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Interview with New Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. A.J. Trump

by: Justin Diaz

What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in education?

I started my college career at Seton Hall University and during my time there, I pledged to a fraternity and one of the older brothers was offering jobs to some of the younger ones, like real world experience. He needed help. He was working at a latchkey program in Jersey City at Saint Ann’s. He needed substitute teachers and people to help keep the kids busy with activities after school because they didn’t have daycare. The parents couldn’t afford that and so I volunteered, and it was one of my first jobs. I found it extremely rewarding, and I was a physics major at the time. I thought to myself, I really like physics but I see this niche for me where I also really enjoy education, where I can make a difference. That sparked my interest. I started substitute teaching there and then eventually, I transferred to the College of New Jersey and pursued a physics degree with a concentration in secondary education. My first job was a high school physics teacher. My dad was a teacher. He taught in the vocational schools in Hudson County and my grandmother was also very involved in education in her life, so it was always something that was in my family.  It was always something that was near and dear to my heart.   coached my whole life. I saw the parallels there, so it was just something that resonated with me.

JD : What sport did you coach?

AT: Soccer mostly.

JD : You had experience playing soccer ?

AT : Oh yeah. I played, I coached. I coach all different ages from very young like four or five year olds to college.

JD : How would this experience in education help you in having a higher leadership position? 

My growth, I think, was in student affairs. I started out as a physics teacher. I did it for four years. I built an AP program, the first AP program at Brick Memorial High School in Brick NJ. I had two cohorts of students go through and by the time the second cohort went through, they were doing amazing things. They all got fours and fives on the AP exam. They were excited and then I started to really think, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? You know, just keep teaching physics and repeating the same cycle. I started to consider if administration is something that I might want to do. While I was teaching, I was also coaching at Ocean County College and I actually fell in love with the community college because of the students there.

What attracted you to being a part of a community college?

The students did. My wife went to community college. She told me what a great experience that was for her. I worked for Ocean County Parks and Recreation so I was always involved in the county and when the opportunity to work at the county college came up, I jumped at it and then I just absolutely fell in love with the students, with the mission, the open access, the (idea of) let’s make a better life, the faculty, the teaching, it really being about the students and developing the students, not so much about research and all these big things. That’s what I really fell in love with community college. It was that it provided opportunity to everyone and the faculty. The staff really care about each student achieving their goals. It was always about the students.

Your roots are very much in Ocean County so what was your relation to Bergen Community College or knowledge about it prior to this position?

I have family that live in Bergen County and of course being a community college advocate,  I helped some of them such as my cousins. I guess you could say, with making a decision to go to Bergen. Community College is the best way to start. I believe that for all students, I mean almost everybody, it’s the smartest route to go, get yourself debt free for two years. It transfers with the Lampitt Law and then you can go to any four-year state schools. From an athletic perspective, you play your freshman,sophomore year and you transfer and play your junior and senior year. It’s how you get to make those progressive steps, going to university right off the bat like I did at Seton Hall and just kind of finding a way and then you end up with you know $70,000 in loans, then you end up graduating from another school like College of New Jersey. I should have started at the community college. I wouldn’t have had any debt and I would have had the same degree from the College of New Jersey rather than doing that 2 1/2 years. I always would tell that story when I was in admissions. I was a recruiter, so I tell that story about how the first two years were really your Gen Ed and it’s the same anywhere you go and with the Lampitt Law, it just makes so much sense now.

 So you coached women’s soccer. What are some of the accomplishments that you saw overseeing the women’s soccer program?

eleven out of the 12 years I was the coach. We were in the region finals. I think we went to nationals four or five times. We finished second in the country, fifth in the country, and third in the country. I’ve had multiple All-Americans play that played for me and it was some of the best times. We had an academic team of the year. I had Academic All-Americans. 

What direction would you like to take the athletics program at BCC?

I’ve had a lot of conversations already about this to take the Bergen athletics program, the Bulldog program here, to the next level, to get the support that it needs, to flourish on the fields, in the classroom. We want our student athletes doing really well in the classroom. We want them to develop soft skills. Athletics is really a part of developing the students. First and foremost, it’s about making a person a better person, teaching them hard work, determination, competitiveness, being a good sport, time management. There are so many skills you learn, so all of those things come first, and then winning comes as a result of doing those things. If we put those things in place and we promote the program, we promote the teams appropriately, and we get them good, we go out and we recruit some of the talent here. There’s tremendous talent in Bergen County. 

So what will be your first step? You talked about recruiting, improving the facilities, getting more workers.

So step one, honestly, we’re gonna start surveying the student athletes. We’re doing that before the end of the semester to talk about their experience, what do they think of their facilities, how do they feel about the level that they’re being promoted at, would they recommend Bergen were they recruited or did they just join the team because they came here and we’ll find out were they happy with athletic and training services, was there enough equipment that met their needs and we’ll take a really good hard look from the student perspective of what their experience was, what do they need. What I’m going to do is to work with the managing director of athletics, Jorge (Hernandez), to fill those needs.

