She went from Hialeah High to the first woman president at Miami Dade College

·16 min read

The teacher still remembers her first interaction with a particular student about 40 years ago. It was her first year teaching at Henry Filer Junior High School in Hialeah, and she ran into then-ninth-grader Madeline Pumariega in a hallway.

“What are you doing?” the rookie instructor asked her.

Pumariega replied, without missing a beat: “Standing.”

The teacher, Arlene Prieto, giggles as she recounts the memory of now one of her closest friends: “I asked her a stupid question, and she had this smart, real direct answer. I laughed, and that’s how we connected.”

That dry humor and quick wit still characterize Pumariega, 54, who was named president of Miami Dade College on Nov. 17, 2020, when, after a spiraling 19-month search process, the seven-member MDC Board of Trustees selected her as the college’s fifth president, its first female leader, in its 61-year-history.

Madeline Pumariega is the first female president to lead Miami Dade College. Here, Pumariega meets with students at MDC Wolfson Campus on Nov. 10, 2021.
Madeline Pumariega is the first female president to lead Miami Dade College. Here, Pumariega meets with students at MDC Wolfson Campus on Nov. 10, 2021.

Come Friday, Pumariega, a graduate of Hialeah High, Class of 1986, and an MDC alum and former basketball player at MDC’s Kendall Campus, will have the college chain and medallion placed on her shoulders in a historic investiture ceremony at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. She will be the leader of the largest college in Florida and one of the largest in the country, with roughly 120,000 students and 6,500 faculty and staff.

The milestone comes amid a year of monumental struggles.

On the education front, Pumariega, like educators across the country, battled the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought on mental health challenges for students and, in MDC’s case, a precipitous drop in enrollment that led to the loss of 9,000 students from 2019 to 2020 — the steepest decline in the college’s history.

Madeline Pumariega, far-right, and WSVN-7’s Belkys Nerey, next to Pumariega, help culinary students make paella during the Wolfson Campus Investiture Ceremony in downtown Miami, Florida on Wednesday, November 3, 2021. Pumariega is the college’s first female president.
Madeline Pumariega, far-right, and WSVN-7’s Belkys Nerey, next to Pumariega, help culinary students make paella during the Wolfson Campus Investiture Ceremony in downtown Miami, Florida on Wednesday, November 3, 2021. Pumariega is the college’s first female president.

On the personal side, she grieved her own mother, who died shortly before Pumariega was named president. The country song “Five More Minutes” by Scotty McCreery comes to her mind when she thinks of that loss, because she wishes she could relive “the good stuff, the good times.”

Her mom, a former teacher who once graded papers alongside a young Madeline asking her to paste stickers on them, never saw her take on the college presidency. But as Pumariega goes through her executive duties, she thinks of her.

“I know she’s watching from another seat in the house,” Pumariega said.

Investiture dates back to Middle Ages

Her investiture ceremony, a tradition to transfer power that dates back to the Middle Ages, will finalize a weeks-long celebration across all eight of the college’s campuses.

In the so-called road to investiture, students, staff and community members have showered Pumariega with presents, including a key to the city of Hialeah, a portrait and a pair of Tiffany pearl earrings.

Katherine Padilla, a second-year student pursuing an associate’s degree in business administration at West Campus in Doral, handed her the Tiffany’s turquoise bag with the earrings at a recent celebration that included a sky blue carpet entrance followed by a carnival with dancers in bejeweled costumes and plumed headpieces.

Padilla, the campus president, said the local Student Government Association purchased the earrings for Pumariega after scouring her Instagram profile to gauge her taste. Pumariega, who often wears a multi-strand pearl necklace, grinned when she received the gift. She told Padilla she would wear them to the investiture ceremony.

“O-M-G, yes, please wear the earrings!” Padilla said. “It feels very empowering, and it feels like this generation of females can accomplish whatever they want to accomplish.”

“It’s not about me,” Pumariega repeated during the event. She plans to donate the gifts to the college’s archive, and write a check to Padilla and her colleagues to reimburse them for the pearls.

In early November, during the inauguration of a HistoryMiami Museum exhibit on the college, Pumariega said she wanted the investiture to be a commemoration of the college’s legacy rather than hers.

“I said we would only do it if we could go back and do a history of Miami Dade College,” she told the crowd that night about the showing. The exhibition walked visitors from the early days of the “Chicken Coop College,” nicknamed for the original buildings that turned into classrooms, to today’s MDC as a pillar for economic mobility, culture and education in Miami-Dade County.

