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Used to, since she was a child, receiving relatives who fled Cuba in her Florida home, Madeline Pumariega is, since last January, the first woman president of Miami-Dade College (MDC), the largest university in the United States, which annually graduates 83% of students of Hispanic origin.
Laughing, the academic told EFE that, like many Cuban immigrants, her parents had the famous “Pin Pan Pun”, the name given by the islanders to the folding cot when it opens (in three steps) to give sleep to the exile on duty.
She finds it funny to think of that image of her childhood in Hialeah and explains that this Miami-Dade County city, with a large Cuban population, instilled in her the moral “principles” she teaches her 16-year-old daughter and the student community she leads.
“I always say I’m that little girl from Hialeah, who carries it close to her heart, because I believe that growing up among an immigrant family taught me what it is to fight, to work hard and humility.”
She says the “most important” thing she learned from the “City that Progresses,” as Hialeah is known for the large influx of Cuban immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, is “knowing who” she is and “where” she comes from.
She stresses that the story of her parents and many uncles and aunts who were political prisoners and lost all their businesses “has enriched” her learning.
Daughter of a banker and a teacher who came to the United States to rebuild their lives after fleeing communism, Pumariega specifies that the university has coupled with its programs to the various mass migrations of Cubans, Venezuelans, Haitians or Puerto Ricans for political or natural reasons, such as the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.
Both its president and faculty have immigrant roots, which help them understand the needs of their students, currently more than 100,000 from 167 countries and speaking 63 languages.
“We are the institution of the community, we reflect our community in everything we do,” Pumariega emphasizes from her office in the President’s office on the downtown Miami campus.
Past, present and future of those fleeing communism
This particular headquarters also includes the Freedom Tower, the emblematic building where Cubans who began to flee the Castro regime, among them the Pumariegas, arrived in the 1960s.
The 6 ft 4 MDC president is mindful of the family stories of that migration and smiles as she recalls how her father, as tall as she is, was given a sweater with sleeves barely halfway up his arm.
Pumariega replaced Eduardo Padrón, a Cuban immigrant who came to the United States as a child with his younger brother, separated from their parents, to avoid indoctrination by the Cuban revolution on the island.
Padrón went on to preside the university for 25 years until his retirement in August 2019.
With him, Pumariega says proudly, she worked 20 years and learned his values such as “putting students first.”
Pumariega, who was also the first woman and the first Hispanic to lead the Florida College System (FCS), with 28 of these academic centers and some 800,000 students, says that in every decision she makes she thinks of that principle, among others as “a tribute” to Padrón.
The academic detailed that the university has adjusted not only to young students who want to make a university career, but also to more adult ones, or to those who must learn English or to those who must “train quickly for a job” to survive in a new country.
In addition to immigrants, he recalled that the University graduates the most Hispanics (83%) and African-Americans (12%) in the country.
With its 60th anniversary in 2020, Miami-Dade College is a reflection not only of the different migrations to South Florida, but also of the challenges of Latin America.
Pumariega points out that Miami-Dade College stands as a platform for major social, political, economic discussions of Latin America or health challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, among others, hosting the only federal vaccination center in South Florida, where 4,000 people are being vaccinated daily.
“What makes us strong is that we all come from other places, and Miami Dade College has served as that place where everyone comes, you open the doors to have conversations, to carry out goals that help students, the community and also gives a voice to those countries,” she says.