Making Education Work for the 21st Century: Alejandro Hernandez of Champlain College

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Photo: Alejandro Hernandez, president of Champlain College. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine

To mix a few metaphors, let’s talk about hitting the ground running at full speed ahead.

In the year and a half that Alejandro Hernandez, 49, has been president of Champlain College, he has: rejuvenated the curriculum with an eye to making Champlain’s students leaders in cybersecurity and gaming; secured a $10 million federal appropriation sponsored by former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to double the capacity of the Leahy Center for Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity; coaxed $3.4 million (over five years) from the U.S. Secret Service for training law enforcement officers in cybersecurity; championed the most successful fundraising year in the school’s 145-year history with $23.8 million; taught a course on entrepreneurship at the entrepreneurial incubator Hula; and became involved, along with the Hula founder Russ Scully and others, in a development project that will change the face of lakeside Burlington.

And that’s just the first 18 months. He likes Vermont, and says he’s planning to stick around.

“I love the community aspect of Vermont,“ Hernandez said. “And I find that the community really cares about the state and the city, and they care about Champlain College. When I first came up here to interview, my wife and I walked around downtown Burlington. She kept asking people — those who weren’t affiliated with the college — what they thought about Champlain College. And there was this incredible love for the work that Champlain College did. I think there’s something special about this college. It’s close to the community in ways that are unusual for an institution of higher education.“

Before coming to Vermont, Hernandez covered a lot of territory. He is from a family of immigrants; his mother comes from the Philippines, and his father from a Mexican family of migrant farm workers. Hernandez was born in California while his family was doing seasonal work there.

Later, in Stockton, California, his father became a force in the United Farm Workers of America movement. His parents met in Stockton, and both enjoyed long careers in education.

Hernandez started his career in finance, working for J.P. Morgan on Wall Street and then Steamboat Ventures, Disney’s venture capital arm.

He began his educational career by teaching math in high school in South Los Angeles for two years. That led him to becoming an administrator in Oregon and then California and working for a national education foundation before going to the University of Virginia, where he served as dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies and vice provost of online learning.

He became Champlain’s president on June 6, 2022. Since then, he’s been a tornado of connectiveness.

“In a very short period, Alex has met with many businesses, community leaders and Champlain stakeholders,“ said Judith O’Connell, chair of the board of trustees of Champlain College and managing partner and CEO of Champlain Investment Partners.

“This has resulted in record-breaking fundraising and strong engagement with Champlain College,“ O’Connell said. “He is the right leader to work with the community to bring to life our goals.“

Champlain is a small, nonprofit private college in Burlington with two Vermont campuses. One is downtown on a hill; the other overlooks Lake Champlain. It has international campuses in Montreal and Dublin.

Founded in 1878, the college’s ethos prepares students for their professional life from the moment they begin their studies. It boasts that over the past six years, 90% of its graduates have been employed in a field related to their major or else are continuing their education within six months after graduating.

“Our mission is to get them ready,“ Hernandez said. “We want them to be ready for work and ready for life and ready to make a difference. And that really resonates with the students who come to us.“

Champlain has not only redesigned the traditional curriculum, it has turned it inside out, shaken it up and put it back together again. Its five largest majors are cybersecurity, gaming, computer science, business and filmmaking.

“Our majors are organized in four areas,“ Hernandez said. “One area is technology and science. The second area is creative communications and media, so we have filmmaking, graphic design and creative arts. The third one is business. And the fourth one is social innovation, where we have things like social work and psychology and law and criminal justice.

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez, president of Champlain College. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez, president of Champlain College. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

“This is a community of technologists and creative folks and businesspeople and socially conscious individuals.“

Those career-driven students appreciate the “upside down curriculum,“ Hernandez said, especially having the opportunity for several paid internships during their four years of study.

“We really are different,“ he said. “Our students start their majors the minute they walk on campus. Sometimes, at other colleges, students don’t start a major until their third year. They might take the first two years to decide what they want to do. Our students start a major on day one. That allows a really meaningful internship at the end of their first year. And over the course of their four years, they can have multiple internships. The internships or interactions are central to who we are and how we prepare students for the future.“

Of course, students can always change their mind and their major.