Madeline Pumariega, the first female president to lead Miami Dade College speaks at HistoryMiami Museum as a new exhibition opens about Miami Dade College (MDC), “An Institution for All: The Unparalleled Story of Miami Dade College, 1960-2021.” The exhibition is part of a series of events surrounding the investiture of the new MDC President.
Madeline Pumariega, the first female president to lead Miami Dade College speaks at HistoryMiami Museum as a new exhibition opens about Miami Dade College (MDC), “An Institution for All: The Unparalleled Story of Miami Dade College, 1960-2021.” The exhibition is part of a series of events surrounding the investiture of the new MDC President.

Years after their encounter in the junior high hallway, Prieto reunited with Pumariega while they both worked for the college. Their friendship has turned into a sisterhood, despite Prieto living in Virginia now. They speak on the phone regularly.

“She definitely hates being the center of attention,” Prieto said.

Pumariega doesn’t display photos of her or her family at the President’s Office, and rarely talks about her personal life in professional settings.

“She’s a very private and modest person,” Prieto said. “For her, it’s about the work.”

‘Whoa, who is this lady?’

At 6-foot-2, Pumariega towers over almost everyone and that, coupled with her power suits, manicured nails and styled ash blonde hair, can make her initially intimidating.

Padilla said she first met Pumariega at a Student Government Association meeting at the beginning of the fall term. Pumariega showed up unexpectedly, and although Padilla had heard about Madame President Pumariega, she didn’t immediately recognize her.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, who is this lady?’ I had heard about her, but I had never seen her. So, when she came in, and I saw she’s like this super tall and elegant lady, I was like ‘Whoa.’

“I was super nervous. I wanted to make a good impression,” Padilla said.

Throughout the semester, Padilla has encountered Pumariega at other gatherings. “She’s not scary. That was my first impression — that she seemed scary — but she’s not scary at all,” Padilla said.

Pumariega forgoes handshakes for side-hugs, and skips the small talk to jump straight into candid conversations.

She recently told a group of students over lunch that the next time they would ditch the “rubber chicken” and get McDonald’s instead.

She’s also not afraid to criticize the college, stimulating honest feedback.

In mid-November, during another meeting with students, one of them timidly complained about MDConnect, a web page for college services. Pumariega leaned closer and whispered, “Can I tell you a secret? I have the same problem. It’s not intuitive.”

Madeline Pumariega is the first female president to lead Miami Dade College. Here, Pumariega speaks with students at MDC Wolfson Campus on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.
Madeline Pumariega is the first female president to lead Miami Dade College. Here, Pumariega speaks with students at MDC Wolfson Campus on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.

She then launched into a detailed explanation on how her team is trying to improve it.

In that same meeting, she told students the college wants to increase campus engagement. Those who attend MDC often work part or full time to make ends meet, or often take care of an elder or younger family member to help out at home. All of them commute, as the college lacks dorms, so making time to watch a volleyball game or join the Japanese manga club can be difficult.

Pumariega, however, is slowly changing the school to cultivate student involvement. She said she has questioned why some libraries push away students with unnecessary regulations, like forbidding eating and drinking completely.

“I said, ‘No food or drinks? Well, then I’m not coming,’ ” she told the students, who roared in amusement. “Those are antiquated rules.”

Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega speaks during a MDC graduation ceremony at loanDepot Park in Miami on May 1, 2021.
Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega speaks during a MDC graduation ceremony at loanDepot Park in Miami on May 1, 2021.

Pumariega described her leadership style as collaborative. She spends less time giving orders and more time listening to others, she said.

She also tries to give her team space to make mistakes and grow from them, pointing out any mistakes privately.

“If every day you’re flying off, if every day you’re screaming, if every day nobody is good enough, people eventually just turn off,” she said. “And I think that when employees turn off, that’s dangerous for an institution, because you don’t feel that motivation anymore.”

‘She brought them together again’

Michael Bileca, chair of the Miami Dade College Board of Trustees, credits Pumariega’s approach to developing a newfound unity among top leaders at the college.

Eduardo Padrón, her predecessor, retired as president in 2019 after nearly 50 years at the school — the last 24 years as president of the college. During his tenure, the college grew from a two-year community college to a major force offering four-year degrees. He also played a key role in Miami’s cultural and downtown renaissance, launching the Miami Book Fair at the school’s Wolfson Campus, growing the Miami Film Festival and renovating the Freedom Tower into an art museum.

The Freedom Tower, in downtown Miami, is recognized as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Miami Dade College has turned it into an art museum.
The Freedom Tower, in downtown Miami, is recognized as a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Miami Dade College has turned it into an art museum.

But Padrón, who declined to comment for this article, ran the school with a longtime group of lieutenants, including Lenore Rodicio, his right-hand person. The board of trustees passed over Rodicio for the presidency; she resigned shortly thereafter to work as a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The environment was more of a top-down structure; campus presidents were not given full transparency on information on their campus,” Bileca said. “[Pumariega] brought them together again. She created an empowered atmosphere and an atmosphere where there is ownership of all levels of organizational leadership.”

