When Dr. Lester Edgardo Sandres Rápalo heard the news that he was selected to be Rockland Community College’s eighth president, he felt an overwhelming mix of emotions. After a nationwide search and rigorous application process, he would become RCC’s first Honduran and Latino president—a significant milestone for an institution with a 30% Hispanic population. For the first time, he would be able to use his two decades of experience in multiple areas of higher education to stand at the helm of an institution that guides over 6,000 students. Even through his nerves, Rápalo felt ready to rise to the challenge.
“My feeling was a little bit of everything—excited, nervous,” Rápalo said. “You become nervous when you’re committed to do great things. And I’m committed to doing great things for RCC.”
Rápalo, who began his career at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2000 as a resident assistant and teaching associate in the Romance Languages department, rose through the ranks of academia slowly but surely. After moving to Orlando, Florida in 2007 and becoming a professor of Foreign Languages and Humanities at Valencia College, eventually becoming chair of the department, Rápalo realized that his desire to create change in academic institutions was pointing him in the direction of administration.
Earning his doctorate in education at Nova Southeastern University prepared Rápalo for future leadership roles at New York City’s Union College, where he served as the Interim Dean of American Honors, Dean of Social Sciences, Business and History, and the Provost and Dean of the school’s Elizabeth campus. His latest position before accepting the appointment of president at RCC was as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at CUNY Bronx Community College.
Rápalo’s passion for helping marginalized students thrive stems from his own background as a Honduran immigrant and is reflected in the changes he is making at RCC. The population of 6,250 students can look forward to an expanded nursing program and further opportunities to study internationally, as well as continuously affordable tuition rates to create opportunities for students of all kinds.
“Some of our students come from very diverse economic backgrounds,” Rápalo explained. “The fact that against all the odds, they’ve still managed to complete a college education is remarkable. That’s what we’re here for. I know for a fact that our faculty and our staff are beyond committed to help them— to give them not only the right tools, but the care and resources that they need to graduate.”
Recently, Rápalo attended lunch with a group of RCC students. As he listened to the students speak about their varying stories and backgrounds, he was reminded why he chose to pursue this path.
“When I see RCC students, I see a reflection of myself,” Rápalo said. “And now that I’m president, my commitment is stronger than ever to help them to get to the finish line and graduate. Because I do know what it means to be there. A lot of times, you feel hopeless. Our faculty, students and myself create this ecosystem that helps students to believe in themselves.”