Dr. Félix V. Matos Rodríguez has spent the last two decades as a scholar, social scientist, educator and administrator in higher education. This fall, he is entering his next journey as president of Queens College of The City University of New York (CUNY).
Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Rodríguez’s middle-class family placed a high emphasis on education.
“This is a family that put all the eggs in education, with education being the avenue for social mobility, prosperity and advancement,” says Rodríguez.
His parents were the first in their families to attend college. His father became an engineer; his mother was trained to be a high school Spanish teacher but stayed home to raise Rodríguez and his two brothers.
“Most of the money my dad made went to pay for very good parochial schools, hoping that we would go to a good university,” he says.
And that he did.
Rodríguez attended Yale University for Latin American studies. The interdisciplinary major allowed him to become knowledgeable in a range of subjects from literature to economics to sociology, in an effort to obtain a broad liberal arts education. Further, he wanted to ensure that, wherever he went in life, his roots followed.
“I have a love affair with the Caribbean, and I wanted to know more about it, and I wanted my professional life to be part of letting others know about it, too,” he says.
In addition to studying under faculty whom he deemed intellectual giants, Rodríguez found comfort during his time at Yale by socializing in ethnic circles.
“I was active in the different minority group organizations, and there was a sense of community, bonding and fellowship, which was important to sustain me,” he says.
After graduating from Yale, Rodríguez studied history at Columbia and received his Ph.D. in 1994.
His professional career has combined his scholarship with social policy, advocacy and change. Rodríguez served as a program officer at the Social Science Research Council in New York City; head adviser on health and social welfare to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; secretary of the Department of Family Services for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico; tenured professor at Hunter College of CUNY; and has held visiting and adjunct teaching positions at Yale, Boston College and La Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico Recinto Metro, among others.
“My liberal arts education provided me with the skills to excel at these different things, and I think it’s important (to say that) now when people question the value of a liberal arts education,” he says.
The traditions of Rodríguez’s family and respect for grassroots organizing have made volunteerism a strong component of his life.
“My parents were very active, volunteering and giving back as the Boy Scout troop leader, den mother, Little League coach or people organizing the events at school. So all my life I’ve seen that serving others is a way to have a purpose in life and help the world be a better place,” he says. “I also believe that nonprofit organizations provide such valuable services, and they do it in a more efficient and cheaper way. So anything that I can do to be part of boards, help run events, fundraise and volunteer to work with youth is music to my ears.”
Rodríguez has dedicated a portion of his service to continuing the advancement of graduating Hispanic students. While he is proud to see a positive trend over the past few decades, the efforts must continue, he insists.
As a board member of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and through involvement in the nonprofit Excelencia in Education, Rodríguez assists in getting more Hispanics into college and holding institutions accountable for being responsive to those students.
In his most recent position as president of Eugenio María de Hostos Community College of CUNY, an office he held since 2009, Rodríguez has served a student body that is nearly 60 percent Hispanic.
One of his proudest accomplishments at Hostos is establishing the Student Success Coaching Unit, in which every first-time freshman is assigned a coach who navigates them through identifying and addressing their needs, interests, academic requirements and goals up until graduation. The $3 million initiative has assisted approximately 1,600 Hostos students since August 2012.
Moving forward, Rodríguez plans to use his experience to build on the needs of both students and staff at Queens College, while continuing to showcase the school’s strengths.
“Queens is one of the best investments that either a student or their parent can make in higher education; it’s extremely affordable with some of the best faculty that you can find in the area,” he says. Personally, Rodríguez hopes to be a role model for Hispanic youth across the country, including his two sons.
“I’m a proud father, and I want to make sure that they live in a world that’s more equitable and has more opportunities,” he says. “And I see my role as being part of (creating) that world for them and others.”