Dr. Bryan Stewart, president of the Medical Campus, Lenore Rodicio, executive vice president and provost of Miami Dade College, and Eduardo J. Padrón, Miami Dade College president, during the ceremony opening of the Center for Learning, Innovation, and Simulation at the MDC Medical Campus on Tuesday July 16, 2019.
Dr. Bryan Stewart, president of the Medical Campus, Lenore Rodicio, executive vice president and provost of Miami Dade College, and Eduardo J. Padrón, Miami Dade College president, during the ceremony opening of the Center for Learning, Innovation, and Simulation at the MDC Medical Campus on Tuesday July 16, 2019.

Pumariega has also rallied those who weren’t her fans when she applied for the job.

There was some concern by others through the search process, and to have her come in and be such a unifying leader has been an incredible thing to watch,” he said. “It’s been a year, and I have yet to hear anything but overwhelming positive feedback.”

Bileca said he believes Pumariega’s strength and success come from her extensive experience, both at MDC and at other educational posts.

Pumariega started her career at MDC, as an academic adviser and adjunct faculty member at the Kendall Campus, which she attended in the 1980s. After five years, she transitioned into student services at downtown Miami’s Wolfson Campus, working as a dean of students there, and then a dean of students and administration at the Medical Campus.

She then became the president at Wolfson, the college’s signature campus, from 2011 to 2013. At the time, she helped grow the Miami Culinary Institute and launch the Idea Center, an entrepreneurship hub.

Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami.
Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami.

After two decades at the college, Pumariega moved on to become chief executive officer of the statewide nonprofit Take Stock in Children, which helps kids further their education, for about two years. At the time, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and did some soul-searching.

Pumariega, born in South Miami as the second child of two Cuban exiles, then was tapped as chancellor of the Florida College System, the first woman and the first person of Hispanic descent to hold the job. The college system oversees 28 institutions, including MDC, and serves more than 800,000 students.

Pumariega, who was chancellor for three years, then briefly took on a teaching job at New York University, and simultaneously became the executive vice president and provost of Tallahassee Community College for nearly two years. In January 2021, she officially started her current job at MDC.

Because of her time in Florida’s capital city, she’s a known figure there.

Elizabeth Ramsay, president of the United Faculty of Miami Dade College, said she has witnessed Pumariega’s acclaim across the community, even among Miami-Dade’s delegation in Tallahassee.

“Each time that we’ve met with a senator or a representative they always said, ‘How about that president of yours? She’s just great!’ ” Ramsay said. “And in some cases that’s the only point upon which we agree.”

A Hialeah girl

Her ability to navigate the corridors of Tallahassee, which for much of its history has been a white male-dominated power structure, comes, Pumariegia says, from growing up in Hialeah in the 1980s.

“I’m like 6-foot-tall, and I’m from Hialeah, so anyone trying to intimidate me ... that’s just not going to work,” she joked.

Watching her mom work as a teacher and her dad as a banker after migrating from Cuba showed Pumariega the value of a solid work ethic. Ramsay, the faculty union president, said she stood beside Pumariega for years while they volunteered at the Miami Book Fair. She’s a “roll-up-your-sleeves kind of person.”

Those who knew Pumariega in high school say she wasn’t exactly the popular kid, but she didn’t have problems making friends. She played softball, basketball and swam.

Victor Whitaker, her former water polo and swimming coach at Hialeah High, said Pumariega started out as one of the slower swimmers her first year and then, by her senior year, led the team as its captain.

“She started as a guppy and ended as a shark,” he said.

When he found out about a month ago that Pumariega is now the president of MDC, Whitaker pulled out the Hialeah High yearbook and reminisced. But what he didn’t feel was surprise.

“That one made sense because of how she approached high school. She was a real go-getter. She managed sports and got really good grades.

“I’m proud of her. It makes me feel like it was worth all of the after-school and Saturdays and Sundays,” he said.

Madeline Pumariega, 22, top center, Women’s Basketball Team, South Campus, Miami Dade College, 1980s.
Madeline Pumariega, 22, top center, Women’s Basketball Team, South Campus, Miami Dade College, 1980s.

At MDC, Pumariega continued her love for sports, specifically basketball. She started as a basketball player at Kendall Campus in 1986. As a center, she led the team to the state championship tournament. She later returned as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team for five seasons. She was inducted into the MDC Alumni Hall of Fame in 2018.

Pumariega’s upbringing shaped her views on faith and family, both crucial in her life.

