Cecilia Maldonado is the first in her family to complete a bachelor’s degree — and then a master’s degree and a doctoral degree. Her experience has led her to champion workforce development. This work including building career pipelines and closing achievements gaps that often hinder first-generation and under-represented students. As associate vice provost for workforce development, Maldonado is focused on helping UNLV connect coursework, co-curricular activities, and relevant work experience to career mobility for students, and on helping students prepare for an ever-shifting labor market.
Being the first in your family to attend college, what motivated you to pursue higher education and then pursue your master's and doctoral degrees?
Earning a college degree was an expectation in my family – my sister and I both earned a Ph.D. My father was a staunch supporter of education and my mom modeled it for us, so there were no excuses.
In the 70s, there were programs to encourage more people from Latinx communities to pursue careers in K-12 education. My mom completed an associate’s degree through one of those programs at our local community college. She was unable to complete her bachelor’s degree because she became pregnant with my brother. I was 11 or 12 at that time and remember having to go to class with her sometimes. My father was very supportive of her, too. I’m so grateful for their support and recognize that I would not be where I am today had it not been for their sacrifices.
All of my degrees were challenging, most of which I completed as a single mother. I had my daughter between earning my first bachelor’s degree and my post-baccalaureate degree. I then completed a master’s degree and my doctoral degree. She was in fifth grade when I came to UNLV [in 2000]. Now, she has a college degree.
What makes being a first-gen faculty member special?
I can relate to the challenges first-generation students have, particularly as they relate to understanding how to navigate the higher education system. I made all of the stupid mistakes as a student and as a new faculty member that novices make. However, as I learned my lessons the hard way, I was certain to include this tacit knowledge in my courses and when advising students.
I was a fierce advocate of students of color — many of them, I treated like my own child — corralling them when they would disappear and meeting them at their level to help guide them in their own journey. I am most proud of my work with graduate students and especially those in the now-defunct doctoral program in workforce development and organizational leadership where I graduated 11 students — most of whom are students of color.
Describe your current role. How does your work intersect with other areas of campus?
This is a relatively new position at UNLV. I’ve been in this role (in the office of the executive vice president and provost) for almost two years. I manage the MGM College Opportunity Program, a partnership between NSHE and institutions that offer online degrees. I work with UNLV’s learning concierge, Marcedes Butler. Together, we collaborate with NSHE and campus partners including online education, department chairs and program coordinators, advising center directors and staff, enrollment and student services, Graduate College leaders, enterprise system leaders, financial aid, and cashier’s offices.
I’m also leading an initiative that helps students become career-ready. I work with Career Services executive director Eileen McGarry, co-chairing a task force of about 20 people from across the university. The members of the task force have been outstanding. I feel blessed to be able to work with so many champions, many of whom already do this work in one form or another.
The goal is to broaden awareness, create buy-in, and institutionalize best practices for preparing college graduates for their careers, including graduate school. From day one, we want students to understand the career options within their major, gain the competencies and skills employers value, and link their coursework, classroom projects and relevant work experience to career mobility. This effort will require engagement from everyone on the campus.
How does this work fit in with UNLV’s focus as an urban research institution?
The mission of a four-year university, especially a research university, is different from a community college, where workforce development figures prominently. But times are changing, and it’s encouraging to see workforce development become a priority for UNLV and for NSHE.
Today’s workplace is evolving rapidly and requires people with broad skills. Increasingly, technology, artificial intelligence, and automation are replacing low-skill jobs, leaving marginalized populations vulnerable. Colleges and universities will be essential in addressing the preparation of the workforce for a shifting labor market. Now, the pandemic has employers and businesses re-thinking nearly every aspect of “work.” These challenges highlight the need for universities to prepare students for creating and driving solutions that help society recover.
Research I’ve conducted supports university engagement in career readiness. UNLV already has high-impact practices that support student career mobility, and this new initiative will add competency and skill acquisition to the already rich student experience. Our work is to educate the campus community and help build bridges for students that lead to career success through their coursework, co-curricular activities, and relevant work experiences. Given our diversity and the number of first-generation students, instituting these practices makes sense. No effort this large can succeed without a champion at the top, and I’m grateful for Executive Vice President and Provost Chris Heavey’s vision and support for this work at UNLV.
