50 Years and Counting

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By Mickey Brandt
“Cumberland50” will include a number of engagements and will culminate with an anniversary gala at the state’s first county college.

The new president of Cumberland County College, Dr. Yves Salomon-Fernandez, is completing her fourth month. Two associate professors, John Adair and John Gibbs, are in their 50th years. When the teachers began work at New Jersey’s first community college with its own campus, the school had just a few dozen faculty members and a few hundred students. When the new top executive came in on June 6 of this year, there were almost 200 full- and part-time faculty members and over 4,000 learners.
All three interviewees told The Grapevine a story of rapid and ever-changing growth, but a steadfast and simple mission: Becoming a catalyst for propelling students and alumni—from all walks of life—to successful, impactful careers and meaningful lives, near and far.
This year, Cumberland (CCC) marks a half-century of trying to fulfill that promise.
Salomon-Fernandez, a Haitian immigrant to the United States fluent in four languages and a product of public higher education, is already forging close bonds with community leaders to ensure that recent high school graduates, non-traditional students, the middle class, the unemployed, and marginalized populations get what they need to prosper as individuals and to lead or help the economic vitality of the region.
New to this community and this college, she offers an interesting perspective on the history and culture of both.
“The college has a deep legacy,” she says. “It began in the 1960s and ’70s enrolling students like women establishing their independence to become nurses, teachers, female accountants; or veterans returning from the (Vietnam) war and searching for the right way to go forward.
“Now, we help keep higher education as a legacy for families. We adapt to demographic changes in race and age as well as reaching students through ever-expanding online courses, evolving technology, and marketing to those without Internet access,” she adds.
“We’re addressing the ‘brain drain’ situation where talented young people leave to establish themselves in other places.” she notes. “We’re saying ‘Hey, you grew up here, you can invest here; come here, maybe you’ll move back.’ There are legions of people who support the college. They tell me, ‘This place gave me my first professional job.’
“At the same time, we aim to raise the college-educated percentage in our area from the current 20 percent,” she says.
As both Adair and Gibbs elaborated on in their in-depth interviews, Salomon-Fernandez stresses that the increasingly larger college has remained small.
“There is no history of lecture halls of hundreds here, no remote professors. We have small classrooms, personal meetings. There is an ethos of care in everything we do,” she says.
Adair and Gibbs have been at Cumberland since the beginnings of the school, when the campus had more trees than students. They share a first name, are both full-time English teachers, work in adjoining offices, and outdo each other in their passions for teaching and learning.
Each man is healthy, personable, and sharp-witted. They consistently talk modestly about significant academic and personal achievement. As two of the most revered instructors in the history of the school, their combined near-century on campus instructing generations of students is a treasure of information and opinion about CCC.
Gibbs came to CCC from Elmira College in New York, by way of the assistant editorship at Cole-Collier Books in New York, several years of high school teaching, the master’s program at the University of Wyoming, and an undergraduate teaching degree at Trenton State College (now TCNJ).
He left Elmira for CCC because, “All the students were women ages 18 to 24, upper middle class with a similar view of the world. Let’s put it this way: It was restrictive.”
Since his first class where a 65-year-old woman and 17-year-old boy sat side-by-side, he has found CCC, at least, less restrictive.
Gibbs wrote the first self-study of Cumberland and served for many years on the Middle States Commission on Higher Education doing accreditations. He is an actor (“only small parts because of the memorization”) and a theater maven.
Adair earned his B.A. at Calvin College in Michigan with a triple major in German, math, and psychology. His master’s in English and course work for a doctorate were at the University of Delaware. He reads a hundred books a year and owns thousands. He composes poetry (in longhand) and once, while there for seminars, achieved the honor of reading his work at High Table at Brasenose College of Oxford University.
His summer sabbaticals spanned 32 years and also took him to Cambridge, Edinburgh University in Scotland and Trinity College in Ireland.
Adair gave his high school salutatory address in 1956 on racial equality. He was introduced to Richard Nixon after winning a coveted national scholarship in his senior year. In his work with the Modern Language Association, he met and talked with Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison.
Adair’s assessment of changes at the college may surprise some, but shows the core of Cumberland as fundamentally unchanged by its progress.
“Of course, we’ve grown from a very small place to this gorgeous, many-building campus with thousands of students,” he begins.
“But we’ve always had excellent students and a (continuing) program that deals with a spectrum of them,” he says. “The spectrum doesn’t change. To see these students emerge in terms of being ‘thinking people’ has always been wonderful.
“Through the years, they tell me thank you, Mr. Adair, or send me a note saying I’m going to a star university now—majoring in English,” he notes.
To Adair, there are two significant developments that will impact Cumberland the most in the near future.
“First, we have this new high-tech high school next door (Cumberland County Technical Education Center), which is going to be working with the college and is going to help both,” he says. “Second, as everyone is aware, Rowan and some other universities want to connect with the community colleges.”
Gibbs insists he has been employed longer than Adair—by about three weeks. It seems the office wall they share has been breached innumerable times by jolly banter.
“My first impression was this would do for a couple years, but I was going to move on,” he says. When he did the college’s early self-study, his mind changed and he became an incessant supporter of CCC.
“Some people have the idea that community colleges aren’t like real colleges, that they are a continuation of high school—well, that’s baloney.
“Frankly, I have continuously been impressed with the wonderful blend at Cumberland County College—the variety of age, experience, attitudes, and beliefs that you just don’t get at conventional colleges,” he adds.
Naturally, he meets former students frequently and of, course, they ask if he recalls them. He often says your face is familiar, but 20,000 names are hard to remember.
Gibbs has always been pleased to hear about students who go on to schools like Princeton, Penn, and Rutgers and those who eventually get doctorate degrees. “Which I didn’t do,” he points out.
No worries.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: cumberland50@cccnj.edu (President’s blog)
EMAIL THE WRITER: mickeybrandt@comcast.net