Introducing Interim President Avelino Mills-Novoa

(Photo: Chris Juhn/City College News)

By Casey Heinisch/cheinisch@citycollegenews.com
Opinion Editor

It is 1 p.m. on a Monday and I am waiting for the Interim President Avelino Mills-Novoa to arrive. The lead up to this interview has been interesting to say the least. Schedule conflicts and a last minute summons from the educational powers that be have caused this interview to perpetually live in the future. Avelino is a busy man with a lot on his plate as a result of his position as the Interim President, but this isn’t what drew him to MCTC. Initially he was up for the position of Vice President of Student affairs, a spot which he had won, but when the position of Interim President became available his colleagues nominated him as a candidate. The rest is, as they say, “history”.

This, however, is just the final step in a journey. His story begins on a communist island in the Caribbean, Cuba. Cohibas, Castro, and Communism, that’s about all the familiarity most Americans outside of South Florida have with the island nation. Strained political relations with the United States and the subsequent trade embargos made vision of a future of opportunity bleak. Avelino’s parents made the unthinkable decision to do what it took to help ensure their young son had a chance. At the age of ten, his parents put him on a boat by himself to make the trip to South Florida.

The diaspora of children leaving the island totaled to about 14,000 seeking refugee status in the United States. Those who were lucky enough to have family in the United States were picked up and immediately began their new American life, many lived in the refugee camps.   Avelino was one of the lucky ones, he had an aunt who picked him up and his parents were able to join him three years later. The first hurdle he had to jump: learning English.

He and his family moved to Minnesota in 1963, and it is here that he has been ever since.   Growing up he was a talented baseball player spending most of his time between shortstop and third base. This talent he credits with saving his life, as it paved the way for him to enter college. He began his undergraduate study at the General College of the University of Minnesota, where he pursued his degree in Psychology and Counseling. He had been struggling to learn English, and this is when he realized that education is the one thing that can really make a difference, an idea he internalized. Eventually he worked his way through his studies to finally earn a Doctorate.

His professional career began as a researcher at the Northern Arizona University (NAU). NAU is a school whose students aren’t from the upper rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. They are typically the students taking out loans and working their way through college. Avelino saw these students as having to go through many of the same struggles that he had to, and this informed the majority of his career since.

“I have always worked in institutions that served students who wouldn’t be going to universities that wealthy students would be going to. The biggest correlate to educational achievement is socio-economic status.  I made a real conscious choice to work in places where students were first generational or of low socioeconomic status, and I felt that is where I need to work.”

This is a powerful idea. The role of community colleges is to offer opportunities to those who have not been given them in the past. They are an investment in the community’s future.   Avelino is working to make this opportunity effectively helps students achieve their goals whether it is transferring on to four-year universities, or getting a technical degree.

When asked about if MCTC is doing an adequate job of preparing students for transfer, he said that there were some areas that needed addressing, mainly the area of student retention.  MCTC is working on this by trying to secure more on-campus services that are vital to the success of the students. There is already heath care on campus and access to the food shelf, but Avelino suggests there are more to come, all in an effort to give the students the largest chance of success.

Along with the access issues, he says that there is new focus on the developmental education courses to get students ready for college level courses. This includes a more tailor fit approach to students as opposed to the standard Accuplacer tests.  This developmental education begins in the high schools, and there are pilot programs in area high schools, where MCTC courses are being taught for dual credit. This allows students to get a taste of what college is like, and support their academic careers.

“The new environment is necessitating investment in not only current students but also future students.”

Mills-Novoa attended a rally the day after an assault on campus praising Public Safety's efforts and encouraged students to help each other out.
Mills-Novoa attended a rally the day after an assault on campus praising Public Safety’s efforts and encouraged students to help each other out. (Photo: Gabe Hewitt/City College News)

It is apparent that this is not a position that Avelino views as an addition to an already impressive resume, but one that he can leave a lasting positive mark with.

“MCTC is at a crossroads, driven by economic factors and community expectations. We need to decide what our identity is and what the future holds for us in relation to the internal and external communities. Education is a tool for social justice. We are trying to help move the college towards a holistic approach to success.”

The interim period of the presidency of MCTC lasts for two years. This doesn’t seem like enough time to really transition from the MCTC of the past to the new MCTC of the future, but with a foundation laid, the rest of the changes can take place.

When asked what is next up on the docket after the interim period as President of MCTC is over Avelino said, “I actually came out of retirement for this position, so I will just return to that. This will be the last thing that I do.”

His is a story of overcoming adversity to achieve the American dream, and he has made it his life’s work to help others achieve.

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