BY JAY BODAS
EDISON — Middlesex County College’s new president has always felt at home in the university setting.
She was already hobnobbing with professors in her first job straight out of college.
“Two weeks after graduating from college, I joined the Peace Corps in 1968, and I went to Bogota, Columbia, where I taught English and linguistics at a university,” said Dr. Joann LaPerla-Morales. “At the age of 21, it was really funny to have people calling me ‘doctor’ right after graduating from college.”
LaPerla-Morales, 58, became the sixth president of Middlesex County College (MCC) at the beginning of the year, continuing a career in higher education as both teacher and administrator that has spanned 35 years.
She is paid an annual salary of $147,000 and replaces John Bakum, 65, a 37-year veteran of the college who served as MCC president for eight years.
“I majored in Spanish as an undergraduate and I had an interest in South America, and I always wanted to teach,” LaPerla-Morales said. “Graduating from college, I had never even been on a plane before in my life. The next thing I knew, I was in Columbia.”
LaPerla-Morales was the first member of her family to go to college.
“I went to SUNY [State University of New York] in Oneonta, and I had loans and scholarships, but it was difficult to navigate the system by myself,” she said. “My father definitely encouraged me to go. He had gone to Brooklyn College for one semester, but he then had to leave as he was drafted to serve in World War II.”
When she returned to the United States after her work with the Peace Corps, she made education the focus of her work.
She earned a master’s degree in English as a Second Language (ESL) while in Columbia, and began teaching ESL in Brooklyn when she returned to the United States.
“Along the way, I got a doctorate in higher education administration, and at that point I knew I wanted to stay in that field,” LaPerla-Morales said. “Adult education is my passion.”
Before she came to MCC, LaPerla-Morales was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. While there, she helped to recruit 160 full-time faculty members, developed three new baccalaureate programs, and secured $3.7 million in grants.
“In the five years that I was there, there were a lot of retirements, and through some new money, we were able to bring in a lot of new faculty,” she said. “I loved my job in Brooklyn, and there is always a risk when moving up, but coming here was a great opportunity, which I could not pass up.”
Previously, LaPerla-Morales was
dean of instruction at Nassau Community College in Long Island, the
largest community college in New York with roughly 20,000 students. She also served as associate dean for academic affairs at Bloomfield College in New Jersey.
“I think Bloomfield College was the only private institution I ever worked for,” she said. “It is a small school, and I found myself needing a larger institution.”
She is passionate about the county college system.
“Community colleges are the most exciting, dynamic area of higher education today, and I think of the community college as an institution that is very American and which symbolizes democracy,” LaPerla-Morales said. “Begun in the 1960s, community colleges are a point of opportunity for many people. They include a mixture of students who are not yet ready to go to a full four-year college alongside others who want to save money before continuing on to a four-year institution.”
LaPerla-Morales was chosen to serve as the college president out of a field of 40 candidates. She went through an exhaustive, six-month selection process.
“Back when I was interviewing for the position, I spoke with a panel committee composed of faculty and students, and I interviewed with the board of trustees,” she said. “There were three final candidates, and on separate days we each individually appeared on campus to field questions from the college community at-large. I also had to undergo an extensive background check.”
LaPerla-Morales has several goals for the college during her tenure as president, including increasing the full-time faculty roster to 260 and improving the curriculum.
“We are committed to student success, and we open our doors to many levels of academic ability,” she said. “There are some students who need remedial programs, and we will be working to improve our developmental programs for them. At the same time, we have many students who come in as part of the New Jersey Stars program, in which students in the top 20 percent of their high school class get a full scholarship to their respective community college.”
She also wants to develop an honors program and improve retention and graduation rates.
Regarding its other two campuses, the school recently moved into a new space in New Brunswick, and it is sharing space with a vocational school in Perth Amboy, LaPerla-Morales said.
She and her husband, Rubil, a professor of history at Bergen County Community College, live on the campus in Edison at the president’s house. LaPerla-Morales is looking forward to the coming years serving the college.
“It is a great place as everyone has been truly welcoming, and my predecessors have left me a terrific institution,” LaPerla-Morales. “I am very happy here, and I hope to be here for a long time. I’m not a person who thinks about retirement, and I want to stay on as long as it stays exciting.”