Eduardo Padrón has been the president of Miami-Dade College for more than 21 years. In that time, he expanded the college to offer hundreds of degrees to tens of thousands of students, especially for immigrant students, all while keeping education affordable.
Padron recently received the highest award presented to a civilian, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And we spoke to him about the opportunity to receive the award in the White House from President Barack Obama.
We also asked him about his support of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and what he would tell president-elect Donald Trump if he had the opportunity to meet him. MDC has seen the number of DACA students, known as Dreamers, increase five fold in the past few years. There is fear among the Dreamers that the protections that they have had these past few years may be overturned under the new administration that takes power in January of 2017.
WLRN: Take us to that moment when you are standing next to the president and receive your award.
Eduardo Padrón: It was very special because I was thinking for someone like me, who came to this country as an immigrant refugee, very young, with no money, no knowledge of the language, and very uncertain about the future, to be at a point in my career where I'm recognized by the president of the most important nation in the world, with the highest civilian honor that anyone can aspire to receive, it was extremely humbling. I kept saying 'only in America this will happen for someone like me,' to get to that point and be recognized along with so many luminaries.
At any point during that ceremony did you think about the fact that you were standing before the president who created DACA, which created opportunities for students known as Dreamers, and that the man who is going to replace him has said that he may nix all of those plans?
Of course I did, because it was a big part of my life to my work to support those students. They were brought here by their parents. They're here by no fault of their own. These are kids who are as American as anyone else. They feel Americans. They this is all they know. Many of them do not even speak the native language of their country. These are students who have the same aspirations and the same desires as any other kid in this great country, who want to go to school and want to be contributors to this society. To be honest with you [they’re] some of the best students I've ever seen.
What can you tell us about the mood at MDC, especially from Dreamers, after the November elections?
They're very scared. They're terrified because they feel that at any moment all their dreams can disappear, that they may be subject to be deported, that their families may be deported too, that they will not have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. And it is a real horrible situation.
In fairness, I think we have to wait and see what he's going to do because one thing is that rhetoric of the campaign and another thing is once people are in office how their rhetoric translates into policies or not.
I'm one person who believes that, while we all have to be concerned, at the same time I don't think it's fair or right to prejudge what the president-elect is going to do. It's up to him. Once he decides, then we can judge him on that and decide whether it is a good policy or not a good measure. But at this point these kids who have gone through so much, who have been under some kind of mental relief with the actions taken by President Obama, are very, very, concerned, very scared. And unfortunately several of them that I'm aware of are not coming back and registering and are hiding.
Have you spoken to any of them [Dreamers]? I'm wondering what are you saying to them to help them through that fear right now?
Yes, I have spoken with them … I see them every day when I go in and out of my office. They're here, they're everywhere at Miami Dade College. And what I can tell them is to really pray and just continue their studies and wait to see what's going to happen. There is no sense in over worrying about something that we don't know what might happen. But no matter what I can say ,their fears are real and it's very difficult for them because this is something that is very serious. Put yourself into the feet [shoes] of those children and you're going to see how you will feel it is a terrible situation to be in. But it is what it is.
Our job here is to support them, is to be able to give them good advice, is to be able to tell them what avenues they have available to them and give them legal advice. There are a lot of organizations in this community that are providing pro-bono assistance to these kids through different organizations, but still, no matter what we do, those kids have reasons to feel concern.
If you had the chance to sit and talk with President-elect Trump, what would you tell him?
I would tell him that I have to believe that he has the best interest of America in mind; that he really wants us to prosper; he wants every American to count. These kids can be some of the best allies that he will ever have because these are kids who really want to work hard. They are law-abiding people and people who want to make America proud of them. And I would say embrace them.
Did you know you could turn this [college] into what it has become, providing this very diverse education to a very diverse group of people, because that's also one of the things about Miami-Dade College that has become a model?
Well that's what makes this place special. This institution is all about diversity and inclusion. We have proven what many others had not being able to do and we have proven that again and again. Opportunity changes everything and that's what makes a difference in people's lives. And, frankly, you cannot find a more diverse and more inclusive institution in all of America. It has taken the work of generations of people working together believing in their mission, our mission, to make this place a dream factory, where anybody can not only dream but can achieve those dreams of hard work and perseverance.
What do you think about every time you're on the road and you see the sticker 'I am MDC,' because it's everywhere?
Oh I'm so proud. You have no idea how proud I am, because in this town we have now made it over two million students; more than 2 million students in this community, a community of 3.5 million people. So what does that tell you? That at least every other person here can say ‘I'm in MDC.' There is hardly a household in Miami-Dade County that has not been taught by Miami Dade College one way or another. And we will continue to do so.