KEY WEST — The first black president of Florida Keys Community College has brought to the job a keen sense of political consciousness and the value of education honed by his youth in his native Trinidad and Tobago.
“High school was a luxury that most could not afford and those who got to high school had to be in the highest percentage of test-takers on a national exam,” said Jonathon Gueverra, who took on the leadership role at the college in May.
“In the group of more than 50 students from my elementary school that took the exam, I can recall less than 10 who actually made it. This was at age 11 and I was the only one in my family to achieve that goal,” he said.
His mother wanted young Jonathon to do more than play sports in school because she valued education, he said.
“She constantly warned that (playing) sport was not the reason I went to school,” he said. “The value was such that when I played soccer and ran track for my high school I kept it a secret from my mother.”
His dedication to athletics and education — he has a doctorate of education and a masters of business administration from the University of Massachusetts — apparently has paid off for the educator, who answered a reporter’s questions last week. He seems in top physical shape and has energy for two people.
Gueverra got started tutoring young people in Massachusetts when he worked as an accountant.
“I was scraping a living together doing tax work when colleagues noticed I was good at mentoring,” he said. “The young people had no clue as to why they had to pay taxes and didn’t know how to do a whole bunch of things.” He taught them math, some accounting and other basic skills.
He then attended the University of Massachusetts to learn the administrative side of education.
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) eventually hired Gueverra to teach a couple of classes; by 2007, he had worked his way up to provost.
In May, 2009, he became chief executive officer of the Community College of the University of the District of Columbia inside the district, not too many miles from NOVA.
By the time he moved to the district post, he knew that an astonishing percentage of first-year college students — at least 65 percent — needed remedial help in most subjects. Public high schools had not prepared them for college.
“We created a college-readiness institute not for the students but for the teachers in high school,” he said. “Where was the faculty? Do they understand what colleges were looking for? They were teaching English literature in high school but they weren’t teaching students how to write a thesis (paper). Or how to write a research paper.”
When hired, UDC-CC credited Gueverra with “a significant increase in retention and enrollment rates” at NOVA. What brought Gueverra to Key West to lead the small but accomplished community college on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico?
“I like small colleges, the Florida college system is as progressive as you can get, and I love challenges,” he said.
Gueverra also likes the fact that FKCC is in the near tropics, which he has missed since leaving Trinidad and Tobago in 1980 at his aunt Philomen’s urging. She still lives in Massachusetts.
His goal for FKCC: “To remain a sustainable and viable small college that serves the region.”
His background as an accountant, in addition to his decades in higher education administration, probably didn’t hurt his chances to lead FKCC. The college’s faculty and staff took temporary pay cuts (voluntary, according to FKCC) about two years ago when the college realized it had overstated revenue.
Other measures were taken that put the college on firm financial footing, according to FKCC spokeswoman Amber Ernst-Leonard.
The college’s $10 million budget for 2012-2013 is on track, Leonard said.
Gueverra has been on a “listening tour” throughout the Keys, where the college has Lower Keys, Middle Keys and Upper Keys campuses.
The public hearings let residents and students ask questions or air grievances. It’s all part of an effort to come up with a formal, four-year strategic plan required by the Florida College System, Gueverra said.
Key West, he said, is a
A wealthy resort town that has a large underserved population of African Americans, represented well in FKCC’s student body.
“African-American students and Hispanic students are 8 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of our student body,” he said. “In Monroe County, these groups are 6 percent and 21 percent, respectively. I would say that, overall, we are doing a good job reflecting the demographic composition of the service area.”
Nonetheless, the college reaches out to high schools and parents in the area to get more students from non-college homes to attend.
Though Trinidad-Tobago is thousands of miles from his present home, Gueverra is a student of the American Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equality on his island home makes up a large part of his political consciousness.
He told the South Florida Times of his thoughts when he saw the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. — days before it opened to the general public in August 2011. He was a guest of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray at the preview peek.
“It took me back many years because I remember the headline in the paper and recently saw the clipping that my mother saved all of these years,” he said. “This clipping is the report of Dr. King’s assassination.
“For me to be standing in the space where his memorial is dedicated was nothing short of a miracle. Nothing I had done or been told could have ever prepared me for that moment and there will probably never be another moment like this in my lifetime.”
Gueverra and his wife Josephine have been married for more than 30 years. “My daughters Joy and Joanne have both graduated from college and my son Julius attends Sugarloaf Middle School,” he said.