Moorpark College is situated in a relatively isolated stake of the Tri-Counties, about 10 miles east of Highway 101 in Ventura County among rolling desert-like hills. Even the college’s new president, Pam Eddinger, said in such an area it’s “easy to be insular when you’re in a college with 15,000 students.”
But Eddinger places her college within a very broad perspective of not just the East Ventura County community, but within a very real global context.
In what she calls the “perfect storm” of higher-level jobs shifted overseas, a growing wave of immigrants to the United States, and the failure of high schools to prepare students for the workforce, Eddinger sees community colleges as a “key portion of our economic backbone” within the next decade.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, community college: that’s where you fail high school and you need a second chance.’ Yeah, that’s true but when we think about the American Dream, this is where it starts,” Eddinger said while sitting on one of two couches in her spacious new office. “The American Dream is about creating social engagement. It’s about creating citizens.”
Eddinger, who took over for Eva Conrad as Moorpark’s president in July, understands the American Dream perhaps better than many college presidents. She came to the United States with her family from Hong Kong when she was 11.
“My parents gave up everything they had to come to the United States, to barely learn English, so that we could get to college,” she said.
Eddinger, 48, said she worries that as more immigrants like her move to the United States, the educational infrastructure won’t be able to adequately prepare them for the work environment, citing that 50 percent of such students are “workplace illiterate.”
“My greatest fear is that if that social contract breaks with our students, we will have eroded a large portion of the American Dream for the next wave of immigrants to the United States,” she said.
Although the title of president is new for Eddinger, Moorpark College isn’t. She started her career at the college in 2005 when she was hired as the executive vice president. This came after 16 years with Massachusetts Bay Community College where her last role was as vice president of academic affairs. In a way, Eddinger was groomed by former president Conrad for the college’s top administrative spot.
“I had a really good mentor: Eva Conrad, the president who was here before. We didn’t talk about the presidency at Moorpark; we talked about my next step and my growth,” Eddinger said. “She sort of went out of her way to try to make that available. So she sent me to a lot of state venues where I learned about the state.”
As Eddinger transitioned to her new role as president, she tried to make the move as seamless as possible, she said, after experiencing many bouts of turmoil and “very painful” transitions within the Massachusetts Bay administration.
“Changes will happen because the college is in a certain stage of its growth and it’s natural and I’m here to help it. But it’s not Pam coming in and putting her stamp on the college,” she said laughing. “It’s not like that.”
When the dream began
Eddinger said it wasn’t until she was getting her doctorate in Japanese literature at Columbia University that she really considered pursuing a career in education administration. While working at Massachusetts Bay Community College as its public information officer, she fell in love with telling the stories of “incredible hardship and people who turned their lives around.”
In particular, she followed the story of one student who was a single mother with three children who had separated from her abusive husband.
“And she had a restraining order against him. For two years, the college kept her safe by not divulging her information and calling the police when the husband comes to get her or comes to interfere,” Eddinger recalled. “We’d get phone calls, ‘Oh I can’t come to class today because my husband found out where I am. I have to move my kids.’”
Eddinger was fascinated with the woman’s story and followed her through the three years it took for her to complete her associate’s degree.
“I was able to tell her story when it was done. When she walked across the stage,” Eddinger said, choking up slightly, “it was just amazing. At that point I said, yeah, this is it. This is what I want to do.”
As Moorpark College and Eddinger prepare for students to start fall classes Aug. 18, the institution itself is in transition. Three major sections of the campus are under construction, which Eddinger calls the “community commitment to the college.”
“This college is 40 years old and we’re seeing the transition in maintenance,” she said. “Our buildings are falling apart. Portables that were put up 40 years ago that were supposed to be temporary, they’re still there.”
In response, the college is building a new health science building, exotic animal treatment and management building and an academic center. “It’s really an exciting mix,” Eddinger said. “And the fact that I’m able to come in at this time to serve, it’s amazing. I see the campus just renewing for the next generation.”