California State University Dominguez Hills Showcasing Three Powerful First-Generation Latinas

In 2010, California State University (CSU)- Dominguez Hills marked the 50th anniversary of its founding. How has CSU-Dominguez Hills survived – some say flourished – during the worst economic and political climate for higher education in decades? For three Latinas in leadership positions at the university, the answer is: by creating a supportive environment for all students – including those who are the first in their family to attend college.

This commitment to provide a home away from home for first-generation and other students springs from the passion of CSUDominguez Hills President Mildred García. A first-generation student herself, García stepped into yet another precedent-setting role when she assumed her role as head of the university. She was the first Latina to be appointed president in the Cal State system.

“I was shocked that the system has been around a long time and I was the first Latina to be appointed to a Cal State U. campus,” García tells The Hispanic Outlook in an exclusive interview. And she was also pleasantly surprised by the welcome she received there.

“I have to tell you, I was embraced by the people here. And the community and the other presidents embraced me as well. It has been a wonderful experience with the faculty, the community, the staff and the students. I found out the chancellor was a first-generation student as well, and he expressed a real commitment to students. That touched me. So that really helped me leave home to bring me back west.”

Home for García was New York City, where she learned the value of a good education. “I’m one of seven. My parents would say to us when we were kids that the only inheritance a poor family can give is a good education. That’s my motto. My father died when I was 12, but my mother was extremely supportive of my going to school. She couldn’t support me financially. I had to work and go to school, but she did in every other way. She worked in a factory, but was there when I got home. She would heat up my food on the radiator, so I could eat whenever I got home.”

García’s household was different from the Hispanic households where strictly defined gender roles sometimes discourage higher education for women. “Women’s lib was an alien thing to me. When he was alive, my father shared household chores with my mother, and he was the cook.”

García excelled at her studies, but almost turned down the opportunity that put her on the path to presidency.

“It started when I was teaching at LaGuardia Community College. The then-dean of faculty [Flora Mancuso Edwards] was offered the position of president at Hostos Community College. I was working with her on a committee for liberal arts majors. She told me about the job offer and wanted me to come with her as her executive assistant to the president. I knew very little about higher ed, and I looked at her and said, ‘I worked too hard to go back to being a secretary.’”

“She proceeded to educate me, tell me what an executive assistant to the president is, and explained to me the Hostos mission of helping underrepresented students. Together, she said, we were going to work to see that underrepresented students get the education they need. So off I went. She was the first mentor I had.” García learned a great deal from that experience. The most important lesson is one that she carried to CSU-Dominguez Hills when she arrived in 2007.

“My experience in Hostos taught me how to work with a fabulous team. I was so impressed,” she said, that Edwards “had a wonderful eye for talent. What I observed was that the team really cared about student success. We were not into fiefdoms. I have tried to emulate that everywhere I have gone since then.”

While a “fabulous team” is desirable, it was important for García to hit the ground running when she assumed the CSU-Dominguez Hills presidency. It didn’t take her long to realize there was a challenge she had to address right away.

“The institution had not met its enrollment targets for eight years. In a year and a half, we turned it around, and we’re doing record-breaking numbers.” What accounts for that success? “I think it has a lot to do with setting a path and vision,” she said, “and getting people to work toward that vision and path and getting people to understand the importance of how we work together to ensure that students get the best service.

“We have great programs here, but how do students get through the bureaucratic realm of admission and financial aid, and how do we make it easy for first-generation students to be in a welcoming environment giving them the support services they need?” García is quick to point out that a “welcoming environment” is not code for lower standards. “I truly believe in setting the standards high, but giving students the tools to reach those standards.”

Along with many student-centered approaches, including a bustling advisement center and counseling, García says student support comes from an empathetic mindset on the part of her staff and faculty.

“We have to be mindful of people forgetting or never having the experience of being a firstgeneration college student. For those students, there’s anxiety or fear that they’re not going to make it. We are always looking for ways to develop support both personally and academically to ensure that students can make it through and have the tools that they need to succeed. I’m proud of what we do here.”

CSU Dominguez Hills people

One of the sources of García’s pride in her program is Irene Morris Vásquez, who came to CSU-Dominguez Hills in 2005 to teach Chicana/Chicano studies and is now the chair of that program and the chair of the academic senate.

