Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his work in higher education and for making it accessible and inclusive.
Padrón joined a distingushed group of Americans including Motown soul singer Diana Ross, TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, veteran actress Cicely Tyson, and artist and architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial.
The president said Tuesday that the honorees had impacted him in a "a very powerful, personal way".
"These are folks who have helped make me who I am," Obama said, gesturing at the gathering. "This is what makes us the greatest nation on earth, not because of our differences but because in our differences we find something common to share."
Padrón, who immigrated from Cuba as a young man, is credited with strengthening Miami Dade College and raising its national status. The college enrolls and graduates more minority students than any other institution in the United States.
"During his more than four decades career, President Padrón has been one of the most effective national voices for access and inclusion," said Amando Bucelo, chairman of Miami Dade College's board of trustees, in a statement about Padrón.
Padrón is an economist who received his doctorate from the University of Florida. He has served as chairman of the White House Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and he represented the U.S. at UNESCO's World Conference on Higher Education at the invitation of Obama's administration.
NBC News's Adam Howard contributed to this report.