Conversation with James P. Lombella

Asnuntuck College President James Lombella (MM '08)

James P. Lombella, the president of Asnuntuck Community College, is himself a community college graduate. He and his brother were the first in their family to graduate from college. He says community colleges need to stay true to their mission of making a college education accessible and affordable. The keys, he said, are child care, affordability, and transportation.

Q: What was your path to Asnuntuck Community College?

A: Working in the private sector for almost two decades in manufacturing. I earned my master’s degree. I always wanted to teach so I started teaching in the manufacturing program here. I taught statistical process control and statistics. That’s how I got my foot in the door. I was doing that and I started running the SMART grant (Skills for Manufacturing and Related Technologies). I actually met the college president. The next thing I knew she was offering me the position of director of workforce development and continuing education and I spent a year and a half in that role and then I became the associate dean of workforce development and continuing education. Then when the president announced her retirement she asked me to step in as interim president. I was interim president for exactly a year and I ended up falling in love with the position and the students. At community colleges you’re changing lives. My first graduation solidified for me that I love higher education, I love changing lives. I applied for the permanent position and that was two years ago now. I’m in my third year, I’ve been with Asnuntuck now a little over seven years.

Q: What are some of the ways the college is changing?

A: The construction and a lot more student centered spaces. We’ve been in this building over 30 years. We purchased it in the 80s. It was a middle school. We didn’t have that college feel or spaces for networking or for students to congregate together and participate in work groups. I’m very excited about this front construction project. It started off as a new roof for the school and we were able to turn the project into not only a new roof, but a new face on the front of the school, a new cyber cafe for the students, a new bookstore, a student lounge.

Q: That’s all stuff that’s being built right now?

A: Yes. And we’ll have new conference rooms and offices for Student Senate and the Phi Beta Kappa honor society students and for our Freshwater Poetry Magazine by students.

Q: You already have a library?

A: Yes. It’s a public library. All the community colleges’ libraries are public libraries.

Q: Are there computers for the public to use?

A: Oh yes, there are computers for both the students and the public as well as a homework lab with all new technology.

Q: It’s open in the evenings, right?

A: Oh yes, it’s open until 9 or 10 depending on the days of the week. We also have a full academic skills center in there with free tutoring. I pride Asnuntuck on taking down barriers to education, and the three largest barriers that I’ve encountered through seven years here are child care, affordability and transportation. I’m one of the founding original members with the Magic Carpet Bus in Enfield. I helped put that in place and we subsidize it, about $5,000 per year.

That was transportation. We are the only community college in I think all of Connecticut that has free child care. It’s a child care co-op model until 4 p.m. On graduation day you cannot believe the number of students who have said to me I’m graduating today because of your child care.

Affordability goes back to our academic skills center. We have free tutors, free academic support. The center is open throughout the day and evening and on Saturdays. That is why we have one of the best retention rates and graduation rates in the state of Connecticut.

Q: What does the Magic Carpet Bus provide?

A: It provides every Asnuntuck student with free transportation. All that they have to do is show I.D. and they’re riding the bus for free. It starts at 6 in the morning and runs to 11 at night. We have an awful lot of individuals in town here, especially from Thompsonville, who don’t have cars. They can take the bus to our front door, they can take it to the grocery store, the Food Bank, the library. It has a whole route that it does around town. Right now we are close to 9,000 rides to our front door in two years. If you have a bike, you can put it right on the bus.

Q: How many students graduate in a year from Asnuntuck?

A: We’re serving 5,000 students a year. Between 300 and 400 graduate each year. About 40 percent transfer to a four-year degree program.

Q: You also have a lot of certificate programs?

A: Yes. We have both degrees and certificates. We have over 1,300 non-credit certificates awarded since 2005. Those non-credit ones include dental assistants, medical assistants, and veterinary assistants. Students come here to upgrade their skills and get a new job. We call that workforce training.

Q: I also want to ask you about the Manufacturing Center.

A: We currently are building a new 27,000 square-foot building. Right now we have 25,000-square-feet dedicated to Advanced Manufacturing Techology. This new building will double that from 250 to 300 students a semester to between 400 and 700 students.

Q: The program is aligned with workforce opportunities in the region?

A: Yes. There is a 95 percent or better job placement rate which includes Pratt & Whitney, Aero Gear, and Senior Aerospace. I started teaching in manufacturing. These are jobs that start at $45,000 to $55,000 with full benefit packages. Many of those students are here for the 10-month certificate, then their employer sends them back on the employer’s dime for an associate’s degree. Some students continue on for a four-year degree with engineering or technological skills. There are several paths a student can take.

