U.S. Secretary of Education Visits Northampton Community College

    U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited NCC’s Bethlehem campus August 10 with U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, and PA Secretary of Education Noe Ortega.

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    From l-r: Carolyn Bortz, vice president of Academic Affairs, Denise Francois-Seeney, dean, School of Business and Industry, Congresswoman Susan Wild, Mark Erickson, NCC President, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and Kenneth Nasatka, director, Center for Advanced Industrial Technology/Photo by John Kish IV

    U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona knows something about the challenges that confront many students at Northampton Community College.

    The secretary, who visited NCC’s campus August 10 with U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District,  and PA Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, grew up in a housing project in Connecticut. His parents, who moved to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico, spoke Spanish in their home, forcing Cardona to learn English when he started attending elementary school.

    Cardona attended public schools in Meriden, his hometown, and graduated from the state-run Wilcox Technical High School, where he was a student in the automotive program. He is a passionate supporter of public education and he had only good things to say about NCC.

    “What an institution this is. You are all very fortunate,” he told students who participated in a roundtable discussion during his visit. “The programs here are some of the best I’ve ever seen.”

    During his visit Cardona met with NCC President Dr. Mark H. Erickson and other college leaders, enjoyed lunch on campus at Hampton Winds Restaurant, tested his hand at virtual welding during a tour of Hartzell Technology Hall, spoke with lineworker students who were practicing pole climbing, and took notes while listening to the stories of eight NCC students. In between those activities he mingled and chatted – eager to learn about the institution, its students and staff.

    “Let me say hi to the students before we get started here,” Cardona said when entering the room in Alumni Hall where the roundtable discussion was held. “They’re the reason we’re here today.”

    Erickson said the visit from Cardona and Wild was an honor for NCC and showcased the importance of the institution within the Lehigh Valley and greater community.

    “Community colleges are committed to their roles as regional community anchors and economic engines for growth,” says Erickson, who is also chair of the Pennsylvania Commission of Community Colleges (PACCC). “We are thrilled that US Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Congresswoman Susan Wild and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Dr. Noe Ortega chose to visit NCC. It provided an  an extraordinary opportunity to directly engage with national leaders on topics that are vital to the success of our community, our college and our students. It also validates what an important role NCC, and all community colleges, play in providing affordable, accessible, high-quality education and workforce development programs.

    “I’m especially proud of our students who shared their personal stories with both Secretaries and the Congresswoman. As always, they were the stars of the program.  This is a life transforming place and no one tells that story better than them.”

    Before inviting students to share their stories, Cardona and Wild spoke about the American Families Plan – one of three pieces of President Joe Biden’s ambitious Build Back Better agenda. The plan seeks to make education more affordable and accessible by providing two years of free community college and two years of universal free pre-kindergarten for all students. It also contains an increase in the amount available for Pell Grants for low-income students, funding to assist colleges that serve minority students, and other benefits to public education.

    Wild said the plan would benefit schools like NCC, which she praised for providing opportunities for students to achieve.

    “I believe our community colleges have always been bridges to a life of opportunity in the United States,” she said. “I am so honored to have Secretary Cardona with me here today to see this school. It is a jewel of the Lehigh Valley and of the PA-7 District.”

    Secretary Cardona/Photo John Kish IV

    Cardona praised NCC for its ability to provide specialized education and job training to meet the needs of both area workers and community employers. “Community colleges definitely serve their communities,” he said.

    Erickson agreed, saying, “Yes, that’s what we do.”

    In addition to Cardona and Wild, who serves as a member of the Congressional Education and Labor Committee, Ortega attended the roundtable discussion to hear the compelling stories of NCC students.

    Charles Kelshaw, an environmental science major who recently graduated from NCC and is now enrolled at Lafayette College, related that while his high school career was not very successful, NCC gave him the opportunity to excel.

    “The thing about NCC is that it gives kids like me a second chance,” said Kelshaw, who also was accepted at Princeton University and the Honors College at Penn State. “I graduated from high school with barely a 2.0 grade average, but I got here and I fell in love with learning.”

    Samantha Seufer, an automotive technology major, has been on her own since she was 18 and was trying to figure out a course for her life. She got along by working as a waitress or tending bar but was looking for a more fulfilling career. Now 22, she’s in an internship program and also working for a Bethlehem auto service store. She plans to return to NCC after completing her internship to take welding classes.

    Kiondre Malik Kenner attended the Culinary Institute of America before enrolling in NCC’s highly regarded hospitality management program. He said NCC has taught him the importance of relationships and the need to work together to achieve common goals.

    Having enrolled at NCC for college classes while still attending GED classes at NCC’s Monroe campus, Rebecca James, a general studies major, received a full scholarship and will soon begin as a communications and psychology major at West Chester University.

    “NCC has been an awesome, amazing experience for me,” James said.

    Lucas Wolk owned a music store for 10 years that he was forced to close due to the pandemic. Recognizing his love of teaching he enrolled in NCC’s secondary education program and plans to be a high school history teacher.

    “I really can’t say enough good about Northampton,” said Wolk. “I’ll be forever grateful to this school.”

    Melanie Padilla was nervous to return to school after having been out of high school for more than a decade but decided to enroll in NCC’s hospitality management program. She credited her teachers for supporting her during her pregnancy and the recent birth of her daughter, enabling her to continue in the program.

    Rebecca Ashdot, who graduated last year from a small charter high school, is a general studies major who said she is surprised at all the opportunities – both educational and extra-curricular – that NCC has provided. Taiba Sultana, a political science major who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan, praised the diversity of the student population. The mother of six children, she said her oldest son will begin attending NCC in the fall semester.

    Secretary Cardona greets students at the round table discussion./Photo by John Kish IV

    During their talks, several students noted a commonly held misconception that community colleges are little more than a continuation of high school and are greatly undervalued as educational institutions. Wild acknowledged that those misconceptions exist, calling them “academic snobbery.”

    “We’ve got to get rid of that snobbery and you are the best ambassadors to do that,” Wild said.

    It’s important that people hear the stories of community college students and understand that the schools are steppingstones to good careers or further educational opportunities, Wild said.

    Erickson stressed that community colleges prepare students to continue their educations and give them the tools to excel.

    “Students who come to community college and do well actually outperform the four-year students at four-year colleges, Erickson said. “And that makes this college president very, very proud.”

    Following the roundtable discussion, Cardona and Wild joined students, college representatives, local officials and others for a reception at Hampton Winds.

    Cardona is not the first U.S. Department of Education official to visit NCC. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on campus in 2014 to help announce the awarding to NCC of a $10 million TAACCT grant. And in 2009, Glen Cummings, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, was the keynote speaker at NCC’s opening day.

    Dr. Erickson and PA Secretary of Education Noe Ortega/Photo by John Kish IV

    View more images from Secretary Cardona’s visit in this photo gallery.

    Check out media coverage in The Morning Call, Lehigh Valley Live, and WFMZ.