Although he grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, José Fierro, Ph.D., president of Cerritos Community College in Norwalk, California, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, while his father was attending the University of Wisconsin. “I was born in Madison General, and I lived in the family residence hall when I was a baby,” says Dr. Fierro. Eventually, the family moved back to Bogota.
By the “luck of the draw,” in other words, being born in the US, Dr. Fierro’s legal situation was sorted, resulting in an advantage many Cerritos students don’t have. But that’s where his Cinderella story ends. Looking for further opportunities, Dr. Fierro came back to the US after being educated in Colombia. He possessed limited English skills, didn’t know anyone, and didn’t have a social security card. “I had to go through a number of barriers to understand what I needed to do,” says Dr. Fierro. As president, he draws on his personal experiences to identify and eliminate barriers his students encounter and motivates them to succeed.
External barriers, like housing, food insecurity, lack of transportation, and mental health services, often prevent low-income students from succeeding in college. “We have seen an increase in part time enrollment, which is leading us to reassess the way we offer our services and classes to see if there is a way to allow them to take care of their personal business, like work, family, and other obligations,” says Dr. Fierro. He’s investing in resources that ensure student access to basic, necessary services. “I think that has helped us to maintain how our students engage on campus and also draws students from the community who may have been undecided about coming to college,” says Dr. Fierro.
Ranked fifth nationally among the top 50 community colleges with the highest Latinx enrollment, Cerritos enrolls 21,500 students, of which about 65 to 70 percent are Hispanic. Fifty-five percent of Cerritos students receive financial aid, and more than 70 percent qualify for CalFresh, the state nutrition program for low-income populations.
A Different Level of Financial Aid
With so many Cerritos students struggling to make ends meet, Dr. Fierro opened the Falcon’s Nest, a basic needs center initially hosted in the financial aid department and subsidized through grants, community partners, donations, and area philanthropists. The anchor of the center is Franco’s Market, named after Cerritos’ mascot, Franco the Falcon. “It’s like a Trader Joe’s where students can come and shop with dignity. They find a lot of fresh foods and meats free of charge,” says Dr. Fierro.
Students are required to register with the center, allowing case managers to identify “trigger points” for the students. The center assists students with gas cards, transportation passes, and credit subsidies. Case managers delve deep into each student’s financial situation, inquiring about employment, rent, and spending. “As that relationship is building, we are able to provide those additional services that traditionally have been overlooked in higher education,” says Dr. Fierro.
To ensure Cerritos students look their best and exude confidence while on a job interview, students can visit Franco’s Closet, where they find business attire, again free of charge. “If they’re going to a conference, if they’re going to an interview, we want them to look sharp and give a good impression,” says Fierro.
For those homeless and home insecure students, Dr. Fierro has two ongoing housing projects. One, which has been in operation since the pandemic, is called The Village. Unlike a traditional dorm, The Village operates on rapid rehousing and prevents students from winding up on the streets. It’s not just housing, says Dr. Fierro; it’s also support services that offer students advice on preventing homelessness.
Plans are in the works to construct housing units with 396 affordable beds. The cost of the project is covered by a nearly $69 million grant and cash from Cerritos’ general fund. “Rent will be $714 to $780 per month, which in this area is less than around 30 percent of market rate,” says Dr. Fierro. “With that, we’re trying to supplement some of the financial needs that our students can have,” says Dr. Fierro, pointing out that students who access support services tend to perform better in the classroom.
Effective Programs and Teamwork
During his tenure at Cerritos, Dr. Fierro has presided over a decrease in students’ time to completion and an increase in successful completion of transfer math and English courses. In 2015, Dr. Fierro and Cerritos embarked on an endeavor to ensure all institution decisions were based on students’ success, like scheduling classes at times more accessible for students and developing programs that are easily navigable. Cerritos increased completion rates from six percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2023. Dr. Fiero is confident they can soar even higher.
In 2018, the school’s Cerritos Complete Program was highlighted nationally as a model for enrollment, retention, and academic progress. A California College Promise program, Cerritos Complete is a student success initiative focusing on student pledges to earn and complete degrees or certificates on time. It’s a partnership between the college and seven local school districts - ABC, Bellflower, Compton, Downey, Lynwood, Norwalk-La Mirada, and Paramount.
Over the past five years, the program’s numbers are impressive. Of the general population, only eight percent of Cerritos’ students are taking 15 units in their first term, while 22 percent of Cerritos Complete students are taking 15 units in the first term. “Right there you’re going to have a higher possibility of those students graduating on time,” says Dr. Fierro.
Math and English scores have long been accurate indicators of whether a student is going to complete a program on time. Thirty-five percent of Cerritos Complete students finish transfer level math, compared to eleven percent of other students. And those students were two-and-a-half times more likely to succeed in their academic programs. “Cerritos Complete has had a three-fold increase in two-year completion rates on average. The numbers for Cerritos Complete students are roughly 23 percent in two years. The academic performance of these students is significantly higher than that of the general population,” says Dr. Fierro. The goal is to have all Cerritos students perform like those enrolled in the Cerritos Complete program.
Whenever possible, Dr. Fierro looks for opportunities to engage with students, including joining in training programs for marathon events with student veterans and other student groups on campus. “I don’t want to be that person who sits in the office, and no one sees, making random decisions. I want to make sure I’m accessible to the students and they feel comfortable speaking to me because there’s a lot we can learn from our students as we make decisions,” says Fierro.
Often, Dr. Fierro is praised for the strides Cerritos College has made since his arrival in 2015. However, he says it’s all about teamwork and credits his faculty, staff, administrators, students, and especially the board of trustees. “It’s nice that I get to be the spokesperson, but the real work is being done in every classroom or every time a student goes to see a counselor, or every time they go and inquire about financial aid, or every time they access services at the Falcon’s Nest. That is where the real work is and where the difference is being made,” says Dr. Fierro.