What made you decide to start over, essentially be the new person and take time to transition to a new position, a new group of individuals to work with and serve?

It needed to be a step up for me. I was an executive director, now I’m a vice president so I’ve grown professionally. I’m in a position where I’m feeling very satisfied, challenged, but also supported just the right amount that I feel like I’m really making a difference. That was number one and number two, was that if I was going to leave, I had to feel like I was joining a team of people I could work with in a place that was moving forward, and throughout the entire interview process at my first three weeks here, I feel like Bergen is poised right now with leadership, with the faculty, with the deans, with the students to really make some great strides to come back from this pandemic strong and to do amazing things for students. I’m just thrilled to ‌be a part of that. 

What is on your agenda that you believe could benefit all students. 

 I actually have students as a part of my strategic enrollment management committee and I’m going to be including them in some of the meetings moving forward in the future. When we develop take a hard look at the process of enrolling here and becoming a student, I really want their feedback. I think a student will say, yes, the fewer steps and the easier it is for me to get into the classes. I mean, I don’t think I’ve known a student that’s been like, yes,  I need more steps and I wanted to take longer for me to become a student so I think that’s something we can definitely all agree on, removing barriers. I think doing things administratively such as registering for classes, taking classes, changing the major, removing those barriers is something all students want. Implementing technology that’s user-friendly that makes the student be able to do things more on their own. I think it’s something that we always hear is something that students want. I mean, those are just some ideas. 

Our institution is a Hispanic Serving Institute. This means that more than a third of our students are Hispanic. What resources do you believe this institution can provide to increase enrollment of students of Hispanic descent and what resources can we improve or provide for Hispanic students? 

I love that question. That was one of the things that excited me most when I applied for this position. Ocean County College was getting closer to being an HSI but we were not there. We were a couple percentage points away. That’s something that in my first few months, I’m going to really dig into deep. I know we get a lot of grant funds, being an HSI, I really want to see how they’re being spent, to make sure that they’re benefiting our Hispanic population in the ways that they’re intended, that would be the second thing. I think we need to find the pockets in Bergen County where we can really integrate and get into the Hispanic community, talk to them, and explain the value and the benefit of coming to an institution like Bergen that has all this support. That can really make a difference in those communities and bring people out there that have benefited from their time here and show that it works, so those are some ideas.

How would you ensure that students from all backgrounds have access to resources? Would you take a different approach for students of a specific background or do you take a broad approach in ensuring that all students know how to access these specific resources. 

I think you need to do both. I believe there needs to be an overarching plan for all students but if we identify through data right so there’s talk about delivering a basic needs survey. There’s a lot of students right now that may be living out of their cars, may be food insecure,may not have a house or place to sleep, might not have clothing, or money to buy clothe,s but they’re still coming to school because they believe in this dream. If through our survey and our data, we find out that there’s one group of students that are disproportionately impacted by one of these insecurities, of course, we’re going to go and we’re going market, and we’re going to talk more within certain group to try to get them what they need and be a little bit more proactive about it. 

One of the issues about student life is club information. How would students know about these club times? What are your suggested ideas?

I’m working with Greg (Fenkart) right now and Greg has just rolled out an app last year for student life. I suggested that he take a look and see what the capability of that app is. At Ocean, we had an online engagement app where club meetings were always posted on that. Students downloaded the app so all their classes were in there and their deadlines. It was a really great experience so I’m working with Greg Fenkart and student life to see if we are able to do that in the current app. If not, is it worth upgrading? There’s talk right now about Bergen coming more into the online realm. We have to be able to provide information in a virtual way where every single student carries a device and has access to a cell phone or can come to the technology lab or the library and access the computer here. So being able to post that stuff memorialize it, create a group now for this semester every Wednesday at which room and the room number. Some students are still a little bit hesitant to kind of get involved and be in groups so we’re proceeding cautiously but we’re gonna get there. 

What about an in-person approach?

We have bulletin boards, we can go around and talk to the students in first-year classes who are not 100% sure. We can have an information table right outside Student Life. I’ve seen them set up many times where we hand out info. We’ve talked about distributing student handbooks with information about clubs, organizations, and a map of this building for students to be able to navigate and find their classrooms.

So I wanted to address transportation.  One of the aspects of community college is commuting. How do you try to improve like the bus situation or transportation?

