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This article continues a series profiling winners of the 2013 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented April 22 at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention.
Being dedicated, working hard and staying positive.
That’s what leadership means to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents Florida’s 18th congressional district. This philosophy has served her well during more than 30 years as a legislator at the state and national levels.
Best known as the first Hispanic woman elected to Florida's legislature and to Congress, Ros-Lehtinen has been a steadfast advocate for education and equal rights. Throughout her endeavors, she believes that remaining positive—despite any obstacles she may have faced—has been the lynchpin to her success.
“It is extremely important to stay positive and not think of everything that could go wrong,” she said. “Instead, think of everything that can go right.”
Seeking a better future
Ros-Lehtinen’s family fled from Havana, Cuba, and the communist regime of Fidel Castro, when she was 8 years old. The family settled in Miami, where she was educated and began her professional career.
A key chapter in her education was enrolling at Miami Dade College (MDC), where both her father and brother also earned degrees. In 1972, Ros-Lehtinen graduated from MDC with an associate degree.
“On that day, I was blessed to have my parents, Enrique and Amanda Ros, and the rest of my family there. The joy and pride expressed on their faces is something I shall never forget,” she said.
Ros-Lehtinen then earned a bachelor’s and master's degree in education from Florida International University and a doctorate in education from the University of Miami.
Education to advocate
A strong believer in the power of education, Ros-Lehtinen founded and served as principal and teacher at Eastern Academy, a private bilingual elementary school in Hialeah, Fla. She said her father, as well as many of the parents and students at the school, inspired her to enter public service to fight on the community’s behalf for a stronger educational system, lower taxes and a brighter economic future. She has continued to champion these causes and encourage others to pursue higher education.
When Ros-Lehtinen visited MDC in 2009 to speak to high school students about the importance of higher education, she began her remarks by telling them, “all of you here today have one thing in common: Potential. Attending college is a great first step to achieving that potential.”
“I know you all can do it because I did,” she added.
A focus on family, education
In 1982, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the Florida House of Representatives and four years later to the Florida Senate. In the state legislature, she authored the Florida Prepaid College Plan, which is now the largest prepaid college tuition program in the country. More than a million Florida families have used the program to send their children to college.
In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she has championed causes that affect women, children and families. Given her background in education, she has also worked in Congress to strengthen the Head Start program and has also supported legislation to increase student financial aid and to streamline the student aid application process.
In addition, as the wife of a Vietnam veteran and step-mother to Marine aviators, Ros-Lehtinen is passionate about improving our nation’s military, safeguarding veterans' health care and ensuring that returning veterans have access to a college education.
The role of two-year colleges
Ros-Lehtinen appreciates how vital community colleges are in ensuring that all students have access to higher education.
“Already enrolling almost half of America’s undergraduates, community colleges clearly have a major role to play in our country’s future,” she said. “In an economic environment where some form of higher education is increasingly necessary to compete, community colleges are being recognized as a path to entering the workforce without overwhelming debt.”
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