Fighting the Good Fight for Higher Education
By Mildred García, Ed.D.
Like many of you, I learned to be a strong Latina from my mother. As a Puerto Rican factory worker who immigrated to Brooklyn with my father and five of her seven children (my youngest brother and I were born some years later in New York), she was both a picture of class and a model of toughness. My dad, who also worked in the factories, was a strong patriarch and treated me, the youngest of seven, as “Daddy’s little girl”. When he died when I was 12, I missed him desperately – and still do.
But against all odds, after my father’s death, my mother somehow became even tougher; working day and night to give me and my six brothers and sisters an opportunity for the quality education that she and my father never had.
Growing up with such a strong Latina role model, it is no wonder that when presented with adversity, my knee-jerk reaction was to dig in my heels and fight – often metaphorically but, unfortunately in one case, literally. My youngest brother was being bullied and when I found out who the culprit was, I promptly marched over to his neighborhood and beat him up.
As proud as I was that I stuck up for my brother, when I got home, I quickly learned that my mother was less impressed. “Las Chicas no pelean,” she said, shooting me a devastating look, one that was well known to my older brothers and could strike fear in the heart of even the bravest of souls. Sitting in my room that night, my surprise at her reprimand eventually became a moment of clarity: there was subtext to the scolding I had received. My mother, who had been fighting for me and my siblings her entire life, wasn’t telling me not to fight, she was telling me not to fight with my fists – as a strong, young, Latina, I had something far more powerful: my mind, heart, and determination.
That lesson was a critical step on my journey from first-generation college student to the first Latina president in the largest senior system of public higher education in the country. I have indeed had to fight using my mind, heart, and determination to get to where I am today but it is my hope, as it was my mother’s hope before me, that through my battles and victories, the path for Latinas aspiring for higher education will be riddled with less obstacles and more opportunities; less discrimination and more equal pay; less broken hopes and more broken glass ceilings.
Today, I am proud to lead California State University, Fullerton, an institution that both encapsulates everything my mother and father stood for and is deeply entrenched in a battle of its own. The increased disinvestment in public higher education we are experiencing not only threatens the private good of our students, but also the public good of the region we serve.
But much like my mother used her own lack of educational opportunities as motivation to provide it for me and my siblings, the faculty, staff, and students of Cal State Fullerton use the obstacles we face not as an excuse, but as a call to action. This is evident in the classroom, where diverse faculty members who have the credentials to teach anywhere in the world choose to be here because they understand their work is more impactful at an institution where the majority of graduates are first-generation college students. It is evident in the community, where 1.4 million hours of service are performed by our diverse students every year. And it is evident in our many Diversity Education Initiatives, including the newly opened Titan Dreamers Resource Center, one of the nation’s first university cultural centers committed to publicly supporting the needs of undocumented and AB-540 students.
These are a few of the many reasons why we are number one in the state and fourth in the nation in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Latinos as well as 11th in the nation in graduating students of color. Further, Cal State Fullerton is first in the CSU, first in California, and fifth in the nation in bachelor’s degrees earned by Latinas.
While I am pleased our success makes us one of the model institutions in the 23-campus CSU system, I learned from my mother long ago, when you achieve one goal, you must reach even higher for the next. At Cal State Fullerton, that next goal is to become the model public comprehensive university of the nation so that all students, especially the new majority in California, have increased access to the transformative path to upward mobility we provide through high-quality, affordable education.
Now that’s something worth fighting for and, in memory of my mother and the millions of other strong Latina women of her generation, I am proud to serve on the front lines.
Dr. Mildred García is president of California State University, Fullerton and serves on President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.