“They might try a major and want to change,“ Hernandez said. “Or they might design their own degree. Or they might say, ’I’m not sure what I want to do, but I want to be in creative media.’ But the idea is that they start by taking classes that are related to a major.“

The humanities — the liberal arts part of the program, here called the “core curriculum“ — have also been reinvented.

“We still try to address these human skills that will make students successful — courses that teach them how to have a good life and make them valuable citizens,“ Hernandez said. “But we take a different approach to those human skills. My personal belief is that as technology becomes more and more important, it’s actually those human skills that become even more important for our students. That’s how they’re going to distinguish themselves.“

Currently, Champlain has 1,786 students on campus and 1,559 taking classes online, for a total of 3,345 students this fall. Almost 20% of the college’s residential students come from Vermont, and nearly 40% of its graduates stay in Vermont.

The school has had an impressive economic impact on the state, according to an as-yet unreleased study done by the college.

“One of my favorite things we learned was that we have about 12,000 alumni in Vermont,“ Hernandez said. “And they’ve launched 1,000 businesses. It’s an incredibly entrepreneurial student body.“

The college has 500 employees and a budget of $95 million. It is governed by a board of 28 trustees, including seven alumni, to which Hernandez reports.

The college was suffering from a revolving-door presidency when it found Hernandez.

“Alex’s combination of higher education experience and business experience made him an ideal candidate for the president of Champlain College, where we are focused on business partnerships and a student population that is highly engaged with the needs of the workforce,“ O’Connell said. “It takes the intersection of education, entrepreneurship and technology to lift individuals and communities. Alex has taken some of the academic gems of Champlain, such as cyber and gaming, and advanced them with innovation and business partnerships.“

The most important priority of a board is hiring the right leader, O’Connell said.

“We are confident that we have done that with Alex,“ she said. “His leadership, intelligence and compassion are a gift to all of Vermont.“

That endorsement was echoed by another trustee, Michelle Asch, vice president of leadership and organizational development at Twincraft Skincare.

“Hiring Alex was a win for Champlain College and a win for Vermont,“ Asch said. “He’s very practical in that he understands the link between the college and the economy. Champlain College is really about creating the conditions so that students become job ready when they graduate from Champlain. And Alex really understands this and is driving the college even more toward that.“

Attracting more women to the field of cybersecurity is an important part of Hernandez’s mission, Asch said.

“It’s something that Alex is really driving forward,“ she said. “It is given that we’re going to be a million (workers) short in the U.S. in cyber. Women make up half the population. It’s not an industry that women typically have gone into, but there’s more and more interest. So we’re creating conditions for women to feel comfortable and be supported and have success in what was a predominantly male industry.“

An example was the recent Women in Cybersecurity conference held on the campus in November; more than 150 women, including many high school students, were on campus discussing the future of women in cybersecurity.

Hernandez is “incredibly entrepreneurial, highly practical and incredibly driven,“ Asch said. “That’s a win for Champlain as we innovate and move into the future.“

She added, “Champlain College really needed to relook at our online offerings — our online certificate and degree programs — and Alex very quickly made an excellent hire and shifted the area around to set it up for success. The other piece, I would say, is cybersecurity. Saying ’OK, here’s an opportunity. We’re already really good at it. How do we become great at it?’ He’s moving toward that in a very jovial, easy-going manner. He’s a huge driver.“

Another trustee, Sara Byers, president of Leonardo’s Pizza and chair of the Vermont Business Roundtable, said Hernandez is “someone who combines the heart and the mind. He does it in a way that inspires those around him to do better and be better. He is a genuine listener. He carries a tremendous amount of authenticity. He is really passionate about making our community and the world a better place.“

Byers enjoys watching Hernandez play pick-up ball with the students.

“He does that because connection with the students truly lights him up,“ she said. “That is what inspires him. It’s about the students and ensuring their success. And what better way to lead that effort than by truly engaging with the students themselves?“

Byers said Hernandez is such a perfect fit that it feels as though he has been with Champlain College forever.

“It’s staggering to me that he has been with us such a short time,“ she said. “That’s because he already has pretty deep relationships in the community that have enabled some amazing partnerships. At least once a week, someone mentions Alex when they hear about my affiliation with Champlain College. They mention Alex with excitement, reverence and all of the things we all feel from him: this magic that he’s been able to harness in such a short period of time.

“Last year,“ Byers added, “we had our best fundraising year in the history of the college,“ she said. “That has to be, in part, a reflection of Alex’s leadership and the way that he has been able to harness all of the wonderful things that are happening, led by the faculty and staff of Champlain. Similarly, he continues to expand our partnership with employers. Our partnership with Hula is a great example of that. To me, Alex has really been able to amplify the power that existed at Champlain to make a difference in these students’ lives.“

Kevin Chu, executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, a nonprofit that provides data and recommendations for economic planning, recalled meeting Hernandez for the first time at an event sponsored by the Vermont Professionals of Color Network. The two have since worked together on the role Champlain can play in contributing to Vermont’s future.

“I really admire the way that Alex can connect the work that’s happening at Champlain College, not only to the community around the school and in the Burlington area and in Vermont, but also to a broader regional and global context,“ Chu said. “He brings that unique perspective to his leadership position, having worked in the private sector and also in education. He sees the intersection and the connection between the two.“

Chu, like Asch, enjoys seeing the way Hernandez interacts with students.

“I attended the convocation ceremony to welcome the first-year students,“ Chu said. “I was named the Champlain College Distinguished Citizen of the Year. It was a formal event. Yet earlier in the day, Alex was walking around campus helping new students and their parents move in. He had on a T-shirt, and he was carrying chairs and furniture and welcoming people into the community. He’s not the type of person to only show up in a suit and sit behind a table. He wants to be on the same side of the table as the students, to understand their experiences and to be there with them.“

The most interesting aspect of Hernandez’s leadership, Chu said, was the way he so quickly connected with leaders in Burlington.

“He developed community partnerships with key organizations,“ Chu said. “It creates much easier pathways for students to transition from higher ed into the workforce. It helps them build professional networks and connections beyond the campus. For example, he showed up to a conversation at the YMCA. It was a group of community leaders, and he wanted to be in the room to listen and understand what the community needs are. Then he thinks about how he can bring Champlain College into these conversations. How can the school be a force for good and positive change? That wasn’t a conversation he needed to be in. That’s not part of his job description at Champlain College. But he cares enough to show up and to listen and be humble and try to figure out how to work together.“

For example, Hernandez quickly connected with Hulu’s Scully, who also serves as a Champlain trustee. Hula is a neighbor of Champlain in the South End.

“Right after I joined the board, I understood that Champlain was going through a leadership change, and that they were doing a national search for a new president,“ Scully said. “And I could tell from a lot of the people who had been on the board for a long time, who’d been through a couple of different leadership changes, that they were really excited about this candidate. So I was excited to meet him. And I saw right away that Alex is outstanding. He is exactly what we’re looking for. He has all the qualifications that make him a great leader. He’s also incredibly passionate about education and entrepreneurialism. This is going to be the fresh breath that Champlain College is really looking for.“

 

Early Life

Hernandez’s father started life as a farm laborer and eventually became a teacher of English as a Second Language in Stockton, California. He was a champion of social justice.

“My father grew up on the border of Mexico, and eventually settled down in Stockton,“ Hernandez said. “He was a socially minded person growing up. He grew up in the ’60s. As a child, I remember he would stand in front of the mirror on a weekend morning and give great speeches from different figures in history, both in English and Spanish. So I kind of grew up with the sense of being conscious of giving back, the importance of community, and his own kind of leadership.“

Hernandez’s father was a farm worker all the way through high school, and worked on issues that were important to Mexican Americans.

“He was very active with the farmworkers’ movement and worked with Cesar Chavez,“ Hernandez said. “He started the first Mexican-American Student Association in Stockton, so he was part of history there.“

Hernandez’s father had dropped out of college his first year, but returned through a special program for teachers; he then became a teacher himself.

“The idea of career-focused education programs were very important for my father, as they were for me,“ Hernandez said. “They allowed him to become a public school educator, and he worked in public schools for something like 35 years as a teacher, an administrator and as a guidance counselor.“

Hernandez’s mother was born in the Philippines in the midst World War II, during the Japanese occupation.

“Her father was Filipino, so my grandfather was Filipino,“ Hernandez said. “Her mother was from the U.S. My mother came back to the U.S. and landed in Stockton. She learned to speak Spanish and French and became a foreign language teacher in high school. So she spent most of her career in education as well.“

The couple met teaching English to Spanish-speaking students, which helped them get college educations.

“This theme of how do you unlock opportunities for people?“ Hernandez said. “That’s present both my parents’ personal stories and how they chose to spend their lives.“

He likes to tell the story about walking with his father through one of Stockton’s shopping malls.

“It was just a constant stream of people approaching my dad, thanking him for some impact he had on them,“ Hernandez said. “Sometimes they were in school. Sometimes they were decades out. But it really gave me a sense of the impact educators can have on people. My father also taught me that if I worked hard enough, anything was possible. That was part of the immigrant mentality that we had as a family. It gave me the motivation that there were things in life worth doing, and hard work was the key to unlocking some of that.“

As a kid, Hernandez worked a paper route, but in high school he began training as a substance-abuse counselor.

“It was an area that I was passionate about at the time,“ he said. “Candidly, there was a lot of need in my community. This was during the late ’80s and early ’90s, where substance abuse and criminal activity from substance abuse were very prominent, not just in my community but all up and down California.“

Hernandez attended Claremont McKenna College, a liberal arts school about 30 miles east of Los Angeles.

“My college was about a third the size of my high school,“ he said. “So it was a very different experience. And my major was politics, philosophy and economics.“

Hernandez was a football player in both high school and college.

“I was pretty successful as a placekicker in high school, and in college I had a good first year,“ he said. “During my sophomore and junior years, I probably had the worst seasons that you could possibly have, and I did not deal with adversity well. What you learn from failure, I think, is how to deal with adversity and pick yourself back up. Really quite simply, just keep showing up. Just keep picking yourself back up and showing up.“

Public service was his eventual goal.

“I was really interested in how to create opportunity for people,“ he said. “My high school had about 900 freshmen and 330 graduating seniors. You could walk up and down the hallways and know that a lot of people weren’t going to make it. My belief was that my community was filled with extraordinary and talented individuals who didn’t always get the opportunities that others received. That was a big motivating thing for me.“

Photo: Alejandro Hernandez with his family. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

 

The Financial World

For someone so fixated on education, Hernandez’s first job was on Wall Street.

“I knew I wanted to work in education, but actually didn’t know anything about the world I’d be sending students out into,“ he said. “Growing up, I didn’t really know anyone in business. Everyone I knew either had a good government job or was an hourly worker. I wanted to learn about the world.“

Hernandez took a job with J.P. Morgan.

“My dad’s first job was working in the fields,“ Hernandez said. “My first job was on Wall Street, which was a pretty extraordinary leap for our family.“

Hernandez worked at Morgan for three years; then he went to Stanford University, where he earned advanced degrees in education and business.

“I told them I wanted to become a high school teacher,“ he said. “No one believed me, but it truly was what I wanted to do.“

When he graduated Stanford, in 2001, it was just after the dot-com crash.

“I had watched technology completely change the entertainment industry when I worked for J. P. Morgan,“ he said. “And I had a belief that education would be changed by technology the same way. I didn’t think it was going to happen for something like 50 years, because education tends to change a little more slowly than the media industry, but that was the idea. When I graduated, the Walt Disney Co. was starting a venture capital firm, and I took a job with them.“

 

Education Beckons

After a few years with Disney, Hernandez decided that if he did not transition to education then, he would never make the change.

“So I quit my job and became a high school math teacher in South Los Angeles,“ Hernandez said, noting that the move meant taking a significant pay cut.

“My parents were furious at me,“ he said. “None of my friends really understood what I was doing. But I had this really clear vision that I wanted to be in education. I wanted to be someone who knew and appreciated how to serve students in a classroom, not just from an office. It was important for me to teach. Even to this day, I still find time to teach.“

Hernandez’s father has changed his opinion of his son’s career trajectory now that he is president of a college.

“He’s not upset anymore,“ Hernandez said. “My father’s very proud. I’ve always had a close relationship with him. And I feel really grateful to him. Everything that I have is because of the sacrifices he made early on. My journey was a lot easier because of him. And I know that my kids’ journeys are a lot easier because of the opportunities I have had. This multigenerational view of opportunity and progress is something that’s really important to my family. It’s also something that I see in our students and their families here at Champlain College.“

By this time, Hernandez was married and the father of twin sons. The boys recently started college themselves, which gives Hernandez the unique perspective of being a college president as well as a first-year college parent. It makes him more empathetic, he said.

With children in the mix and Hernandez needing a larger salary, he accepted an administrator position in the Portland (Oregon) Public Schools. From there, he moved to being an area superintendent for Aspire Public Schools in Oakland, California.

Hernandez’s next job was with the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit philanthropic venture capital fund based in Broomfield, Colorado.

“My job was to support schools that were helping increase the number of first-year, low-income and first-generation students going to college,“ Hernandez said. “I had a particular specialty in supporting schools that were trying innovative new models. In some cases, that meant things like Montessori. In some cases, that meant using technology differently. In some cases, it was thinking about how school can be done differently.“

 

Cybersecurity

As the whole world wanders onto the internet, almost nothing is more important than cybersecurity, which protects us from everything from Nigerian prince scammers to Russian operatives trying to control our elections.

Cybersecurity (protecting a system from attack) and digital forensics (figuring out who attacked the system in the first place) make up one of Champlain’s five largest majors. Forbes Magazine rated the school as having the best masters degree in cybersecurity online. And now it is training officers in the Secret Service.

“We’re really fortunate that about a decade ago, we got a lot of support from former US Senator Patrick Leahy to start the Leahy Center for Digital Forensics and Cybersecurity,“ Hernandez said. “We believe we have a nationally-recognized program among employers. And there is a huge need. Globally, it is one of the top issues. So we really want to go big on cybersecurity.“

Hernandez called the Leahy Center “One of the coolest examples of workforce development in the country.“

At any given moment, Champlain students on paid internships are practicing how to defend the networks of local businesses and nonprofits in Vermont. For another example, companies regularly send the school devices such as internet-enabled doorbells and refrigerator monitors.

“Our first-year students tear them apart and find vulnerabilities,“ Hernandez said. “Also, our local law enforcement agencies will have our students do digital investigations for them. So this is really a place where hundreds of students can get real-world applied learning that is really valued out in the world. And at the end of that, on average, students make between $60,000 to $70,000 in cybersecurity jobs coming out of school.“

Right now, college populations are 70 percent female, Hernandez said. But women make up only 30 percent of the people working in the field of cybersecurity. Hernandez has initiated a big push to draw more women in.

Photo: Hernandez networks with local alumni working at NuHarbor Security in Colchester, a current partner of Champlain College. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

Photo: Hernandez networks with local alumni working at NuHarbor Security in Colchester, a current partner of Champlain College. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

“I pledge to make Champlain College the best place in the world for women to study cybersecurity and digital forensics,“ he said. “I made it one of my priorities to take this on. We are doing more training at the Leahy Center and in our classrooms around how to support female students. Every opportunity we get, we want to increase the size of the community.“

Champlain students are given experience working with “cyber rages,“ digital simulations where they can simulate and practice what happens during a cybersecurity attack.

“The U.S. Secret Service could go anywhere for cyber rage,“ Hernandez said. “That they chose to partner with Champlain College is just a huge vote of confidence in our faculty and in our students. We are really excited and enthusiastic about being able to continue to prepare students for roles in cybersecurity, which has an unlimited demand.“

Champlain is currently partnering with NuHarbor Security in Colchester, a cybersecurity and risk management service.

“When I got here, they had about 120 employees, and they have a lot more now, and over half of them are Champlain College grads,“ Hernandez said.

 

Gaming

Champlain was the first four-year college in the country to offer a video game major.

“That was kind of heretical at the time,“ Hernandez said. “I think gaming was a $40 billion industry when we launched it. Now it’s a $230 billion or $240 billion industry. And many colleges around the country now offer gaming majors. So Champlain College was a real innovator around that.“

Gaming breaks down into seven different parts.

“We can put together a computer programmer and a sound engineer and an artist and a game designer,“ Hernandez said. “They come together across disciplines and build games over the course of four years. This a pragmatic, interdisciplinary approach. And it’s an approach that we try to take with some of our other majors, to give students these interdisciplinary practical experiences.“

 

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is a huge topic of conversation right now. Does it facilitate readership or steal intellectual property? Can actors’ physical reality be co-opted on the screen without their knowledge, participation or remuneration? (A big part of the recent actor’s contract strike.) Will people lose their jobs? Is it a blessing, a curse or both?

“During my commencement talk on the graduation stage last spring, I gave my students a talk about why AI should be afraid of them,“ Hernandez said. “I was flipping the script and basically saying, ’I actually think AI should be fearful of what our students have to contribute.’ I mentioned it a little tongue-in-cheek but historically, technology has helped people become more productive and do more things. In the media we often hear about AI being like the Terminator — something to be feared. I think AI is more like R2-D2 in Star Wars; it’s there to help us. It can be our

co-pilot and make us more productive.“

Hernandez said the most recent graduating class at Champlain was the first class going out into a world where AI will be part of their work every day.

“So we’re really thinking about what it looks like to incorporate AI in our classes and the way we prepare students,“ he said. “This is going to be a multi-decade effort. It’s not going to happen in just a single year. We have a couple of courses in AI now. But this stuff just happened. We have a professionally-focused group of faculty, most of them with industry experience, teaching majors that change very rapidly. So we have to continue to refresh our programs and our approach.“

 

Lakeside Entrepreneurship

Hernandez was not in Vermont long when he hooked up with Scully and neighboring Hula. He even taught a class there on entrepreneurship with Hula’s Rob Lair. Students had the opportunity to meet, lunch with and learn from “some of the most interesting entrepreneurs in Vermont,“ according to Hernandez

Students thrive when they can get experience with people working in the industries they’re interested in, Hernandez said.

“I remember one of the first alumni I met said, ’At my first class at Champlain, a professor brought in an outside speaker from a company. And the day I graduated, that was a company I went to work for,’“ he said. “Obviously, that’s not all our students’ experiences. But it’s actually not an uncommon story at Champlain. Just as in gaming, you create opportunities for interaction and these magical things happen.“

These kinds of interactions can be transformative for the students.

“And they’re transformative for our industry partners as well,“ Hernandez said. “When I arrived, it was clear that there was something extraordinary happening down at Hula, which is just down the street from our lakeside building. We were literally two blocks away from all the innovation that was happening.“

Photo: Hernandez hosts an entrepreneur class at Hula. Photo courtesy Champlain College

Hula helps incubate and launch new companies.

“They’re trying to launch for profit and nonprofit and all types of organizations,“ Hernandez said. “So I wanted us to have a closer relationship with them. We announced a partnership last fall. We have a full-time employee in Hula whose job is to create connections between Hula companies, our students and our faculty. As an example, one of the projects our marketing students are doing right now is a marketing plan for a company called Offshore Greens, which does seaweed-based products.“

At Hula, students can walk down the hallway and visit one new company after another.

“We really are at our best when we have these high degrees of collaboration,“ Hernandez said. “Given our proximity to each other, this just made all the sense in the world. We want to be the academic partner for all the innovation going on down at the South End.“

Scully is delighted with the connection.

“Not many schools can really pull that off,“ Scully said. “Maybe it’s the nimbleness of being a smaller school, or the focus on readiness for a career. The idea that they can work with companies and work with founders to really influence the curriculum says a lot for their commitment to readiness, and just how prepared students are to enter the workforce.“

 

Future

The future of Champlain, as for all colleges, depends on successful fundraising.

“We’re just getting started,“ Hernandez said. “And we’ve been fortunate to have continued the enthusiasm this year. But what we’re trying to do is figure out how to build an engine of opportunity for Vermont, where we’re partnering with the community, where we’re helping support key industries, and we’re helping the students to grow.“

Hernandez envisions a kind of “co-op model“ of education, modeled on Northeastern University in Boston, but in partnership with Hula.

“I want to be really clear that Champlain does not have a co-op model per se,“ Hernandez said. “Northeastern is very famous for its co-op model, where students spend five years in college and they’ll spend one whole year or one semester working at a job. At Champlain, our students have a ton of internships because of our upside down model. We’re looking at a model that will allow students to spend more time with employers going forward.“

Another part of Champlain’s partnership with Hula will be in the construction field.

“We are expanding our Lakeside campus in Burlington’s South End,“ Hernandez said.

It took Scully and his partners two years to get the South End rezoned as an “innovation district“ for a blend of apartments, offices and classrooms.

“It’s all very new stuff,“ Scully said. “We wanted to change the zoning in the area around Hula because we own that large parking lot across the street. It’s a six-acre parking lot site that at the time was not zoned for residential development.“

Bordering the other end of that parking lot is Champlain College, including the Leahy Center. It was inevitable that Hernandez would get involved in the project.

Scully recently received the zoning change.

“Once that happened, it green-lit a lot of our thinking and planning around sort of the next phase of the Hula development,“ he said. “That is to create this co-op model with Champlain College and the University of Vermont.“

Hula has since been in negotiations with developers.

“We’ve been talking to a number of developers who are very interested in partnering with us on the opportunity to create 100 to 1,000 units,“ Scully said. “At the moment, approximately 20 percent of those will be inclusionary, or affordable housing. We’re also committed, obviously, to creating a large supply of what we’re calling workforce housing.“

This is very long-range planning, Scully said. It might not be completed for years; it might look completely different when it is finished.

“It’s planning around what we could do in terms of potential student housing in the future,“ Scully said. “It could be housing for upperclassmen who are taking classes in that part of campus. We could create an ecosystem where upperclassmen are living in the same neighborhood as our startup community. And because the startup community, obviously, is looking for workforce and workforce training, and the students are looking for career opportunities, bringing those two parties together in the same neighborhood is really what the South End Innovation District is all about.“

Hernandez wants to make Champlain College the national leader for career-focused learning.

“One reason our students graduate ready is because of the experiences they get with industry partners like Hula,“ Hernandez said. “We are deepening our employer partnerships. We are connecting students to all the innovation and entrepreneurship happening in the South End and across Vermont. They can participate in those life-changing projects and internships from the moment they step foot on campus.“

Champlain plans to double the size of the Leahy Center.

“The Leahy Center is one of the best examples of workforce development in the country,“ Hernandez said. “We’ll complete that project in early 2025.“

Champlain College has a long history of reinventing itself, Hernandez said.

“Forces are pushing colleges like ours to do more to help students adapt to a fast-changing world,“ he said. “We are entering a creative phase both at our Burlington campus and through Champlain College Online, where we are launching new programs and creating new learning models. Our Burlington campus launched Animation this fall. Next fall we will launch a Digital Humanities major. Digital Humanities students learn skills to tackle social issues and tell human stories in a digital age. We are also designing a cutting-edge biotech program that has us thinking differently about our entire approach to education.“

Champlain should be “an engine of opportunity for Vermont,“ Hernandez said.

“We have an important role in bringing talent to Vermont,“ he said. “We want to support important industries across the state. The other day, I was standing with two business leaders and one said, ’My best employee is from Champlain College.’ The other one looked up and said, ’Yeah, me too.’ It was a great example of our relationship with the Vermont community. I believe we can reach our aspirations by leading with compassion, authenticity and boldness.“

Hernandez hosts an entrepreneur class at Hula.   Photo courtesy Champlain College

Photo: Hernandez with Champlain College employees. Photo courtesy Champlain College.

 

Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017, she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.

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