She spends most of her free time visiting her only daughter, Alyssa, a 17-year-old senior at Florida State University School in Tallahassee. She enjoys her Sunday nights with family dinners, surrounded by her loved ones and loud music. And on weeknights, she’s nearly always hanging out with her 84-year-old dad, Miguel.

Madeline Pumariega, the president of Miami Dade College, and her father, Miguel Pumariega, 84, hold hands near her office at the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami, Florida on Tuesday, November 30, 2021.
Madeline Pumariega, the president of Miami Dade College, and her father, Miguel Pumariega, 84, hold hands near her office at the Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami, Florida on Tuesday, November 30, 2021.

“God is great, and America is great, because only here could a girl from Hialeah get to where I am now,” she says. “And I feel proud to know that there’s a little girl in Hialeah now thinking she can accomplish this too someday.”

Pumariega doesn’t hide the fact that her gender makes a difference. Because she’s a woman, she says she connects with faculty and students in ways her four predecessors didn’t. And because she’s a woman, Pumariega said, she asks questions men might not, or delivers messages in ways men might not.

As a separated wife and mother, she brings up child care a lot.

“The outcomes are not any different. The expectations are not any different. But the lens in which I might see something is going to be different than how a male counterpart does,” Pumariega said. “They’re not wrong or right. They’re not ying or yang. They’re just different.”

Prieto, her close friend, said Pumariega doesn’t dwell on the negative.

“She’s able to navigate those things,” Prieto said. “Her philosophy is to just not focus on that and to just keep moving forward. I think one of the reasons she broke through at Miami Dade is that she was so prepared and so qualified, and such the right person, and so good at what she does, that it became really hard to say no to her.”

Her positive mentality also helped her overcome difficulties in her life, like her mom’s passing and her own breast cancer.

“She’s an incredibly brave and strong human being,” Prieto said.

Priorities for Miami Dade College’s future

When Pumariega returned to Miami Dade College in early 2021, she realized she had a critical mission ahead of her.

From 2019 to 2020, the college lost about 9,000 students — the worst enrollment decline in the school’s 60-year history, which the interim president at the time called “highly unusual and concerning.” At the beginning of 2021, MDC stood to lose more than $16 million in revenue because of the steep drop.

But Pumariega took charge and raised enrollment figures from -17% in January 2021 to +2% in August 2021. She has a one-word answer: “Data.”

Her team called those who had left the college and asked them why, then asked each other how they could get them back.

“I’m a data nerd so I looked at the data and realized it was urgent,” she said. “That was about securing our future.”

Securing the college’s financial future remains a priority for her, alongside redesigning the student experience and the academic support system.

When Pumariega first arrived at Miami Dade College, she did so as a student, a basketball player on an athletic scholarship. At the time, to register for classes, she looked at a board that listed all courses available. She picked the reference numbers she needed. Then waited in a long line to either tell her numbers to a staffer behind a window, or punch the numbers in a phone.

Sometimes, after the tedious process, she found out the classes had already filled up and she needed to pick other ones, only to scream in frustration and throw her head in between her knees.

“But that evolved, and we need to evolve again,” she says about the registration process.

She’s not sure what the evolution involves; she’s looking for that “Uber of education,” looking to revolutionize higher education in the same way Uber revolutionized transportation.

In the meantime, she’s trying to incorporate as much technology as possible to facilitate the processes. She’s tasked technicians to come up with a “one-click registration.” She’s launched initiatives to provide “real-time support,” like text messaging before a final, where the college reminds students where they can find tutoring ahead of a big test.

She doesn’t see the college expanding in terms of land as it already has eight campuses — Hialeah Campus; Homestead Campus; Kendall Campus; Padrón, Wolfson, Medical and North Campuses in Miami; and West Campus in Doral. But she wants the college to expand in terms of degrees and certificates offered.

Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega poses with a three-tier cake that reads, in part, “Let’s get energized” during an investiture celebration for her on the college’s Medical Campus on Nov. 9, 2021.
Miami Dade College President Madeline Pumariega poses with a three-tier cake that reads, in part, “Let’s get energized” during an investiture celebration for her on the college’s Medical Campus on Nov. 9, 2021.

She also wants the college to modernize its teaching, so it’s not only infusing applied knowledge like math and history, but also enterprise skills like teamwork, dependability and resilience. In addition, she wants students to grow digitally at MDC, so by the time they leave they know how to communicate online, and solve problems and parse information with software.

She’s not sure how long she’ll stay as president; she just knows she’ll do it for as long as she feels she’s making an impact. Regardless of when she leaves, she wants to be remembered for one thing:

“That I cared, that I lived a life with purpose and that my purpose was about serving students and creating bigger and brighter futures for them,” she said. “That the people around me felt that I fueled their dreams; that if you worked around me, you were having fun, you were doing great work and you felt appreciated.”

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