Dr. Jill Biden, the Second Lady of the United States, visited Valencia College’s West Campus on Thursday for a round-table discussion about Valencia’s partnerships with employers.
Biden, who has been a community college teacher for 18 years, spoke to a room full of students, employees and staff from Valencia College and the University of Central Florida about the value of workforce partnerships. She also met with Shannon Elswick, president of Orlando Health’s adult hospital group; Alex Papadopulos, chief technology officer for Striata, a global e-billing technology company; Dr. Tony Waldrop, provost and executive vice president at University of Central Florida; along with former Valencia students Pamela Garcia, Angel Valezaquez Guzman and Brandon Wolfgang.
Biden’s visit to Valencia was part of a national “Community College to Career” tour, highlighting successful workforce partnerships between community colleges and employers.
“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that the (Obama) administration has focused the nation’s attention on community colleges,” Biden said.”You all here know how great community colleges are. We live it day by day. We see students. We see where they start, where they finish, what they go on to.”
Dr. Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia College, moderated the round-table discussion. He noted that students use college to achieve their goals – including finding good jobs. “Neither Valencia nor UCF are destinations; we’re just bridges,” he said. “Students want to go somewhere, they have a goal in their minds, and we’re here to help them reach that goal.”
Employers noted that Valencia officials were eager to get their input on how the college’s students fare in the workforce – and if any changes should be made in the curriculum. And, in fields that are rapidly changing, partnerships with community colleges allow employers to help shape – and change – the curriculum as needed.
“In the technology industry, things change so often,” Papadopulos said. “When a student starts his degree, what he learned at the beginning may be obsolete four years later.”
Papadopulos’s firm, Striata, employs more than 200 people — with 12 employees in Orlando. Among them is Brandon Wolfgang, who graduated from Valencia in May.
For Wolfgang, Valencia provided the right start. “When I started at Valencia, I was unsure what I wanted to do as a career path,” he told the crowd. “But I liked computers, so I took some programming classes and that allowed me to get my feet wet — at a reasonable price.”
Along the way, he said, he discovered “good teachers who were passionate about their jobs,” including Dr. Lisa Macon and Dr. Colin Archibald. Shortly before graduation, Wolfgang took their class on building applications for mobile phones and also did an internship with them before graduating.
“I was very well-prepared” for the workforce, said Wolfgang who graduated in May. Although he’s working full-time, he will begin working on his bachelor’s degree from UCF in the fall.
Some employers, including Orlando Health, have invested in Valencia — by giving the college equipment used to train students. “Over the years, we’ve put $3 million into the college,” Elswick said. “But that money comes back to us in the form of good employees. Our managers are Valencia graduates. Our best talent comes from here.” And, thanks to clinical rotations that allow Valencia nursing and health students to do internships in the hospitals, students graduate from Valencia ready to work. “By the time they graduate, we don’t have to train them,” Elswick said.
He noted that Valencia is also adept at teaching students critical-thinking skills — which employers today need.
“What we need in the workforce has changed so much,” Elswick said. “It used to be that a student needed to know the skills. But today, we need people to have great critical-thinking skills. We need people who aren’t just empathetic, but have good relationship skills. We need nurses who don’t just look at a patient’s symptoms, but can see the whole picture. … and our nurses from Valencia who take the critical thinking skills test have a phenomenal pass rate.”
Valencia graduate Angel Velazquez Guzman earned an Associate in Science (A.S.) degree in radiography in 2010. He was hired upon graduation, as a computer tomography technician at Orlando Health. “I go to work with a smile on my face every day,” Guzman told the crowd. “I love my job.”
Also on the panel was Pamela Garcia, who earned two A.S. degrees in electronics and engineering from Valencia, an Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree and now is a senior at UCF, majoring in electrical engineering. “After I got an A.S., I got a job with a defense contractor which offered educational reimbursement, so I thought I should take advantage of that,” Garcia told Biden. “I came back and got my A.A. and, thanks to DirectConnect to UCF, I’m over there now and I love it. They’re both really good colleges.”