”I love what I do, and my soul and heart soar when I see the ability and success to lead a team that transforms an institution to become the best it can be for the benefit of all students — particularly those who come from underrepresented communities or are the first in their family to graduate from college. Every May, when more than half of our 10,000 graduates are indeed the first in their families to cross a commencement stage, you can feel the transformative power of that moment in the supportive cheers and tears from the parents and families.”
As Cal State Fullerton President Mildred García takes the helm of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, she leaves behind a legacy of accomplishment from her nearly six-year tenure at the University.
Since her arrival on campus in June 2012, García has achieved an impressive track record: new programs to help students succeed, broadening and enhancing already excellent academic programs, increasing the diversity of faculty and staff, and enhancing the fundraising outreach of the University.
“President Garcia’s dynamic leadership has provided the vision and direction that has paved the way for collaborative and innovative work — increasing our efforts to improve graduation rates, closing the achievement gap, and providing inclusive spaces for all of our students,” said Berenecea Johnson Eanes, CSUF’s vice president for student affairs. “It has been my distinct pleasure to serve on her leadership team. Her commitment to shared vision and true collaboration is truly compelling and inspiring.”
But despite a long list of degrees, honors, publications and appointments, she never forgets her roots growing up as one of seven children in a Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn. And that guides much of her decision-making and emphasis on making sure that educational opportunities are available to all students.
“My parents came to New York not knowing the language and making very little money working in a factory,” she recalled. “It was instilled in my siblings and me that the only inheritance a poor family can leave their children is a good education.”
A Commitment to Future Generations
Programs, centers and policies García implemented during her presidency have provided increased opportunities for the more than 40,000 students who currently attend CSUF. Among García’s many accomplishments are completing the final year of the University’s first ever five-year strategic plan — a plan that she championed.
Under her leadership, the University has seen a 30 percent improvement in six-year graduation rates and a 64 percent improvement in four-year graduation rates for first-time freshmen — both University records — while the achievement gap was eliminated for transfer students and cut in half for first-time freshmen. The institution is ranked No. 1 in California and second in the nation in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics, as well as fifth in the nation in graduating students of color.
Last year alone, she presided over the largest number of degrees ever awarded in a single year, as well as the largest enrollment in Cal State Fullerton history.
“President García woke up the University and encouraged all of us to do better … and it shows,” said Jeffrey Van Harte ’80 (B.A. business administration-finance), chairman of Jackson Square Partners and chair of the Cal State Fullerton Philanthropic Foundation Board of Governors. “Cal State Fullerton has achieved incredible new heights, including being recognized as one of the top 25 ‘most innovative’ institutions by U.S. News & World Report. This recognition is based on what our peers in higher education see — and what they see is that we’re achieving and moving in the right direction.”
“President García’s support of and attention to philanthropy at Cal State Fullerton provided the vision for us to raise more than $21 million dollars per year for the past two consecutive years,” said Greg Saks, vice president for university advancement.
Indeed, increasing revenue through outside fundraising was an important goal in the University’s five-year strategic plan. Saks pointed out that what helped make García so effective in fundraising was her ability to tell the stories of the students, the University’s mission and its impact.
“The University graduates more than 10,000 students a year and more than half of its 286,000 graduates stay in Orange County,” he explained. “She was able to demonstrate, in very personal stories, that a gift to Cal State Fullerton helps ensure a strong and educated workforce for the community.”
Kerri Ruppert Schiller ’82 (B.A. business administration-accounting) agreed. “Dr. García’s energy and enthusiasm brought a fresh vibrancy to the campus,” said the senior vice president and chief financial officer of Children’s Hospital of Orange County, who is a Philanthropic Foundation board member. “She was the catalyst for uniting and aligning the campus, our community and students … lighting a fire that has resulted in the significant advancements gained under her leadership.”
Three years ago, García promised that the University would develop its first academic master plan. This collaborative undertaking has been completed, and outlines what faculty teach, who they teach, how they teach, who will do the teaching and how many will be taught.
“She fostered a diverse and inclusive campus community … creating a learning environment where students can thrive and achieve their goal of a college degree,” shared Silas Abrego, a member of the CSU Board of Trustees and CSUF vice president emeritus for student affairs. “… Her impact on this great University has positioned Cal State Fullerton to see another 60 years of groundbreaking success.”
In 2016, in a sign that the University is emerging as the nation’s model public comprehensive university, U.S. News & World Report heralded the institution as a top “national university,” rather than a top “regional university,” the narrower category in which CSUF had been previously ranked.
But what these achievements truly represent are the success of tens of thousands of graduates, many the first in their families to attend college, to pursue a path of upward mobility — a path that will affect the lives of generations to come.
A first-generation college graduate and the first Latina president in the largest system of senior higher education in the country, García serves on many local and national boards, including the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. She was appointed by former President Barack Obama to serve on the president’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
“The tremendous work we’ve done together transformed my life, just as it has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of students we educated together,” García said recently. Her legacy of fulfilling the promise of higher education as a great equalizer remains.