Like García, Vásquez came from a supportive family that valued education – a family she credits with shaping her desire to pursue college. “My parents were definitely important influences in my life. I followed my older sister, who went to college the year before I did. When I graduated high school, there were probably 100 graduating seniors, and only a handful went to college. My family was very important in helping me make that transition to higher education. As a student, I became involved in different kinds of organizations that were advocating for more support for people of color’s accessibility to college, so I really gained a lot of experience as a student and organizer advocating for higher education – as an undergraduate and as a graduate student.”

In one sense, Vásquez was a first-generation student; in another sense, she was not. “My sister and I were the first of our family on my mother’s side to attend college. My mother had a second-grade education. She dropped out to support her family and crossed the border on a daily basis to work as a domestic. My father, on the other hand, was born in Chicago, and he had a college education. On my mother’s side, my sister and I were the only ones out of 12 grandchildren who went to college. For some on my mother’s side of the family, there was no thought about going to college. It was about getting into the work force to support their own families. “However, in my particular case, my grandmother, who was still alive, was very proud that we were in college, and it really wasn’t probably until I started to attend UCLA that I began to see those barriers for women. In my own family and my community, we were very much encouraged to go to college, but it wasn’t even a consideration for my cousins. They didn’t have the information, they didn’t have the resources, and they didn’t have the encouragement.”

Vásquez echoes García’s inclusion sentiments and gives some insight into how this mission is carried out at CSU-Dominguez Hills.

“We among the faculty want to build a culture where students feel it is a home away from home. A number of members of the faculty have extended office hours. I have an open-door policy in my office at all times. We also reach out to students to keep communication between students and faculty open. We want to know what’s happening in their lives and how it is impacting their college experience. I have learned to use my experience as a student and community organizer to improve our communication with our students. We try to never lose sight of the fact that students always come first.”

In this economic and social climate, it’s not always easy.

“I think we have an incredibly hard-working faculty at this campus. When our budget was cut by 20 percent the last two years and there were fewer resources, faculty rose to the challenge. They not only increased their class sizes, but they increased their advising and service responsibilities.

I think faculty members who emulate hard work and commitment to higher education motivate students who are first-generation. Our faculty is a critical factor in attracting more students, and our education programs offer more opportunities to students, and these factors will serve us well into the future. There is a range of activities and programs and organizations that students can be involved with. The student activities are critical to the development of well-rounded students.”

One well-rounded student that both García  and Vásquez have high praise for is Thalia Gómez, president of ASI (Associated Students Inc.) on campus. Gómez embodies everything Vásquez and García talk about in terms of the student they especially target for success. Gómez is a first-generation college student and Chicano/ Chicana studies major.

“My first language wasn’t even English. I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t really know too much about anything else. I didn’t have anybody to guide to me.” She was attracted to CSU-Dominguez Hills “because of the history of the university. The most important factor was that it was built here because the community wanted it here.”

Like García and Vásquez, Gómez had a strong and supportive family behind her efforts. Her parents were originally from Mezcala, Jalisco and Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Her drive to succeed came from her father, a field worker in California who now operates his own small company called United Plant Growers, and from her mother, who was also a field worker but has gone on to become a parent partner for Hathaway Sycamores, a program for struggling families in Los Angeles County.

Gómez explains, “I learned from my family that if you want anything, you can get it – as long as you are willing to work hard for it and find out what you need to get there. I learned by watching them.” And while her parents do understand Thalia’s drive to succeed in college, it’s a foreign world to them.

“My mother was always very supportive of my getting an education. My father, too. They always would say, ‘go for it,’ but they don’t understand why I have to stay late. So that’s where the issues are. I never had an issue with them saying, ‘Oh no, you have to work; you can’t go to school.’ It’s more like, ‘Why are you always there? Why can’t you be home?’ That takes some explanation.”

No doubt, it is a source of pride to García and Vásquez that Gómez has the career goal of eventually getting into a Ph.D. program and coming back to CSU as a faculty member. It certainly fits García’s message of inclusion and Vásquez’s idea of providing a “home away from home” at CSU.

All three women hope that their presence at CSU-Dominguez Hills inspires Latinas to attend school there.

“To have the president of the institution, chair of the academic senate and president of the student government all Latinas sends a message of a welcoming environment. However, CSU-Dominguez Hills is also an educational laboratory where you can work with people from all walks of life and walk out prepared to succeed in a diverse world,” says García.