Q: In manufacturing now, you need digital skills?

A: Oh yes. This is not the program for individuals who are struggling. This is high tech. It’s robotics. Students need to know trigonometry, blueprint reading. It’s all project-based learning. They design the product in the computer lab, they make blueprints and they go out onto the production floor and build the product. We have tens of millions of dollars worth of machinery here.

Q: How do the students get their skills coming in? From high school or job experience?

A: We take students with no skills and train them. We have initial math and remedial classes. We try not to turn anybody away.

Q: You definitely need the potential for this. How do you determine that?

A: The students do a little bit of welding, robotics, and machining. Between the different disciplines, the students find a niche of what fits to them.

Right now we are working with five different school systems. We expose 5,000 students in 6th to 12th grade to the program. These are high schools that have their students come to the Advanced Manufacturing Center at Asnuntuck for half days. They earn college credit through the program.

Q: What school systems are you in?

A: We are in Enfield, Granby, East Granby, East Hartford and Bloomfield. We get the parents, the educators, and the guidance counselors to understand that manufacturing is not dirty, dark, and dank. It’s now high tech, lab coats, clean rooms, it’s robotics. People are starting to understand that there are careers in it. I come from manufacturing. It’s not like when my grandfather was in manufacturing.

Q: Are you on any boards overseeing this effort?

A: I’m a co-chair of a committee looking to get middle school and high school youth into manufacturing careers. It’s nice to be focused in on training and skills where the jobs exist.

Q: What is the age of your average student at Asnuntuck?

A: Our average age is 27½ years old. We definitely are catering to the non-traditional student. What that means is child care, transportation and Saturday classes come into play.

Q: It seems that if you are motivated you can definitely do it?

A: Oh yes. We try and connect students to the institution. We have over 30 clubs and activities.

Q: You are a community college graduate yourself?

A: I am. Proud first generation community college graduate. My brother and I were the first in our families to go to college.

Q: Where did you go?

A: Holyoke Community College (Holyoke, Massachusetts). I got an associate’s degree in business administration and micro-computer technology. I was an operations manager in the workforce. I enrolled in a joint bachelor’s/master’s program. I received a master’s in management from Cambridge College. They are now at Baystate Tower in Springfield.

Q: Cambridge College was a good experience for you?

A: Wonderful. I have always loved higher education and self betterment. I’m currently a doctoral candidate right now. I’m working on a dissertation right now. I’m in Phase 3 of the dissertation and hope to have it wrapped up by spring.

Q: Where are you getting your doctorate from?

A: Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Q: Is this an online program?

A: It is online. But it’s also face to face online. You sign into a lecture. You have to be on a schedule. I wanted a rigorous, intense program. Nova is well known for its education program. The previous president got her doctorate through this program.

Q: Why did you choose that doctoral program?

A: It was highly recommended to me by the previous president. It fits better for me. I’m a single dad. I have two children. To go to the dining room table and be able to log in is convenient.

Q: Where do you live?

A: Suffield.

Q: You are pretty much living your life in Enfield and Suffield.

A: Yes, and Hartford.

Q: Did you grow up in Massachusetts?

A: I grew up in Western Mass, right on the line in Southwick. Southwick and West Suffield were my stomping grounds as a kid. Some of us called ourselves border town families. We do things in both states. I actually sit on the board for the New England Knowledge Corridor, which starts in Northampton, Massachusetts and runs to New Haven. It includes all the colleges. Something I’m proud of is the attitude, “Let’s not let borders be barriers.” If you travel the I-91 corridor, the commuter traffic is both ways. The two economies of Springfield/Hartford run in tandem to each other. If one does well, the other does well. I’m all about educating our region. I enjoy being here. Being college president is like a calling in life. I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing one of my students. Students beep at me at stop lights. After seven years it has become part of who I am.

Q: Are there other things the Knowledge Corridor is promoting?

A: The Hartford high-speed rail system. Enfield is going to be a stop on the rail. It will connect New Haven, Hartford, Springfield and Northampton, Massachusetts. As soon as one gets off the rail, as students they get on the bus for free. A lot of people in these cities don’t have cars. The rail should be in by 2018.

Q: How would you describe the advantage of a college education?

A: I would quote Nelson Mandela. He said “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

Q: Do you have goals for Asnuntuck?

A: To continue growth. To survive with the state support we are given. To keep changing lives and to give people the education and the skills where the jobs exist.

Q: Are there ways community colleges need to improve?

A: Community colleges need to stay true and focused to their mission of access and affordability.