Community effort: Unique path that led Acebo to top job at NJCU

New Jersey City University’s interim president eager for opportunity to help anchor institution in Hudson County

Andy Acebo. (File photo)

Andres “Andy” Acebo has the nautical compass that his father, Aurelio Acebo, had on the makeshift raft that he used to escape from communist Cuba and come to the U.S. as an 18-year-old in 1966.

It sits on his desk, a daily reminder of the sacrifice and determination his father made to find a better life for himself — and the family he knew he wanted to have. It’s a family that eventually included a son who used a public-school education in Hudson County as a steppingstone for a degree from an Ivy League school (Brown University), a law degree from Rutgers University and a promising legal career.

Friday morning, that son was named the interim president of New Jersey City University.

It’s a job Andy Acebo never aspired to — or even imagined would be part of his career path when he came to NJCU in February 2021 and quickly learned the school was in a dire financial situation that Acebo would help it navigate.

The role, however, is deeply personal to him.

NJCU not only is the place where his wife and mother-in-law both graduated, it’s a place where Acebo gets daily reminders of the power of education and the human spirit — a place where Hudson County residents, many of whom also are Hispanic, are willing to do whatever it takes to give their children a better life.

“I see the student who runs to bursar’s office window with their father, right before closing, to pay their bill,” he said. “There’s clearly a language barrier, but you can see the sense of determination and desperation as they literally are pulling wads of cash or checks from family across the country out of an envelope to pay a fee, so the student can register for classes.

“I can see the sense of pride in their eyes.”

That is why Acebo has agreed to serve a two-year term. He wants to ensure that this educational opportunity remains for his community.

He knows it won’t be easy. In the past year, Acebo has helped the school begin many of its painful but necessary financial steps — including dramatic reductions of management, faculty and staff and a 37% reduction of its academic portfolio.

The efforts have helped the school cut its deficit in half, but that deficit still remains at more than $12 million.

Acebo is eager to take on the continued challenge.

“The challenges that we face as an institution pale in comparison to the things that our students overcome every single day,” he said. “And I think seeing their charge and their focus makes me know that the challenges that we’re confronting are not insurmountable.

“I will say that the hard work is not to be completed in any single year or any single term. This is a multiyear effort. Difficult decisions will have to be made, but they all will be made with an eye to that parent and to that student who comes to NJCU as a refuge and as a sanctuary for their dreams and their aspirations.”

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The impact of New Jersey City University extends well past its campus.

Most of its student body, faculty and alumni represent the old-school fabric of the town. Not the newfound residences in the luxurious multifamily towers — the ones who may see it as a suburb of New York City — but the ones connected to the city’s scrappy blue-collar past.

That’s a big part of the draw for Acebo, who grew up in the same section of Union City where U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez was raised, and graduated from what was then called Union Hill High.

“That is what’s special about our institution,” he said. “The students who graduate from here are engrained in our community. They don’t go somewhere else. They become nurses, teachers, police officers, accountants. They become business owners.

“For a lot of people in our community, the entrance to the middle class begins on this campus. That is worth fighting for — and is an investment worth making.”

Making the dollars work will be one of Acebo’s challenges.

The median household income of its students is $42,000, by far the lowest of all the four-year public schools in the state. The majority of the students (54%) are the first in their families to attend college.

Acebo credits the state for coming to its aid — and for its assistance to all higher ed institutions.

“The state has made historic investments after decades of underinvestment and done it with a keen focus on college affordability,” he said. “Our students are beneficiaries of this, but there still are real challenges.

“Even though we pride ourselves on our affordability and access, we have students who have had to take a semester off because they didn’t have the financial means.”

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Acebo said having his dad’s compass on his desk at NJCU has helped keep him headed in the right direction.

“I have it in here as a constant reminder of the grand irony that an 18-year-old boy with nothing but the shirt on his back and the pursuit of hope — through his hard work and his grit — delivered for me what had evaded him,” he said. “His dreams were manifested through my education.

“Horace Mann once said that the great equalizer of men is education. I personify that. It’s not hypothetical. I’m the son of a waiter and a school aide who became the first in his family to go to college and law school.

“That story isn’t unique on this campus.”

Neither is this one.

While both his wife and mother-in-law graduated from the school, in one way, they attended it together. Acebo’s mother-in-law, a single mom, often attended classes with her toddler in tow.

“Those child care issues are still issues that impact us today,” he said. “The things that plague our students, with all due respect to the amazing things that our faculty does, are not the academic rigor of the classroom — it is life.

“I look at my children, a generation removed from that original struggle, and the difference has been the education that I had the privilege of pursuing.”

The goal is to give that opportunity to this generation and the next, Acebo said.

“We’re in the business of changing the trajectory of individual lives and, in the process, building community,” he said. “I think there’s an obligation and a moral imperative that this institution, in this community, thrives — because it’s about the individual lives that are impacted.

“We need to meet our students where they are. I think that that’s a point of distinction of this institution. I’m not in pursuit of just seeking college-ready students, I want us to be a student-ready college.”

Acebo readily admits he doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s clearly got the passion, and the vision.

“We will have our fair share of false starts and missteps, but we will always have them with an eye on delivering the promise of this institution — and delivering it in a fashion that is inclusive, that cultivates a sense of belonging and that anchors us for generations to come in the community that we serve,” he said.

“For generations, that’s what this institution has stood for. And, if I have something to do with it, it will stand for that for generations to come.”