Leeward’s New Leader
As Leeward Community College celebrates its 50th anniversary, getting the word out about its many achievements is a priority for new chancellor Carlos Peñaloza.
Carlos Peñaloza’s story is not unlike that of many of the students now under his charge in his new role as chancellor of Leeward Community College.
Born in Venezuela, he moved to New York to go to college.
“I graduated from a community college, Queensborough, and that was an amazing experience. English as a second language, Hispanic, low on funds — community college was an obvious choice,” he explains.
After earning an associate’s degree in liberal arts and sciences, he transitioned to the City University of New York system for his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in biology.
His winding path has led him to the top job at Leeward (he started July 1) — and he couldn’t be more delighted to be at the helm of one of the state’s most successful community colleges.
“Having worked in different institutions, different states, public and private schools, two-year and four-year — Leeward is in a very strong position, both academically and financially,” he says.
And he hopes to use his new role to spread the word about Leeward’s success — particularly as the school celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Peñaloza is a biologist by trade, but he says shifting to administration came naturally to him. “I love doing science, and I think I was good at it, but early on, I came to a difficult realization. It hit me that the Hispanic population had a very low college-going rate, even lower in STEM, and even lower as professors going back to teaching.
“When I came to that realization, I began working on some programs and grants that supported people like me getting into the pipeline. Very quickly, that transitioned me into administration.”
That experience has made opportunity a keystone of his priorities at Leeward.
“It’s not that college is for everyone, right, but it’s more of everyone deserves the opportunity. It’s not usually for academic reasons that stop people from moving through, but all of the other circumstances, whether it’s finances, whether it’s support — all these other things need to be just right for underserved populations to go to college.”
Peñaloza is proud to say that alleviating said circumstances is precisely what motivates the faculty and staff at Leeward.
The college’s Wai‘anae Moku program, for example, brings some 65 different classes directly to Wai‘anae for students in the fall and spring semesters, and Leeward is in the process of expanding its campus out there.
It also has been pursuing a number of construction projects on campus, which include a dramatic revamp of its science labs to include state-of-the-art technology and tools (Peñaloza is standing in one of the renovated labs on the cover, in fact); a large-scale photovoltaic installation in the parking lot that will hopefully bring the campus to sustainable energy consumption later this year; and a brand-new Welcome Center that will keep all student services under a single, easily navigable roof.
All that is on top of the college’s recent renovation of its theater, as well as its dedication to its culinary program (including restaurant The Pearl), Native Hawaiian greenhouse, extensive online courses, focus on using free textbooks and resources, and expansion of its education classes.
Taking the time and resources to invest in these kinds of things is necessary, Peñaloza says, because Hawai‘i needs them.
“In Hawai‘i, we have a high (underserved) population and high need, and when I come to an institution whose mission is about working with Native Hawaiians, working with that pipeline, I see a major connection.”
The biggest problem Leeward might have may well just be that so few people seem to know about all the things it can do.
Peñaloza, who lives nearby in Pearl City, knows this firsthand.
“I walk around a lot, and 90 percent of the people I’ve bumped into have (attended) Leeward, and when I tell them about things I find exciting about Leeward, less than 50 percent know what we’re currently doing.”
It’s not really about boasting — after all, if no one knows that Leeward is an academic powerhouse, they won’t know how its services can help them, too.
This is one of three goals Peñaloza has for his tenure at Leeward.
First, he wants to continue to support faculty and staff in their own efforts to support students. Second, he wants to help alleviate financial burdens on students by increasing his impact in fund-raising for better and larger scholarships. Third, he just wants more people to know about Leeward.
“I want to share with everyone all the novelties, all the success we have as a college,” he says.
And with 50 years in the book for Leeward, Peñaloza hopes to lead the college as it embarks its next chapter.
Leeward Community College will host a Discovery Fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 2, featuring more than 50 interactive learning exhibits for keiki and families. Peñaloza will be walking around the fair with his family, too — and is eager to meet and chat with visitors. Admission is free. For more information, visit leeward.hawaii.edu/fair.
Carlos Peñaloza grew up in Venezuela, went to school in New York, and worked in Missouri. How does all that compare to Hawai‘i?
“I enjoy my beaches,” he says with a laugh, saying he missed easy access to the ocean during his time on the mainland.
But, more seriously, he says Hawai‘i was the right place for him to be because of its focus on family.
“New York is very diverse, with lots and lots of cultures — but not a culture. It was difficult to connect with any group.
“Professionally, my life took me to Missouri, where I had very good jobs and it was very rewarding, but it took me further from what I appreciate. I have a big family, and I wanted to be in a place where I could raise my kids and spend time with my family.”
‘Ohana, quite literally, sets Hawai‘i apart from all other places.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been — including Venezuela — to a place where families are appreciated as much as they are in Hawai‘i.”
His three children can enjoy year-round sports (not a thing on the mainland, he notes dryly), and the family finally, in the words of his oldest son, doesn’t “need to take a flight to go to the beach.”
ICONS OF AN ICON
Decorating Leeward Community College chancellor Carlos Peñaloza’s offices are numerous portraits and busts of one man: Simón Bolívar.
“Simón Bolívar is the George Washington of South America,” Peñaloza explains. “He led the e° orts to liberate or free Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Panama from the Spanish in the 1800s.”
Peñaloza admits that he’s no history buff, but he feels a connection with the national hero.
“I’ve tried to bring that with me professionally, to connect with someone who had not necessarily authority, but had a vision and worked hard for it.”
Fun fact: Peñaloza actually has more art pieces of Bolívar than are currently displayed in his office, but he says he rotates them out for variety.