An ‘Innovative’ Career
Nelson Garifi To Retire After 40 Years At JCC
It’s always been easy for Nelson Garifi to see the best in SUNY Jamestown Community College.
Jade Barber, director of the College Connections program, can still remember the first time Garifi gave her a tour of the college’s Jamestown Campus.
“The tour was so personal for him,” Barber noted of that time spent with Garifi. “I remember him showing me the classroom where he met his wife — he had these personal connections to JCC. He truly cares about the college. It’s been his home for so long.”
But as the pair were leaving the Physical Education Complex and slowly approaching the pond in the center of the campus, Garifi stopped and smiled.
“Right here,” he remarked to Barber, “when you’re taking people on a tour, this is the point where it clicks. When they see the campus from this angle, this is when everyone gets it. And they always say, ‘Look how beautiful this campus is.'”
Built with a gentle, warm, and determined persona and the owner of institutional knowledge revered by his colleagues, the 1977 graduate has become synonymous with Jamestown Community College since returning as an employee in 1981. A key figure in its 71-year history, Garifi will retire from JCC at the end of September after 40 years of service to his alma mater.
“Nelson epitomizes what I often say about the employees at JCC — that they care about our students and they care about helping them on that journey from where they are to where they want to be,” said Daniel DeMarte, JCC president. “A person who spends their entire career, 40 years, at one place and performs at such a high level as someone like Nelson does — we’re going to feel the impact of that when he’s gone.”
“Nelson has contributed in so many ways to the excellence and quality of the educational experiences at JCC over his long and productive career,” said Marilyn Zagora, vice president of academic affairs, who has worked with Garifi for his entire career.
That career began in community relations, evolved into oversight of marketing and recruitment, and has culminated with the position he’s held for the last seven years — serving, fittingly, as JCC’s executive director for academic innovation.
“The title doesn’t really tell you all that I do,” Garifi laughed. “My role has evolved, and that’s one of the things I love about this place. It has given me the opportunity to grow as the college has grown.”
In addition to College Connections, a concurrent enrollment program that partners with dozens of area high schools, Garifi oversees the college’s honors program, career services, global learning, Liberty Partnerships program, and technology-enhanced instruction.
“Without question, he has epitomized the concept of ‘innovation’ embedded in his title,” added Zagora. “He has a strong moral and ethical compass, yet also maintains a practical focus on how to get things done to turn what is good for students into a reality.”
“When it comes to innovation, his title is perfect,” Barber said. “I don’t know anyone else to whom I could just go to with the rough draft of an idea, who will help me brainstorm it and start connecting pieces together and really come out with a great idea. He knows what the next step is and where to go with something that’s never been done before. That innovation and brainstorming is something I’m really going to miss.”
That ability to brainstorm is not something new. During his career in community relations, Garifi managed all internal and external communications, even helping to develop a public affairs broadcast on a local cable news network. Along the way, he worked closely with members of the local media, notably 1974 JCC graduate Dennis Webster.
“As the community relations director for JCC, Nelson’s work was unparalleled,” Webster, a radio host for the Media One Radio Group, said. “He was always available to address anything from the simplest questions to the most complicated issues regarding the college. On those few occasions when the subjects got ‘touchy’ or difficult, Nelson always spoke with candor and sincerity.”
He added, “For several generations of students and families, he was the voice and face of Jamestown Community College.”
Outreach to JCC graduates also became a focal point of Garifi’s tenure during his time overseeing the college’s alumni affairs.
“Working in alumni affairs was incredible, because I was so inspired by the stories of individuals who started here and went on to accomplish great things and played significant roles in the community and the fact that they were willing to give back as volunteers,” Garifi said. “My work in alumni affairs was really a creative outlet for me and we would sit around and say, ‘What can we do to be different in this community, be engaged in this community, and support scholarships?'”
The result was, first, a “Haunted House” experience and evolved into a comedic “Mystery” performance that continues to be held. Webster was among those in the first group of participants.
“Through his gentle, inspired leadership, he brought the best out in all of us, and the alumni association grew to be an effective and influential organization on campus,” he said. “He made it so much fun that we wanted to go to meetings… wanted to try things like the ‘mystery theater’ and the ‘haunted house.’ Many lifetime friendships were formed among the alumni.”
Bridget Johnson worked for and closely with Garifi prior to her retirement last fall. She also echoed Webster’s use of the word “unparalleled” to describe Garifi’s service to JCC students and alumni.
“His efforts to engender community support for the college are legendary,” Johnson said. “He spearheaded countless initiatives, from conception to completion, with extraordinary focus and determination. JCC’s renowned programs and student services are, in large part, due to Nelson’s ability to guide others toward meeting and exceeding expectations.”
That ability to exceed expectations evolved into helping reimagine the student experience in JCC’s academic affairs division — notably aiding the development of an international student population through his oversight of the global learning office.
“When we built the Hillside Suites residence halls, that allowed us to play in a different arena with regard to the international student enrollment,” he said. “So many of our local students from so many of our communities have never met someone from the other side of the world, have never talked to someone whose political beliefs are different, whose religious beliefs are different and that really prepares you to be a citizen of the world, which we all need to be.”
To aid in cultivating that global perspective, one tradition Garifi helped establish is the display of flags in the college’s Student Union, representing the home countries of each international student.
“We need to be a welcoming environment, and for students from other countries, they want to feel that they are somewhat at home in the environment and when you walk into the Student Union and you see that array of flags, the first thing you do if you’re from another country is to look for your flag,” he said. “When you see your own flag, you know there’s another piece of home that’s here for you, so we thought that was incredibly important. So when a student comes here from another country, we make sure that we get that flag in place.”
Asked what he’ll remember most about working for the college, Garifi said it could be easy for him to say the various individuals of influence he’s had the chance to meet — athletic heroes, celebrities, artists, and more. But, moreover, it’ll be the students and the people he encountered on a daily basis that he’ll miss the most.
“I’ll remember the adult learners who came and reinvented themselves after whatever hardships they’ve faced, or someone who came in as a high school student with a very clear path and actually hit that target and exceeded it,” he said. “Those will be the stories that I’ll remember most — those individual students and faculty members who inspire me on a daily basis with their depth and breadth of knowledge.”
Added Zagora, “Nelson’s legacy at JCC will live on in so many ways, but especially in the thousands of student lives he has touched, and in the countless colleagues for whom he has been a role model, pointing the way to how to transform lives through education.”
“I personally will miss Nelson, I think the institution will miss Nelson, and I think that those who have been here with him for a good portion of that time — they’re going to feel Nelson having gone,” DeMarte noted. “While we may not be thinking of it this way right now, I’m sure Nelson has left a legacy and when he does go, we’re going to have a very good sense of exactly what he left behind. I have no doubt that it’s all good.”
“Some people’s contributions are so distinctive and profound, you need only mention their first names to connect with their legacy,” Webster concluded. “People at Jamestown Community College will be talking for a long time about ‘what Nelson did.'”