LaGuardia Community College celebrated 40th anniversary of opening the doors of higher education to all. The narrative below tells the full story of the College’s history as a bold, innovative catalyst for social change and educational equality in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Click here to view our full timeline: www.laguardia.edu/anniversary/timeline
LaGuardia Community College was founded in 1971 in response to the City University of New York’s (CUNY) query: “What if we made CUNY’s founding principle - opening the doors of higher education to all - a reality?” The burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1960s drove nationwide protests that spilled from college campuses to the streets, as disenfranchised groups demanded social and economic equality. CUNY instituted an open admissions policy for all graduates of New York City high schools in 1970 and saw that year’s freshman enrollment nearly double. Dubbed Community College Number Nine in the early stages of planning, LaGuardia, the ultimate test case in higher education, began to take shape. CUNY’s 1968 Master Plan called for a new kind of community college; this institution would serve the population in one of the city’s 11 poorest areas, in New York’s fastest growing and most rapidly diversifying borough: Queens. From the very start, before there was a name or even a physical campus, there was the drive to experiment and innovate. In the Proposal for Community College Number Nine, the new college was charged with “the study of urban problems,” and providing “innovative educational features, offering new alternatives within the University.” A work-study program called Cooperative Education, the first of its kind in the nation to be required curriculum, would equip students with bona fide workplace experience by placing them at local businesses. In addition, Community College Number Nine would be “committed to supplementing traditional forms of teaching by experimentation in instructional methods and organization.” Its innovations would include “the use of ‘learning centers’” and “learning by the use of individualized instruction and multi-media aids.”When the name was unveiled, it too departed from convention. Named after one of New York’s most courageous and idealistic leaders, beloved New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, aka “The Little Flower,” a champion of the underdog, LaGuardia Community College stood out from its fellow two-year CUNY institutions that were required to be named after their geographic locations. Today, LaGuardia continues the same bold tradition of experimentation and innovation, constantly adapting to the needs of its students. The College helps students transition into college life with its First Year Experience and learning communities; is a national leader in using ePortfolio for learning and assessment; and supplements classroom learning with tutoring provided by “learning centers” in Math, Reading & Communication, English as a Second Language, Anatomy & Physiology, Speech, Writing and more.At LaGuardia, we believe in the transformative power of education; we transformed the old factory buildings of Long Island City’s then declining industrial economy so that we could become an agent of change in the lives of a multitude of students, from not only New York, but the world over. Over 160 countries are represented among LaGuardia’s full-time students, with 124 languages spoken natively. And our results speak for themselves: family income for LaGuardia students climbs 17% upon graduation, and we enable transfer to four-year colleges at three times the rate of community colleges nationwide. Every day since we opened the doors on September 22, 1971 to the first freshman class of 537 students, LaGuardia faculty, students and staff push beyond their limits; it’s part of who we are and what we do. The courage to question, the drive to experiment and the will to change are in our blood.
In 1970, the recently desolate factory of the Ford Instrument Company at 31-10 Thomson Avenue was buzzing. Faculty candidates from as far as Berkeley, California and as close as Sunnyside, Queens converged on the building as it underwent renovations to create classrooms and labs where there had formerly been machine rooms and assembly lines. One interview question unfailingly rendered each of them momentarily speechless: “If you could create any course in the world, what would it be?”LaGuardia’s first President was Dr. Joseph Shenker, a boy genius fresh from CUNY’s central office as the Dean of Community College Affairs, and at 29, the youngest community college president anywhere. He encouraged faculty to be bold and take risks, to explore how students learn by treating their classrooms as labs to test new methods of instruction and technology. Our faculty’s continued drive to challenge commonly held perceptions about what community college students are capable of and what they can become led to the creation of our Honors Program; our unique, nationally recognized Philosophy program and Commercial Photography and Fine Arts programs that nurture talented students into artists with fully realized creative vision.This high level of comfort with radical risk-taking in the pursuit of solution-focused pedagogies is the cornerstone of LaGuardia’s success in transforming underprepared students into Associate degree holders, a good number of whom have transferred to top tier institutions. By demonstrating the courage to question in their lives on- and off-campus, LaGuardia faculty demand more of themselves and their students. Our faculty have raised the bar for their peers at two-year institutions: fifty-four percent of LaGuardia faculty hold Ph.D.s, twice that of community college faculty across the nation. Less than 50 faculty stood with President Joseph Shenker that sunny September morning to greet the students and welcome them to LaGuardia. Today, over 1,000 faculty continue to foster a culture of critical thinking, exposing students to new perspectives, encouraging self-reflection and showing them vistas of opportunity of which they have never dreamed.
