By Brandon Martin
The first of four candidates vying to be the next president of Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) fielded questions from the public during a May 4 forum in the college’s Frith Exhibit Hall.
Dr. Alessandro Anzalone spoke at length about his experience and vision for the school if he is chosen for the position.
“I know that my experience can help because it has in every job that I’ve ever had,” he said. “I do believe this school is very strong. The community is very resilient and is bouncing back. I’m seeing potential. When there is potential, you can do a lot of things. I would appreciate the opportunity to do that, to expand those possibilities and provide what the community needs.”
Anzalone said he has been impressed with the accomplishments of PHCC and he believes it is on the right track.
“I’m really, really stunned with what I’ve seen, especially with the size of this school,” Anzalone said.
Given this fact, Anzalone said he can only hope to build on the previous successes.
“My vision is growth. It’s amazing, you have a really strong foundation to build upon,” he said. “The environment, people have been extremely nice since we got here. That says a lot. That says that people are happy to be here, people are happy doing what they are doing. I only plan on growing on that and making them even happier.”
To grow, Anzalone said it is important to demonstrate that community colleges are an acceptable alternative to four-year universities rather than a back-up plan.
He shared a story of how he has dealt with this in the past.
While in class one day, Anzalone said a student stood up to say “I shouldn’t be here. I’m smart.”
“That got my blood flowing,” Anzalone said. “What do you mean that you shouldn’t be here because you are smart?”
According to Anzalone, the student then stated that he had received an acceptance letter from Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University but could not afford to attend.
Anzalone said he countered and noted the ratio of classroom sizes to professors in four-year institutions compared to community colleges.
The student “said maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe I should stick with this,” Anzalone said.
Eventually, the student joined the Marine Corps to obtain funding to continue his education, and
“five years later, he crossed into the door of my lab which gave me goosebumps,” Anzalone said. “He came to finish. We got him a job and he started pursuing aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida because his goal was to build rockets.”
Anzalone said more work needs to be done to show the upside of a community college education.
“For some people, there is a stigma about community college,” Anzalone said. “When you tell people that you are going to be in a classroom with 20 students instead of hundreds of students, and that the teacher is a (teacher’s assistant) because the instructor is doing research, then people start saying ‘you know what, maybe it is a better option.’”
More broadly, Anzalone said there is an ongoing battle to promote trade careers.
“That has been my major challenge over the last 28 years,” he said. “Something that I’ve been reading a lot about is how the pandemic has made people more aware of trade programs. They are realizing that maybe ‘I don’t have the money or the time to pursue a four-year degree. Maybe I should look at something else.’ This is an important moment for us to try and get more people engaged.”
Anzalone said he has started early by discussing engineering with elementary school children.
“Of course, you need to bring the talk to their level, but they were very engaged because I started pointing to things that they use every day,” he said, citing chair manufacturing as an example. “When you get these kids excited about those possibilities, they start asking more questions.”
Another way of enticing youth to consider technical fields is through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) summer camps.
“There, we take middle school and high school students interested in robotics, and through those (camps), we have guided our students to our general engineering programs,” Anzalone said. “Being at the school, bringing the college to the school, and on the other side bringing kids to the college” are all ways to get students engaged in trade careers.
Perhaps the biggest selling point is the potential for higher salaries on average, combined with shorter education requirements, he said.
If successful, Anzalone said this can lead to lucrative careers with local businesses, but this requires a partnership that allows for the college to offer the classes which will be needed for the positions.
“To me, there is no point in providing a program that the graduate is not what the customer needs,” Anzalone said. “It’s a waste for you, it’s a waste for the customer, it’s a waste for the person, and that’s the worst one. Because now they have invested their time and possibly their money to start a career that doesn’t have an option for them.”
For this reason, Anzalone said it is important to identify the needs of employers.
“That’s hard to do,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard for a company to tell you what they need. Some don’t want to because they think it is a trade secret or something like that, but you always have ways of finding information.”
For example, Anzalone said he found ways to meet the needs of a can manufacturer in Tampa Bay, Fla. He said the company hired two of his engineering students that lacked mechanical skills before enrolling into his program.
“They said ‘you know what, your graduates are great, but they are missing this,’” Anzalone said. “I found the course and I included it as a required course for all the students, and then they shared with me their training manual and they shared with me their evaluation manual to promote people. This is confidential information by the company.”
Having built a rapport with the company, Anzalone said he was entrusted with the trade secrets.
“I included in my program the elements that they needed,” he said. “They are as happy as can be. So, the next graduates they hired were the people they actually needed.”
As the president of a college which services both Henry and Patrick counties, Anzalone said he will lean on his previous experience in workforce development to cater to the differing economic needs of the two localities.
“The first thing that I do when I go into an area, I identify what are the major industries that are there and what are their employee needs,” he said. “It could be health services, for example, or it could be manufacturing.”
Anzalone has previously done this with the pharmaceutical industry.
“I started integrating with them, I started working with them and they made me the president of the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering because of what we were doing in our programs to support their mission,” he said. “That is the same thing that I will do here.”
By asking questions like what skills are required to support major employers in the areas, Anzalone said he can narrow down programs to fulfill the specific needs of those different industries.
In addition to providing the right education for local employers, Anzalone hopes that PHCC will be a resource for underrepresented children and families.
“That is near and dear to me. I’m a son of immigrants and I’m the only one in my family that went to college,” Anzalone said.
To highlight the potential for minorities in a community college setting, Anzalone said he focuses on exposure.
“I especially encourage my minority faculty to go into the schools and talk to the students. That way, the student sees somebody like them talking to them about their career, talking to them about future and hope,” he said.
Anzalone has more than 28 years of experience in higher education. He began his career in 1993 as a faculty member at the Universidad Nacional Experimental Politecnica Antonio Jose de Sucre, in Venezuela. After earning his doctoral degree, he became an associate chair in the Chemical Engineering Department of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in 2005. In 2006, he became the Director of Sponsored Research for two years and then the Chair of the Chemical Engineering Department. Following this and until 2009, he served as vice president and president of the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering Puerto Rico Professional Chapter. He then moved to Hillsborough Community College as Program Chair, Engineering Technology. In 2015, he rose to become the Dean, Associate in Science Programs. From 2019 to 2021, he served as the interim President of Hillsborough Community College’s Brandon Campus. Anzalone earned his bachelor’s at the Universidad Nacional Experimental Politecnica, Antonio Jose de Sucre, his master’s at New York University and his doctorate at the University of South Florida.