For Pennsylvania's top education official to resign in the middle of a pandemic, the perfect job opportunity had to present itself.

According to Pedro Rivera, the state’s former Education Secretary, that’s exactly what happened.

LNP | LancasterOnline sat down with Rivera on Thursday, his first day as president of Thaddeus Stevens College, to discuss why he switched jobs when he did, what made him so interested in Thaddeus Stevens, and his goals for the technical college moving forward.

Here is a condensed and edited version of the interview.

Why leave state government now, during the pandemic, when so much is still up in the air with schools?

That's a great question. I wasn't looking to leave as secretary. It wasn't me running away from one role to another. Stevens is actually the only position that I would have considered. When Bill Griscom retired in January, I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘Wow, this is really interesting and something I'm interested in.’ And then COVID-19 hit. And we started to react and respond to COVID and close schools, address housing security, address food insecurity, address continuity of education and all of those things. And then the search committee for the presidency started and, honestly, I didn't throw my hat in the ring. I thought, ‘We're too busy. Wow, timing’s horrible for me.’ And then the search was extended. And I spoke to the governor. We came up with a plan. If I were to get the job, we discussed a timeline. I committed to opening schools and transitioning that power and leadership back to the team. And that's exactly what happened. So, on paper, someone may say, ‘Well, he's leaving in the middle of the pandemic.’ The truth is, the blueprint, the school reopening plans, every resource and connection needed from a public health and safety perspective to addressing insecurities was put in place.

You joined the Wolf administration after working hands-on in education. Was there something you missed about that past experience while you were working in Harrisburg?

Interaction with students is what I missed the most. Fortunately, I was able to do that through the Schools that Teach tour. I visited every county, hundreds of school districts and higher education institutions and early childhood institutions. And I knew that eventually it was best for me to go back into the field, because that was the best part of the job. … Feeding off of the energy of the students, is really what kept me going for over five years.

Do you have any regrets from your time as secretary?

I don't have any regrets. I think there were a number of opportunities that maybe we should have pushed more full-throttle. Four or five years ago we created the equity and inclusion toolkit. We brought together an equity and inclusion task force and created resources for schools. And we brought that all together with the equity and inclusion auditing tool. With what so many of our communities are going through right now, so much of the civil unrest that exists throughout the commonwealth, perhaps pushing inclusion resources a little earlier may have helped.

What made you gravitate to Thaddeus Stevens?

My whole career has been focused on serving students from underrepresented communities and providing opportunities for first generation college graduates, high school graduates. Being able to engage firsthand with an institution and to engage with faculty and staff and students who are focused on the same things that I believe in (made me think), ‘This was an opportunity of a lifetime.’ And being able to do so from home (in Lancaster) was the icing on the cake.

What role do you think that Thaddeus Stevens and its graduates can play in the economic recovery?

First, this is an affordable institution. Second, the system of supports that are put in place here for students to graduate and to obtain industry certificate and work towards graduation is comprehensive. Lastly, the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field is the future of the workforce. And so students will leave here prepared on their first day in industry to be successful and earn a family sustaining wage, while at the same time being in a position where they can transfer credits, because it's a state college. When you think about the future of the Commonwealth, we will continue to contribute and even build the number of graduates, while at the same time focusing on some of our neediest populations, which is all I want to do in my professional and my personal life.

Funding is always a priority. How do you plan to tackle the upcoming budget season given the state's somewhat dire financial situation?

It’s going to be a challenge for everyone. In times when budgeting is difficult, folks always want to know, ‘So what's the return?’ And we can easily say the return is offering industry credentials in areas that are highly employable and where graduates can earn a family sustaining wage. Because we're a state institution, and many of our students come from across the Commonwealth, they tend to stay in the Commonwealth. Lastly, what we are doing aligns directly to what state government wants to see, so the heavy lift of the job is going to be making sure that that story is told to them and those facts are shared.

Speaking of enrollment, what are your ideas for attracting students, and what are some other goals you have for the college?

Today’s my first day, and that's already a conversation that we've been having in terms of enrollment, recruitment, retention, different strategies as to how to reach out to students during COVID-19. We’ve had conversations around the synergy between K-12 systems, and Thaddeus Stevens College, how do we continue to build relationships with those systems. We've already had conversations around providing a much more welcoming environment for students from different backgrounds, how to address some of our equity and inclusion needs here on campus, how do we diversify staff and faculty. And so, first day, five hours in, those already are conversations that I've had with the leadership team.

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