed institution nationwide. “She has worked tirelessly to equip the next generation of civic leaders, business leaders and problem-solvers with the tools needed to succeed,” Griffin says. “I admire President Pumariega’s commitment to providing an exceptional educational opportunity to so many talented students. Her strong leadership is vital to our community’s success.”

Says Pumariega, “I hope that he really sets the mark for anyone else who comes into our state anywhere, whether it’s Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and says I want to invest in the community — that the community college, the local college, is the best investment you can make.”

On an evening in July, Pumariega welcomed bank CEOs and approximately 100 high school students — and their families — who had participated in a banking and financial services camp that is a gateway program to earn certification as a bank teller.

A couple nights later, she headed to Little Havana to the Miami Marlins’ loanDepot Park for Miguel Cabrera Night to celebrate the four-time All Star, accompanied by someone she calls the “the coolest guy I know, like my best friend in the world” — her father.

There’s both comfort and challenge in being back to where she started. “I don’t wake up thinking what’s the next big thing. I’ll be the best version of myself every single day and continue to just transform the lives of our students like this college transformed my life and so many. Life’s a gift. Every day is a blessing.”

Community Connections

It would be hard to overstate how essential MDC is to Miami business, economy and culture, akin to the City College of New York’s influence on that city. MDC’s eight campuses run from downtown, which also houses the public magnet high school New World School of the Arts, to Pumariega’s Hialeah and Little Havana. There are campuses for the north, west and Kendall suburbs and a medical campus by the University of Miami’s med school and Jackson Memorial, the mainstay hospital of one of the nation’s largest health systems.

Miami’s political and business elite is replete with MDC alums: Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health; recording artist Emilio Estefan; condo developer, philanthropist and Related Group founder Jorge Perez; tech entrepreneur and eMerge Americas founder Manny Medina; law firm senior chairman Cesar Alvarez, who built local Greenberg Traurig into an international powerhouse. The city’s employment base likewise is stocked with businesspeople, nurses and teachers who count themselves among MDC’s 2.5 million alums. The college says it ranks first in the state and nation in economic mobility.

MDC runs the Miami Film Festival, now in its 40th year. This month it will put on the 39th edition of the Miami Book Fair, which draws 500 authors from around the globe for its eight-day run. The college owns the Freedom Tower, a historic building downtown that in the 1960s became a processing center for Cuban refugees. Now a museum undergoing a $25 million renovation, the tower is where Pumariega’s parents were processed after escaping Cuba.