(This article first appeared in the Belen Jesuit Alumni Magazine, Winter 2021 edition)
In no individual is the intimate connection between citizenship and faith more evident than in Mr. Patrick Collins. Through fifty years of service and storytelling, Mr. Collins (or “Pat,” depending on who you ask) has left an irrevocable mark on the spirit of Belen. From Student Body President at Archbishop Curley High School, to Resident Assistant at Spring Hill College, to Chairman of the Belen Social Studies department for 45 years, Mr. Collins has performed service in a plethora of ways. The common denominator among these diverse roles? Selfless excellence and a commitment to leadership.
Mr. Collins started at Belen in 1971, the very same year he graduated from Spring Hill. He adopted the role of Chairperson of the newly formed Social Studies Department within a single month, not surprising considering his natural capability for leadership and the small size of the Little Havana campus at the time. It is notable that Mr. Collins, as he admits on the “Because Belen” podcast, “did not know a lick” of Spanish—the first language of the majority of his students. He was an Irish-Catholic teaching about democracy and our government to many students who had only grown up in the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Mr. Collins provided many students their first exposure to American Democracy and civic engagement. Acutely aware of this, and naturally motivated to improve the Belen learning experience, Mr. Collins was able to pioneer the relationship between the Close Up Foundation and Belen, starting in 1975. This program has allowed thousands of Belen students to experience the nation’s capital, many of whom had never experienced the Mecca of American government. Even within the intricately planned programming, Close Up Foundation Vice-president Jodi Miteva notes that Mr. Collins always makes an additional effort to enrich students’ program experience, most significantly through meetings with Belen alumni. She asserts that this is not a typical gesture among other Close Up groups, which reinforces her impression of Mr. Collins as someone with an indomitable ability to inspire and motivate.
The year 1975 was fruitful for Mr. Collins, as he also founded the Varsity tennis team that year, acting as Head Coach for the sport in which he competed throughout his adolescence. It is in this role that Cesar Conde ‘91, Chairman of NBC Universal, first came to know Mr. Collins—Conde still refers to Mr. Collins as “Coach Collins” today. He recalls being moved by Mr. Collins’ constant emphasis on simultaneous decency and ambition, even in competition. “He helped teach me values that I try to live by to this day,” said Conde. He recognizes the incredible impact on my life” that Mr. Collins contributed within and beyond the classroom, especially in introducing him to the concepts of free press and civic engagement, which he continually practices today. While Cesar Conde is certainly an exceptional example of a student-athlete whose success is owed partially to Mr. Collins’ teachings, he is certainly not the only one. Coach Barquin, or “Barq” as he is amicably referred to, relays this impact on a multitude of alumni: “their success in the professional world, I am sure, also had a lot to do with his teachings.” Barq, who knows a thing or two about longevity at Belen, attributes this to the way Mr. Collins “projects himself as both teacher and human being.”
As chairperson and educator within Belen, Mr. Collins has epitomized openness and innovation. In his 45 years as chairperson, he supported the founding and kindling of an abundance of programs (over 20!) and relationships, many of which persist today. Mr. Collins was able to forge one of these relationships with former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represented Florida’s District 18 from 1989-2013 and District 27 from 2013-2019. Initiated by means of the Close Up trips, Mr. Collins and Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen developed an ongoing partnership that, among other gains, allowed Belen students to interact more closely with the Congresswoman and her office than would be possible otherwise. Ros-Lehtinen expressed that she “shares in his passion for education and finds him to be a most exceptional instructor and mentor.”
Another major program that began under Mr. Collins is that of the Overseas Study Program (OSP). In 1994, when economics teacher Mr. Charles Cleveland approached Mr. Collins with the idea of a study abroad program to expand students’ horizons, Mr. Collins instantly saw this as another opportunity for Belen students to have valuable learning experiences beyond the classroom. He readily approved this program and later expanded upon it to help found the Taiwan Exchange Program as well. As with CloseUp, Mr. Collins saw an opportunity to advance the quality of education for those who may never have experienced a culture beyond their own.
Mrs. Carol Vila, a coworker of Mr. Collins for 46 of his 50 years, shared how willing Mr. Collins was to embrace the radical shift from whiteboard to Smartboard. He justified this adaptability by saying “I do not like to waste any resource provided to me,” which manifestly applies far beyond his embrace of new technology and teaching methodology. Teaching in a virtual setting has not affected Mr. Collins’ usual candor.
Storytelling does not just define Mr. Collins’ teaching philosophy, but also his approach to students. He treats every interaction with students not as an isolated experience in their stories, but as part of a larger narrative; he acknowledges that they will be among Belen’s illustrious list of alumni, and teaches them according to this standard of excellence. In fact, it is this focus on his students beyond the classroom (through civics and otherwise) that has allowed him to forge relationships with many of Belen’s most notable alumni. One such example is Joseph Zumpano Esq. ‘87, who believes Mr. Collins “formed the bedrock of social awareness and social conscience” for both him and his brother, Gian Zumpano ‘86, who names the recently christened Aquatic Center. Zumpano is a high-powered attorney and member of the Council on Foreign Relations whose own career exemplifies public service.
Daniel de Varona Brennan ‘16 was also moved by Mr. Collins’ AP US Government and Politics class, as well as the Close Up trip, to pursue studies into US policy. “He provided me with the vocabulary to practice this calling I already felt,” said Brennan. Now on a full scholarship at the University of Oxford, Brennan realizes just how important it was to hear a “personal and relatable” side of politics and government, all attributable to Mr. Collins’ treatment of history and the “characters” within it. Mr. Collins’ role in these über-successful alumni’s formations are two of many testaments to his mentorship and ability to touch lives. Former Belen civics teacher Mr. Heriberto Cabada ‘99 summarized the matter perfectly and plainly: “Mr. Collins is a
master of education.”
Now in his fiftieth year of exemplary education at Belen, Mr. Collins continues to practice and pursue the common tenets of both good Catholicism and good citizenship: knowledge, faith, and service. He also persists in nurturing a sustained passion for government and civic engagement, which is beautifully evident in the classroom and beyond.