Times change, and so did LaGuardia. With faculty and staff so keenly attuned to students’ continually evolving needs, it’s not surprising that our programs were perennial recipients of national awards, accolades and grants. Our ability to constantly adapt educational practices to address current socioeconomic inequities, and knowledge and opportunity gaps, led to our status as a nationally recognized model for two-year to four-year transfer programs. We also received acclaim for our cooperative education program and high school-to-college alternative schools that helped at-risk youth dispel stereotypes about who is eligible for higher education.The 80s and 90s also saw the College begin to expand its resource and training programs for local businesses, as well as growing the physical campus to keep pace with our rapidly growing enrollment numbers. These decades saw the creation of prototypes for our current Centers for Economic Development. Our programs to help businesses secure government contracts, obtain government loans and help entrepreneurial designers launch and grow their businesses had their beginnings during this rapid growth phase. Our Adult and Continuing Education’s exceptional ESL program laid a path for thousands of immigrants seeking better lives for themselves and their families, and our array of programs for veterans welcomed men and women from all branches of the military who had served in the Persian Gulf War and were seeking a supportive place to fulfill their educational goals. Our allied health programs grew exponentially, while our Nursing and Veterinary Technician programs began to receive recognition as among the best in the state of New York, an honor that holds true to this day.And we never stopped innovating in the classroom, as faculty continued to experiment with methods to improve students’ success in developmental education classes and critical thinking skills, and instilled a desire to explore the sciences in minority students underrepresented in these disciplines.
Our early students comprised mainly blue-collar youth and adults, many among the first in their families to attend college. They were perceived by those in positions of power as only needing a high school diploma to get a low paying job, and as not interested in climbing a career ladder to the top of a profession. We helped shatter those misperceptions during a time of enormous societal and economic change, which was not unlike our current climate with its myriad obstacles to personal and national growth. We’re still first responders to today’s economic crisis. Today, we’re helping budding entrepreneurs and family-run companies not just keep their heads above water, but actually thrive with programs like 10,000 Small Businesses, an initiative Goldman Sachs selected us to participate in first because of our fearless spirit and our track record of creating successful change in people’s lives. Our pedagogies are still revolutionary, and we still serve as a model for not just two-year but also four-year colleges and universities across the nation. Through our federally funded ePortfolio Making Connections program, we’ve given countless students an engaging reflective learning experience and are now sharing our expertise with faculty from all over the nation. The LaGuardia Community College Foundation also helps make a difference in students’ lives, bringing together faculty, staff, alumni, friends of the College and members of the local business community to give students the means to achieve their dreams. Since its founding in 2003, the Foundation has raised $6 million and distributed over 3,000 scholarships to students. As we continue our fight to raise the graduation rate, we’ve garnered a host of influential partners and like-minded allies, from the Lumina Foundation to the Gates Foundation, who share our passion for creating positive change and empowering people to live richer lives. Our legacy speaks for itself: By challenging assumptions about who learns, who teaches and who benefits from community colleges in America, LaGuardia has changed the thinking about two-year institutions and their place not only in the landscape of higher education, but their role in strengthening our nation’s economy.