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Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden Leads "Community College to Career" Panel Discussion at MCCC on March 28


West Windsor, N.J. - Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady and wife of Vice President Joe Biden, led a panel discussion at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) on Wednesday, March 28, to highlight the unique role of community colleges in preparing students for the workforce. Her visit to Mercer was part of her "Community College to Career" tour.

Dr. Biden has almost three decades of experience as an educator, 18 of those years at a community college. She currently teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College. "Not only can community colleges change lives, they can change America," Dr. Biden said. "I always say my students are my heroes; you are the American dream."

The Second Lady was accompanied by Seth D. Harris, the Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor. He joked fondly that on their way to the event Dr. Biden was in full teacher mode, with a bag of papers to grade for her English class.

Mr. Harris traveled with Dr. Biden to New Jersey to advocate for community college partnerships with employers who offer on-the-job training, an initiative entitled, "Community College to Career." In February, President Obama announced a new $8 billion Community College to Career Fund to further this effort that began last year.

"Dr. Biden is one of the most important people in the White House to have as an advocate," said Mr. Harris, adding that community college enrollment has doubled since the recession. "Community colleges started bursting at the seams when workers lost jobs and quickly realized they must enhance their job skills in order to get back into the workforce."

Dr. Biden surprised her Mercer County audience by revealing that she has roots in the state. "New Jersey is a special place for me," she said, noting that she was born in Hammonton while her mother was visiting her grandparents. She also spent part of her childhood in Mahwah, and waitressed at the Jersey shore as a teenager.

The panel discussion featured alumni and employed students from MCCC, Raritan Valley Community College, Essex County College, and Brookdale Community College, along with their employers.

The event was held in the MCCC Culinary Center, a growing MCCC program with an excellent job placement record. Raoul Momo, co-owner of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group, works directly with Mercer's culinary programs to provide work experience and jobs at his four restaurants in the Princeton area.

"We've been in business for 30 years and have found that you need so many skill sets in order to have a successful restaurant," said Momo. He noted that training MCCC students while they are still in school enables him to have a skilled staff as soon as they graduate. "This partnership with Mercer has been a true success story for us."

Frank Caponi, who completed Certificates of Proficiency in Cooking and Baking at Mercer in 2010, now works as a chef at Momo's Mediterra Restaurant. "The classes here at Mercer are wonderful. This program is probably the best in the state, if not the country," he said.

Current MCCC student Maryam Rowneki faced multiple challenges when she came to the United States from Afghanistan in 1999. A third grader at the time, she had to begin her education in kindergarten classes because she did not speak English.

Dr. Jill Biden described her experience as a community college teacher for the past 18 years, noting the diverse student body that is served by community colleges.
Attending the event with Dr. Biden, third from left, are, from left, Deputy U.S. Labor Secretary Seth Harris, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue, and MCCC Board members Robert DiFalco, Pam Hersh and Chair Mark Matzen.
Panelists, from left, inlcuded Maryam Rowneki, Marsha Lynch, Laurie Kavanagh, Cathy Palmer, Frank Caponi, MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue, Dr. Jill Biden, Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, Raoul Momo, June White, Regina Johnson-Matos, Christopher Robshaw and David Scheider.
MCCC alum Frank Caponi, a chef at Mediterra Restaurant in Princeton, spoke about how well the MCCC Culinary program prepared him for his job.

By the time Rowneki reached high school, she was volunteering at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, after recognizing her desire to work in the health care field. Now, she is employed as a pharmacy technician at CVS through the company's Career Prescriptions for Success program (CAPS), a partnership with MCCC. "The CAPS program has helped me pay for summer classes, books and transportation," she said.

Marsha Lynch, CVS area manager, explained that the program allows students to attend school full time while working 25 hours a week at CVS stores. "The students have learned a lot of time management skills," she said.

For Christopher Robshaw, enrolling in community college proved the perfect training solution for his career of choice. After attending a four-year college for two years without a clear direction, he spent a summer working in the HVAC field and knew it was the career he had been looking for. Robshaw enrolled in the HVAC program at Raritan Valley Community College, where he received individualized attention and job skills - and a job with Service Experts in Manville, NJ. Seventy percent of the company's employees trained at Raritan, which received a major federal grant to put people back to work in the field.

Other panel attendees were Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, MCCC Trustees Mark Matzen, Pam Hersh and Robert DiFalco, Larry Nespoli of the N.J. Council of County Colleges, college presidents William Toms of Brookdale and Edythe Abdullah of Essex, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, and West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, as well as MCCC students, administrators, faculty and staff members.

MCCC President Dr. Patricia C. Donohue served as mistress of ceremonies. "Our mission as a community college is to provide education and training that prepares students to be qualified, productive employees. We serve students of all ages and at all levels and provide learning opportunities for them to realize success," she said. "We are honored to be part of the 'Community College to Career' tour."

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