By Bill Parry
When Dr. Gail O. Mellow took over as president of LaGuardia Community College in 2000, she inherited one of the most ethnically diverse campuses in the nation with more than 50,000 students, two-thirds of whom are now new Americans. The students at LaGuardia’s Long Island City campus face a unique challenge in that the majority have family incomes of less than $25,000 per year.
“These are students who weren’t born of privilege,” Mellow said. “They have an extraordinary vitality because this is their shot and they really want to make it work.”
Under her leadership, over $20 million in external funding through grants and contracts is secured each year for workforce development programs and initiatives that support at-risk students. The school established a Single Stop office, a central hub where students go when life struggles arise. The highly trained staff helps students sign up for public benefits and provides financial literacy counseling, housing placement services, access to an on-campus food pantry and more.
In January Mellow received the 2016 NASPA President’s Award giving special recognition to a college or university president who has advanced the quality of student life on campus by supporting student affairs staff and programs.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college and I had to work full time taking courses at night and weekends,” Mellow said, “so I can identify with our students. We’ve seen firsthand how a student’s academic performance can suffer when they’re worried about how to pay for their next meal or subway ride home from class. Investing in our student affairs staff has enabled more students to tap their expertise to help pay for school, find jobs, get properly advised or obtain health services.”
Since she joined LaGuardia, the college has gained increasing recognition, named one of the Top Three Large Community Colleges by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, and winning numerous awards, including the prestigious 2006 MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award for Service to Underserved Students.
“Gail is a national leader in the fight for strong community college education,” City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said. “It’s great to work alongside her to make western Queens a place where people can expand their horizons through top-notch education. Gail has helped literally hundreds of thousands of people get a quality education and build strong futures.”
Mellow credits her faculty and staff with establishing a culture of success.
“Our focus is to create the best community we can by creating the best educated people we can,” she said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr