Town and Gown

Christopher Reber is putting the community in community college

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Nearly a year after taking over as president of Hudson County Community College, Christopher Reber is still settling into the new job. He has an office, but he’s rarely in it.

“I’m out meeting people in the community,” he says. “This is a work in progress.” By this he means his role in steering the college in the direction his predecessor started.

“I spent a very large amount of my first six months listening to people,” he says. He listened to every sector of the community including students, alumni, and professors, discovering how the college is perceived in the community, and how the college can help the community.

Reber was named president of HCCC in May 2018, replacing Dr. Glenn Gabert, who had been president for the previous 25 years.

Reber didn’t just inhabit his predecessor’s job, he inhabited his house. “When I came here, I needed a house, and that was on the market,” Reber says.

Reber once had ambitions to become president, not of a college, but of the United States. This is partly the reason he studied political science as an undergrad at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He envisioned a law career and then politics.

He was later inspired to help kids to launch their own careers, serving as president of the Community College of Beaver County in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh.

Not the Oval Office, but …

His day begins early, often at 5 a.m. While still in pajamas, he starts work at home. “I catch up on email, and I know who is up early like I am,” he says. “I read publications, including a number of daily publications and look for stories that speak to issues related to the college. I like to keep up on the national issues.”

Then he hits Route 7 into Jersey City from Kearny. While his house is only 6.5 miles from his office, it’s often an hour-long gridlock nightmare that gives him insight into the urban experience.

Once on the Journal Square campus—there is also a West New York campus—his day consists of a series of meetings or planning sessions with citizen groups or others. “I keep informed by listening,” he says.

Going the Distance

One goal is to ensure that the college reflects the diversity of the community. Hudson County students have different issues than those at his previous college.

“Eighty-seven percent of our students are nonwhite,” Reber says. “Fifty-six percent are Latino. Thirty-three percent are special needs.” A huge number are first-generation college students. “This is their way of reaching for the American Dream,” Reber says.

Some 80 percent need financial aid. “Most of the students who come to us come from families with modest finances,” Reber says. “Some are very challenged.”

When Reber meets with people, top of mind is bringing the resources of the community to help his students, most of whom are looking at HCCC as a pathway to a career. Reber sees his role as helping them achieve that goal. A first step? Completing college.

Partners in Pedagogy

Reaching out to the community means meeting with business leaders and joining organizations, such as the Journal Square Association and the New Jersey Council on County Colleges. He networks with other colleges and universities throughout the state and region, and recently led a delegation of HCCC students to Washington, DC for an event there.

For some students, HCCC is a launching pad to a four-year college. For others it’s a place to gain job skills.

“I’m constantly looking to develop partnerships that will help bring more resources to our students,” Reber says, pointing to recent agreements with Montclair State University for culinary arts, and Ramapo College for seamless transition of college credits. An agreement with Eastern Millwork in Jersey City opened the door for students to become apprentices.

A partnership with the Hudson County Schools of Technology allows students to take college-level classes before they graduate. Currently, HCCC offers college-level classes at high schools in Kearny, Union City, Harrison, and Bayonne and will provide classes at the new High Tech High School in Secaucus. Online courses are also available.

Known for its culinary institute, HCCC is looking to expand its programs in other areas, such as STEM studies and nursing.

Although he isn’t planning to leave any time soon, Reber says he wants to leave the college in as good a shape as he found it, maybe better. In the end, it’s all about the students.

He says, “My job is to make this place suit their needs.”—JCM