After two decades at LaGuardia Community College, Dr. Gail O. Mellow announced Wednesday she plans to step down as president in August. Under her leadership, the Long Island City, the school has become a model for community colleges nationwide.
“I love LaGuardia. We are an astonishing institution and it starts with our formidable students, with their extraordinary passion for learning and determination to overcome obstacles and thrive,” Mellow told QNS in a Feb. 28 interview. “It’s a bittersweet moment for me. I’ll be sad to leave but I’m so proud of all of our accomplishments here.”
LaGuardia serves more than 57,000 credit and non-credit students each year with 60 percent of them born outside the U.S. representing 148 nations and speaking 90 languages making its student body the most diverse in the nation. A majority come from families making less than $30,000 annually.
“What we do at LaGuardia is essential in today’s America, giving students the knowledge and skills they need to build careers, thereby moving them out of poverty and making communities stronger,” Mellow said. “I closely relate to the struggles our students face. During my first-year of college at a well-known public university, I had to drop out due to unexpected financial circumstances. I returned home and enrolled in out town’s community college, where I was thrilled to meet students as eager for a chance at a better life, as I was.”
Mellow was the first person in her family to go to college and she had to work full time taking courses at night and weekend. The experience allowed her to identify with LaGuardia students and how their academic performance can suffer when they’re worried about how to pay for their next meal or subway ride home from class.
“One would be hard-pressed to find another educator who has done more than President Gail Mellow to champion the value of community colleges within the overall landscape of American higher education,” CUNY Interim Chancellor Via C. Rabinowitz said. “From her tireless efforts to increase funding, to her development of cutting-edge practices in the classroom, to her groundbreaking partnerships with employers and communities. Gail has spearheaded innovations at LaGuardia that suffuse her writings and presentations that have inspired community colleges everywhere.”
Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, who stepped down as president at Queens College last month to become the new chancellor of CUNY, called Mellow a trailblazer of community colleges across the country.
“She has developed so many means to harness the power of education to transform lives,” he said. “LaGuardia has grown many times over, in quality as well as size, during her decades of leadership there. Dr. Mellow has advanced CUNY’s mission of embracing students of modest and diverse backgrounds, extending a hand and guiding them onto an upward track.”
Mellow credits the schools faculty and staff with establishing a culture of success.
“I remain floored by the endless dedication and talent of our faculty and staff to educate and support our students,” Mellow said. “Our leadership team has never been stronger and I know that LaGuardia will continue to improve the lives of students, their families and our community for decades to come.”
In fact, she is so proud of the LaGuardia leadership team, she’s hoping the next president of the school comes from within that group.
“The CUNY Board of Trustees will ultimately decide but I could give no stronger endorsement to Paul Arcario,” Mellow said. “He was raised here in Queens, speaks several languages including Mandarin and he’s a world traveler.”
Mellow and her family are looking forward to her next chapter.
“I have no fixed plans and I’m leaving the door open to new opportunities,” mellow said. “One thing is certain: I will continues advocating for the needs of community colleges and the students they educate.”
Mellow was serving as a co-chair of the Workforce Development Subcommittee on the Amazon Community Advisory Committee until Feb. 14 when the e-commerce giant pulled out of the deal to build it HQ2 campus in Long Island City. Mellow had been establishing a pipeline for the 3,500 students who are enrolled in various tech programs at LaGuardia.
“Amazon’s decision had nothing to do with my decision,” Mellow said. “That pipeline would have happened and our work with tech companies with or without me and with or without Amazon.”