“I hope all of you leave here knowing that Cal State Fullerton is an amazing institution that is helping students rise up and preparing them to lead in the future,” said President Fram Virjee at a Thursday morning meeting of VisionMakers, a program sponsored by the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce.
In the hourlong session, Virjee was interviewed about his life, his career and Cal State Fullerton.
Virjee, appointed president in January, is enthusiastic about the students and the transformative university that he serves.
“Our students come from all different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds,” he said. “Our students are culturally competent — meaning they can work with others across different cultures. Our student body is incredibly diverse. In fact, the largest percentage of our student body is Hispanic (41.5 percent), followed by Asian Pacific Islander 20.9 percent). What CSUF is today is what Orange County will look like in the future.”
“Our students are fully functioning, vibrant members of the community … They will be civically engaged and make their communities and the world a better place.”
Three reasons Virjee believes CSUF students are valued by employers is because most have overcome some adversity in their lives — many are the first in their families to attend college. They are culturally competent, and finally, they gain experience by working with mentors, participating in internships or working at some of the many campus centers.
“Our goal is not only to prepare them for their first jobs but also their second or third,” he said. “For instance, when I meet with engineering students, I’ll tell them, ‘This is your first job — but you’ll invent something or discover that you’re a great leader. I want you to be ready to step into a management position or develop new technologies or systems.’
“Our students are fully functioning, vibrant members of the community,” he continued. “They will be civically engaged and make their communities and the world a better place.
“There’s a rumor that we are a second-tier or commuter campus. We are not. We are the ninth largest employer in Orange County. We received 75,000 applications for admission and we accept about 10,000. We are building the workforce of tomorrow. Our students are smart and hard-working. You will find engaged students on campus from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. They live here. They study here. They are actively involved. And with nearly 300,000 alumni, most of whom live within 50 miles of the campus, our graduates reach out to the newest Titans and help them along.”
Virjee also spoke of his family history. His father was an orphan in Karachi and lived on the streets where he sometimes stole fruit to survive. At 13, he tried to stow away on a freighter but was caught and turned away. At 14, he tried again and convinced the crew that he was 16 (the legal age to work on a ship). By the time he was 28, when we came to the United States, he was the captain of a ship.
His mother, born to an Iowa farm family, moved to California as a two year old. She contracted polio as a teenager and was placed in an iron lung for three years. In the iron lung next to her, was an African American jazz singer who taught her how to sing jazz.
His parents met when his father’s ship docked in San Pedro. His parents got married five days after their first date. “Needless to say, my maternal grandparents weren’t too happy about that,” he said. Especially when his father left the day after marrying for a nine-month voyage.
At the conclusion of his trip, Virjee’s father sent a telex to his 20-year-old bride with instructions to pick up tickets to fly to Hong Kong. The next time she would return to America, she would have two children.
Virjee, who was born in London, spent the first five years of his life on the ship. However, when he became old enough to attend school, the family settled in San Pedro.
He attended college at UC Santa Barbara where he met his future wife, Julie, the first week he arrived. Upon graduation, he was accepted by Georgetown to study law. He attended a Georgetown program in Washington, D.C., and was enthralled with politics.
“So here I am … with the best job in the world!”
However, one night he heard his parents talking about “selling the car” so they could afford the $20,000 a year tuition at Georgetown. So he decided to go to Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, which only cost $800 a year … and was a better school, he pointed out.
As the first in his family to go to college, Virjee experienced what many first-generation students discover — he didn’t have a mentor or frame of reference in how to secure a first job.
“At that time, law firms would come to the universities with big brochures and talk with students,” he said. “There was usually a box on each table where you could leave a resume. I stuck a resume in every box.”
He received a call from O’Melveny & Myers for a summer internship in Newport Beach. He grabbed it. Upon graduation, he went to work for the prestigious law firm and moved to Los Angeles to be near the home office.
“It took me 30 years but I finally made it back to Orange County,” he joked.
At the firm, he worked as a corporate litigator and discovered he most enjoyed representing educational institutions. He represented the Los Angeles Unified School District for years and during collective bargaining discussions, he learned the ‘best way to negotiate.’
“It doesn’t have to be adversarial,” he said. “You listen. You ask questions. Break down barriers and collaborate as partners. You ask, ‘Why do you want to do that? Why is that a problem?’ You don’t necessarily take a position — you explain.”
After 30 years in the legal field, he decided to retire. He and Julie had started a nonprofit organization, Yambi Rwanda. And they were getting ready to find a home for themselves in the African nation.
Then he received a call from the California State University Chancellor’s office. Chancellor Timothy White was looking for a new general counsel and wanted Virjee to apply. Virjee responded, “I’m going to Rwanda, but I’ll be happy to sit and advise you.” So they met and talked … and Virjee got on a plane to Rwanda. Mere hours after he landed, his phone started buzzing. The chancellor wanted him to reconsider.
“The more I talked with him, the more I learned about the CSU — it is the economic engine for the state. Higher education leads to social and economic mobility for tens of thousands of students who graduate each year. I was told that I would serve as executive vice chancellor, general counsel and secretary to the CSU Board of Trustees. I would work on access issues, policy, fundraising. Finally, I told the chancellor that I’d give him five years.”
At year four, when Virjee was discussing succession plans, the chancellor had another idea. How would Virjee like to take on the role of president at Cal State Fullerton?
“So here I am,” he announced. “With the best job in the world!
“Look at our campus,” he continued. “With 40,000 students, we are Orange County’s gateway for students. We are proud of who we are and what we do.”