Fostering Equity and Inclusion: Sylvia Alva’s Leadership at California State University-Fullerton

Administration March 2024 PREMIUM

Sylvia Alva, interim president of Cal State Fullerton, prioritizes equity, inclusion, and social justice. With deep ties to the university and a commitment to student success, particularly for Hispanic and first-generation students, she implements strategic plans while emphasizing support and guidance for all undergraduates.

When Sylvia Alva was named interim president of California State University Fullerton in August 2023, she told the Orange County Register, the local newspaper, that she would concentrate her presidency on “adding value and momentum” to  the university’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice. At a time when some college presidents have been hedging on this commitment to equality, Alva, an offspring of immigrant parents, stood up for it.

Alva was a faculty member at Cal State Fullerton’s psychology department, teaching adolescent development. She previously worked at the Chancellor’s Office at California State University as executive VP of academic and student affairs from 2021-23. At Cal State Fullerton, she served as educational equity coordinator for the College of Health and Human Development.

Alva, who is 65 years old, noted that she spent the first 20 years of her teaching career at Cal State Fullerton and has been away for 15 years before returning to her interim role. Her background as a developmental psychologist “helps me to think things through from an organizational development perspective.” Because she was trained as a research psychologist, she is data-centered as well.

Her parents were brought up in Mexico and raised Alva and her five siblings in Los Angeles, so she’s California-bred through and through. Her dad worked as a small motor repairman. But education was drilled into them at an early age as a way to improve their lives.

She’s also a home-grown state university student since she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University, Los Angeles, and her master’s and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Moreover, her husband, who is an attorney, her two daughters, and five of her siblings graduated from the California State University system, so her commitment to it runs deep.

Fullerton, with a population of 140,000, is part of Orange County, located about 25 miles from Los Angeles and, as Alva puts it, “7 miles from Disneyland.” She calls Fullerton a “desirable city to live in, with technology and banking as major sectors.”

She notes that Cal State Fullerton, with 42,000 undergraduates, is the largest of the state university’s 23 campuses. Its most popular majors include business, health professions (including nursing and allied health) and computer science (including gaming, cybersecurity, and data defense). More students are also majoring in social work because of California’s high demand for professionals in this area. 

Cal State Fullerton’s undergraduates are highly diverse, consisting of 54% Hispanic students, 21% Asian, 14% White, 3.6% Multiracial, 2.4% Black, and 1.3% International.

She was tapped to be interim president while the college’s board undergoes a national search for a replacement. In early February, it announced what they are looking for in a president with a detailed job description. 

As interim leader, she gives the board time to keep the college steered in the right direction while it searches for a permanent president. She will apply for the position but prefers not to go into much detail about that in order to concentrate on her current objectives.

Alva, who is outgoing, vivacious, and forthright, clearly says she is not interested in being a “placeholder” during her one-year appointment as interim president. “I’ll lean into the work and help the university continue to move forward and achieve its goals, and I will be unveiling our strategic plan.”

In fact, her mandate as interim president is to “continue in many areas such as strategic planning, strategic enrollment management, and student success as it relates to retention and graduation rates.”  

Asked about her top priorities in her interim role, she emphasized that “Student success is my top priority, and we get there through equity and inclusivity.” If a college doesn’t emphasize inclusivity, it can only be considered “selective or elitist,” she notes. 

To that end, Alva introduced Cal State Fullerton’s new strategic plan, Fullerton Forward 2024-2029, in early February. It entails a 5-step plan that includes: 1) Enhancing support for student access and academic success, 2) Fostering student engagement, 3) Recruiting, developing and retaining high-quality and diverse faculty and staff, 4) Expanding and strengthening physical and financial capacity and community relations, 5) Innovating and improving campus operations.

As a Latina herself, she is also dedicated to the success of Cal State Fullerton’s Hispanic students. She noted that about 50% of its student body consists of Latinos, and she added that another 13,000 of its students, or 32%, are first-generation college attendees of various backgrounds. “Our excellence as a university does not stem from an exclusionary mindset,” she notes.

Many of its students are working-class, evidenced by the fact that nearly 60% of them receive some form of financial aid. These first-generation college students “need additional guidance and support in navigating the college’s requirements,” she says. But she adds that ‘first-generation’  also means “the first generation to a career, so they need guidance and mentoring in helping them to see the possibilities beyond attaining an undergraduate degree.”

Hence, she says they’re on a “journey to a career and job that builds off their undergraduate education.”

For example, she points to one innovative program that helps Hispanics, the Animo: Latinx Counseling program that trains health professionals who work with Latinx and Spanish-speaking clients to better understand the Spanish culture. It allows students gain licensure as clinical mental health counselors in California, a much needed specialty.

It is critical for Latinos to succeed in California and the U.S. because “Latinos have become the backbone of our economy. We’re preparing them to excel, enter the workforce, and meet our workforce’s needs.”

For example, one innovative program, the Animo: Latinx Counseling Emphasis prepares them for careers in school and community centers that build on their bilingualism and cross-cultural competencies.

Moreover, she said that many multicultural students need support to succeed. Hence, “There is a need for universities to assure that students from diverse backgrounds feel a sense of belonging and community,” she said, speaking like a developmental psychologist. 

Asked what she would like to accomplish in her year as interim president, a very short time in the life of such a complex university, Alva replied, “I’m proud of the work of crafting this strategic plan and turning that into strategic doing. But I will always be centered around student success. If we admit a student, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to assist them and support them in reaching their goals.” 

And then she adds that the importance of equity and inclusion drives her daily thinking on the job, like an unrelenting mission.



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