“I am here because of the public education I received,” said Cal State Fullerton President Mildred García as she addressed about 100 people gathered at today’s (May 17) Orange County Business Council Chairman’s Leadership Breakfast.
“My roots are in Brooklyn,” she said. “My parents moved there in the late 1940s from Puerto Rico. Most of my siblings were born in Puerto Rico, but my brother and I were born in New York. My parents left … to find a better life for their children.”
When García was 12, her father died. Money was tight and so García took her first job — at a factory during the summer — when she was 14.
“I lasted three weeks,” she recalled. “I was angry at the way the foreman treated his employees, and I began thinking of how people could get out of horrific situations like that. Education, of course, was the answer.”
García continued to work at a variety of jobs throughout high school, community college and college.
“I always worked, like many of today’s students,” she said. “As a first-generation college student, I wasn’t always sure where to get answers — again, just like many of today’s students.”
Her career path eventually led to teaching and administrative roles in schools and colleges in New York and New Jersey. Then she accepted a position at Arizona State University.
“The team at ASU was very supportive, and I’ve tried to recreate that environment at Cal State Fullerton,” she said. “The goal is to work together to lift up the students.”
She did admit to culture shock when she first arrived in Arizona and saw a man riding a horse down a major thoroughfare. “You don’t see that in New York,” she laughed.
Following her work at ASU, García moved on to Berkeley College in New York, where she served as the first systemwide president. “It took me a full month to get back to them,” she said. “But then I thought, the kids at Berkeley come from neighborhoods just like mine. They were underrepresented and needed help. Berkeley offered me the chance to reach out to students who were like me.
“I recall telling two young men at Berkeley that I came from their neighborhood,” she said. “I repeated street names and addresses, and I can remember them saying, ‘Wow, the president comes from our housing project.’”
She was lured back west when she was given the opportunity to become president of Cal State Dominguez Hills. In 2012, she was named president of Cal State Fullerton.
“It was a great opportunity,” she said. “Our students mirror the diversity of America. I always say that universities have an opportunity gap, not an achievement gap. When I talk about an opportunity gap, I have to look no farther than my own family. I am not smarter than my brothers and sisters, but I was able to take advantage of programs that reached out to students like me. I was able to attend an excellent school in Brooklyn Heights. I learned violin — they actually sent one home with me to my parents’ dismay,” she laughed. “In second grade, I was introduced to French. In third and fourth grades, we attended Broadway shows. My brothers and sisters didn’t have those chances.
“That’s why one of my proudest achievements is increasing our graduation rates and closing that opportunity gap at Cal State Fullerton.
“Nobody goes to college to fail. Our goal is to help students succeed, not by lowering standards, but by ensuring they have access to help or programs they may need.”
Since García’s arrival on campus four years ago, Cal State Fullerton has seen a 20 percent improvement in six-year graduation rates and a significant drop in the opportunity gap between underrepresented students and their campus peers.
“I firmly believe that you can’t be pro-business if you’re not pro-education,” she concluded. “We are not going to have leaders without education.”