You’ve done research related to minorities in higher education, in particular Latino college completers and Latina and African-American women in higher education leadership. What did this research reveal?
An achievement gap persists for these groups. Although the enrollment rates for these groups of students have increased, college completion rates lag behind white students. The achievement gaps disadvantage individuals’ ability to compete in today’s labor market, and our country’s ability to compete on the global market. Given the changing demographics in the U.S., if the achievement gaps persist, there will continue to be groups left out of the American Dream.
With regard to women of color in the academy, few of them are tapped for executive leadership positions. Universities must be purposeful in their executive searches and understand that women come with different experiences than men do, but that does not necessarily mean they are less qualified. Women are judged differently — women of color are scrutinized even more and their leadership capabilities questioned. This area has been researched extensively but increases in women of color leading universities is still marginal compared to men of color.
How does your own research inform your approach to workforce development at UNLV?
Our education system was designed for industrialization. It has become inadequate for preparing global citizens for today’s economy, which requires higher levels of education. The disruption and diffusion of technology are causing turbulence for many workers, and COVID-19 has accelerated this reality, especially for populations of color. The research says more than one-third of the skills we believe are essential for today’s workforce will have changed in the next five years, as well as the half-life value of a skill, dropping from 30 years to an average of six years.
The intersection of my research and how I approach workforce development is exactly that: How do we fully prepare students to navigate the changing demands of the economy? And, how do we ensure students from marginalized populations are included in that work? We have to let students know what they will be confronted with and provide them the skills for navigating what might be eight to 12 career changes over their lifespans. That alone is incredibly stressful for young people and why higher education must adopt workforce development practices. The need for a growth mindset, agility, and flexibility are critical for those preparing to enter today’s workforce.
What is the biggest challenge in your field?
Most people don’t know the breadth and scope of the field. Although it is improving in this state, many people affiliate workforce development with low-skill work and second-chance training. There is so much more.
Workforce development professionals work in areas including:
- Public workforce development programs (i.e., Workforce Connections and state workforce initiatives)
- Education (i.e., K-12 CTE teachers; community college CTE instructors; adult education instructors; instructors in apprenticeship programs)
- Outreach and training (community college workforce development divisions, continuing education)
- HR (workforce planning, consulting, etc.)
- In organizations as workplace learning and organization development professionals
- Economic development
Some disciplines have significant gaps in their talent pipelines and sometimes people in those disciplines have to engage in workforce planning.
How would you like to see other parts of campus participate in this work? What would make your job easier?
I believe that eventually the entire campus will be engaged in the career readiness initiative. It’s a change management effort. It will take time, and it will require communication and support structures for the whole campus community. What would make my job easier? Funding to provide incentives for engaging and committing campus to this initiative.
How has COVID-19 affected your work?
First, I want to acknowledge my privilege in my ability to work from home. I recognize that others are not so lucky and many people are suffering as a result of COVID-19. I’ve been working from home since the beginning of spring break and while I miss seeing colleagues, I have been productive working from home and I enjoy it very much. From a workforce perspective, I look forward to seeing some flexible work arrangement policies at UNLV.
If you could learn to master one thing, what would it be?
Playing the guitar. I’ve always been attracted to music where the guitar is highlighted — first in the traditional Puerto Rican music my mom played at home and also in the Puerto Rican culture, and now in my love of jazz. If I could snap my fingers, I would be a musician, traveling the world playing gigs. My favorite guitarist is Jonathan Butler.
What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?
I absolutely love to travel as a way of learning about and experiencing other cultures. I was scheduled to go to Egypt this year, a trip that was canceled as the country began to shut down in March. I also love smooth jazz and photography. I travel to attend various festivals in the U.S. and abroad and I usually take my camera to these events. I was scheduled to be one of the photographers for the Barbados Jazz Excursion in October. This event has been pushed back to 2021.