Business, education go hand in hand, says RCC’s new president

ABC’s, AI (artificial intelligence) and workforce development were among the topics Rockland Community College’s new president, Dr. Lester Sandres Rápalo, recently discussed at the Rockland Business Association’s November luncheon.

In an in-depth interview with RBA President Al Samuels, Rápalo outlined his goals for expanding and enriching programs currently offered at the college—ones that will meet the needs of students who excel on the World Wide Web but who lack the skill-sets needed to enter the workforce. Rápalo, recruited by Bronx Community College to lead RCC, said students need the opportunity to connect with local employers to help lift them from poverty and increase interest in higher education. To that end, Rápalo obtained a $3 million grant for that purpose.

Since taking the helm of RCC earlier this year, Rápalo has focused on increasing programming for workforce development. “I know you’ve received another grant for skillset training,” said Samuels, “Your fundraising and ability to get grants has not been publicized, particularly those that come from the private sector,” referring to a recent gift from an alumnus who volunteered his art collection-valued at $7-10 million to the school. Rápalo declared it to be the largest grant ever given to a community college in New York State. “It’s my job as president to look for more grants. At the end of the day, we are here for the students to provide an affordable and top-notch education.”

RCC’s new president also addressed the growing incidence of religious and racial intolerance that has erupted on campuses across the nation. “We do not tolerate it. We nurture and embrace diversity. I’m a huge believer that we live in one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on Earth. For me as President our safety is our #1 priority. We obviously embrace freedom of speech, but when it comes to hate speech, we do not tolerate that.”

Recent recommendations by the NYS Board of Regents suggests changes need to be implemented at the high school level and are considering changing the current requirement of four years to either a three or six-year education, as well as dropping Regents requirements; it is also seeking to re-introduce civics, ethics and business writing—which includes learning how to properly signature documents.

“The recommendations are on point,” said RCC’s new president. “One of my goals right now is to recruit students from all walks of life. The recommendations are valid—we will have to look at the changes suggested at the high school level.”

Under Rapalo’s leadership, RCC has introduced a new program—supply chain management—and is exploring AI-artificial intelligence, as well as seeking to expand its internship program to connect students with employers to help them master the trade they are learning.

Architect Michael Shilale recently hired a student from Rockland BOCES’ P-Tech program and asked about plans to boost enrollment–which once reached a high of nearly 15,000 and is now less than half that number. “We are connecting with high schools and doing community outreach,” said Rápalo. “County-wide, the student population has decreased. We have to look at demographics and make data-driven decisions—as well as look for innovative programs that will attract students. We want to help students get there, more importantly, to create human capital. This generation is competing globally. If they don’t have those basic skills, they will be completely lost.” Rápalo said by 2043, 60 percent of jobs will be in STEM services (science, technology, engineering and math). “If we don’t prepare our students, we will be at a great disadvantage.”

Both Lucy Rezdepowski, Rockland County Office of Economic Development and Tourism and Joe Valenti, Dominican College, inquired if foreign students could be accommodated at other college campuses with dormitories that have available space for students—soliciting a hearty “Yes” response from Rápalo. RCC is also seeking to bring back some of the programming that made the campus a gathering place for the community, including concerts at the Field House, once an integral part of the campus’s offerings.

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