Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera was months into the COVID-19 pandemic when he announced that he was leaving his public-facing role to become the next president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
Shortly after joining the school, it was announced that Rivera would also be working as part of President-Elect Biden’s transition team—a role that he will do in tandem alongside his work leading Thaddeus Stevens.
While the new Thaddeus Stevens president could not yet share details of his work within the team, he said that it will not affect his work at the Lancaster college.
“What has been public is that the President-elect has been focused on bringing practitioners into his transition team,” he said. “What I do here compliments that transition.”
When Rivera decided that he wanted to pursue the president position at Thaddeus Stevens, it was his team’s capable handling of the pandemic that proved to him that the state’s education department would be in good hands.
The early months of the pandemic were the culmination of five years of Rivera’s experiences as Secretary of Education as he and his team prepared schools to fight food insecurity during the quarantine and prepare to reopen in August.
The former school teacher, superintendent and principal, said his years of leadership taught him that during a crisis, just because you are the leader of the organization does not mean you are the best person to lead the response.
“High performing leaders know that when you are in a crisis situation, because you are the CEO or president doesn’t dictate you should be in charge,” he said. “When you are in a crisis, the person in charge should be the person that is most knowledgeable to address that crisis.”
During the crisis, Rivera allowed his team to work unrestricted, while he served as a conduit and cheerleader when needed. It was at this time that he came across the job opening at the state-owned college with more than 1,300 students.
Rivera, a resident of Lancaster and well acquainted with the college, said the position immediately spoke to him because of Thaddeus Stevens’ history of providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
“I wasn’t looking to leave the Commonwealth at any level but what I realized when this position became available was that it checked a lot of boxes both personally and professionally for me,” Rivera said.
For Rivera, his leadership team’s handling of the pandemic proved that they would be able to efficiently fill the vacated position that he would create by leaving.
“If you aren’t preparing to have that next generation of leader to step up and fill your role, you can’t consider yourself an effective leader,” He said. “If you are not surrounding yourself with the people that share the same passions and commitments that you do, you may want to calibrate what your goals are.”
As Secretary of Education, Rivera led the charge for the state’s schools to lessen their reliance on standardized tests and focus on teaching and learning. In recent years he has sought to improve educational equity for all students.
Thaddeus Stevens, a residential, two-year technical college, offers 24 high-skill programs such as carpentry technology and computer integrated machining. In more than a century of operation, the school has become a leader in providing opportunities for underrepresented and underserved members of the community, he said.
Rivera became the college’s 10th president on Oct. 1 after being appointed to the position by the school’s Board of Trustees in August.
“Secretary Rivera is a demonstrable leader with nationally recognized experience to lead the College through these very challenging times for higher education,” Maryann Marotta, Chair of the Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology Board of Trustees, said days before Rivera took the position. “His experience in education, leadership, and governmental policy align with the needs of the institution, and his strength and drive will serve to advance the mission of the College throughout the Commonwealth.”
Rivera’s new position gives him a chance to focus on providing educational opportunities for all kinds of students at a smaller, personal level. He noted that while improving the educational environment for students can be done both in the public and private sectors, he was ready to translate what he had done with the Department of Education to a more intimate scale.
“It’s a different modality of leadership,” he said. “I’m in a place in my life no where I wanted to take a step into a different arena to engage with practitioners.”
Since joining the school last month, Rivera swiftly began continuing Thaddeus Stevens’ relationship with the business community. For years the school has kept close ties with midstate businesses, getting most of its students jobs a semester or earlier before graduating.
Area businesses communicate with the college about their employment needs and the school can tell the business how many students with that skill that they have in the pipeline. Rivera said that this relationship makes it easy for the school to pinpoint how quickly a student can have a return on their investment.
“You always hear that education is about helping people find jobs and that they will contribute to their communities,” he said. “So often that idea is abstract. It’s not abstract here. It’s specifically working with our industry partners to identify the need and create an educated student population that can go meet that need.”