U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, left, RCSJ graduates Jesus Calixto and Miriam Craig-Venti.

Two Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) grads, Miriam Craig-Venti and Jesus Calixto recently participated in a roundtable discussion regarding college affordability that included the United States Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Also in attendance were local leaders and dignitaries that included Congressman Donald Norcross, RCSJ President Frederick J. Keating, Rowan University President Ali A. Houshmand and Gloucester County Commissioner Director Robert Damminger.

The special event took place at RCSJ’s Nursing and Allied Health Center located on the Gloucester campus on July 16.

Secretary Cardona hailed the partnership between RCSJ and Rowan University, in addition to recognizing the remarkable achievements of the two student representatives.

“I’m glad to be here and I’m glad to start my day visiting students in action, learning by doing, which is the best way,” Cardona said. “They’re getting the skills to join the workforce to fulfill their life’s purpose. And that’s what this is about.”

Craig-Venti and Calixto were invited to share stories of their own personal successes while attending community college. They also spoke on behalf of the RCSJ student body in an effort to raise awareness about the value and importance of college being affordable to all.

“I was eligible for up to $30,000 for tuition and books,” said Craig-Venti, who, after being let go from her accounting job, accepted aid through the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program — a federal program established under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2015.

“I determined that by attending community college at RCSJ’s Gloucester campus, not only could I complete the core classes necessary for my associate degree, but many of the classes were part of a four-year degree program at Wilmington University, and were easily transferable,” explained Craig-Venti, who is currently immersed in an accelerated academic plan.

“At Cumberland, we have a program called CB2R (Cumberland Bridge 2 Rowan). It’s a grant for biomedical science students,” said Calixto, who also received financial assistance via the Educational Opportunity Fund, as well as a couple of well-earned scholarships. “I had the amazing opportunity to do undergrad research at Cumberland at the associate level. Now, I’m transferring to Rowan University, and I’ll be doing undergrad research over there too.”

For Craig-Venti and Calixto, both participants in RCSJ’s Parade of Graduates ceremony that took place earlier this spring, the experience of conversing with Cardona, Keating and the rest of the dynamic panel was incredible.

“I was beside myself,” said Calixto, who is on a mission to make a positive contribution to the advancement of stem cell and regenerative research. “I very much enjoyed hearing Secretary Cardona say that the format that RCSJ and Rowan University established was a ‘hidden gem’ that had to be known about.”

“I must admit, at first, it felt a little intimidating,” Craig-Venti confessed. “Then the feeling changed to excitement! I couldn’t wait to share my experience with everyone.”

The students did not take this unique opportunity to represent RCSJ in front of college presidents and well-known political leaders for granted.

“I felt proud to be a representative for my fellow RCSJ students and graduates because I take my education seriously,” said Craig-Venti. “I am sure they would agree with me that RCSJ has given them the launching pad they needed to get their higher education rolling without the additional mental stress of an overwhelming student loan responsibility.”

Valuable lessons were learned by all who were in attendance, especially by the two RCSJ ambassadors.

“I learned how much the education process means to President Keating and President Houshmand,” said Craig-Venti, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter. “Hearing about the strategies they worked on before, during, and while planning for (circumstances that may arise) beyond the pandemic was impressive. The most impressive vision I heard Dr. Keating mention was the possibility of future housing on the community college campus.”

“Our actions are loud and the noise we’re making is being heard,” Calixto said. “Ergo, it is our responsibility to continue working hard, and to be even louder.”

For more information about RCSJ’s wide array of programs, visit RCSJ.edu.