I want to hear from students and I think we should talk to students about these kinds of things. I heard in a meeting yesterday for the first time that most students take three buses to get here. That’s a conversation that we need help with our county, with New Jersey Transit, with the people in Bergen County. It hurts my heart to think that a student has to get up three hours early and take three different buses to make sure that they can get here on time for their classes. That is something that I think we need to have bigger conversations about and talk to the stakeholders and talk to their constituencies. I would love to hear what people’s experiences are, some feedback on that and trying to make a difference. I know if students are in need and they don’t have money to purchase transportation but that we have an emergency fund where we can help students out with that. That’s something that I’m interested in looking into during my time. 

Can you describe what are your hobbies, the type of music you listen to, or movies you like to watch?

I’m a bit of a nerd. (laughs) As you can tell, I have a degree in physics so I like sci-fi. I’m very involved in the church. I’m the church council president, so I had to do a lot of that on the weekends. That’s that’s a lot that’s kind of a lot of what I do. I coach, I watch my kids play sports.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I hope in 10 years, I’ve accomplished a tremendous amount of things. One day, I would like to be a president of a Community College, maybe it’s Bergen, maybe it’s somewhere else, but I would love to be a Community College president. So in 10 years, maybe, I’m making that transition.

What advice do you have for students or people of all types?

 Don’t ever give up. Every single time you face any type of setback or any type of struggle, do not give up don’t give up on your dreams, don’t give up on your goals, push through it find a way to get through it and then you look back at that the next time, something comes up and gain confidence from that . 

There are hundreds of people at Bergen that are willing to support, mentor, and help the students and help people grow. Take advantage of those resources. Many times, people feel like they have to shoulder burdens all on their own. There’s a lot of support out there, so don’t be afraid to reach out and make connections with people and use them and talk to people. I can’t tell you how many people have been influential for me, and now I feel like I need to pay that forward. I like to do that for students in my time that mentored me, so those are two pieces of advice that I think were critical for me. I always wanted to challenge myself and not be afraid of failing and then,  for people that are interested in careers in education, I would say, be willing to work hard, be willing to put the time in and the effort in but also, it’s very rewarding. If you want to aspire to be in a role like I am in, I think the path I took was amazing.

We’re all made up of different majors such as STEM majors, English majors, performing arts,  nursing students, and then something specific, like a two-year accreditation program. How do you plan on helping those students? How do you plan on helping those students, specifically with their major. What do you feel is lacking in terms of the resources that could benefit them?

I’m only on day 15 so I feel I have a lot to learn. I would really like to explore the programs and things more here. I’ve had great experiences already with some of our business students, with some of our stem students. I really like to get involved and see more of our video,theater and production students, our communication students, and our English majors. There are so many areas. I’ve met the Dean of nursing. So I really want to see what we need more of. That’s a big part of my strategic enrollment management plan and that’s going to be part of my retention plan. It’s going take some time but they’re all important because I want a student to be able to pursue their likes and their interests because if you’re working in a job, you want do something you love because you feel like you never work a day in your life .I feel like I found that and I think students should find that too, so it’s critically important that every major have the support that it needs.We have great faculty here and I think they do a really awesome job at supporting students. I’ve been very impressed from what I’ve seen so I have to go out and I have to do a tour and listen and hear and help where I can but yes, every major is important, every student’s goal matters and that’s what keeps us in business. So any way we can help support them to get where they want to be and help them achieve their goals. That is something I’m going to take on. 

How do we improve the bridge the gap between faculty and students, making sure the students are able to access their professors, making sure that professors have hours available to help their students?

I think faculty have office hours so I think students should definitely utilize those times. There are some really great faculty members that make themselves available for students through clubs, organizations, and they do a lot of these kinds of voluntary extra activities with students. I encourage students all the time to do that, but I also encourage faculty that if they have an area where they are an expert in, to help shepherd students into a new club or a new organization. Student life is set up to be able to support that, we have funds to set up new clubs and organizations through student fees and there’s a process so I always tell faculty and I’ll always tell students if have an idea and you want work together, to do something outside the curriculum, go through student life. There’s great opportunities there.

Give a message to Bergen Community College students that they could probably be current students,  incoming students.  What message would you like to give to them?

They made an awesome decision, starting a college education here. I will support them, I will advocate for them, and I will work hard to make sure that they have the best experience here and that my door is always open. If there’s ever a question or concern, feel free to stop by and let me know and I will do my best to help support them.

How can students contact you?

You can email me at ATRUMP@BERGEN.EDU but I don’t have my phone extension yet. I know that email is probably the best. I feel like I’m in meetings a lot and so if you call me, you will probably get my voicemail. They can stop by the office. I’m up here temporarily. There’s going to be a vice president suite down in the student center area, across from advising right next to the hub, behind the Sheriff’s Office so that’s where I’m going be located. Like I said, the door is open. I want to hear from students. I’m going to do some special lunch with the student government. I’d love to have some coffee or pizza with the vice president so if students see me around, they can always stop me.

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