Dr. Mildred (Millie) García is the seventh president of California State University, Dominguez Hills, and the first Latina president in the California State University system. Leading one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse universities in the western United States, García has a commitment to multicultural alliances and a belief that these coalitions strengthen institutions and communities as well as students’ self-development and opportunities.
She has served on editorial boards for a variety of scholarly publications and been an active participant and consultant in the policy work of the National Science Foundation, the American Educational Research Association, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, and other national, regional and state higher education organizations.
García has been recently appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Additionally, she currently serves on the boards of directors for the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education; on the advisory boards of Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education and Higher Education Abstracts; the board of trustees for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning; the board of visitors for USAF’s Air University; and as founding board member of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships. Appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2010, she serves on the U.S. Committee on Measures of Student Success, which is charged with developing recommendations to improve student success at two-year degree-granting institutions.
You are a first generation college student. How did that accomplishment impact you at that time? As I was growing up, my parents always told me “the only inheritance a poor family could leave you was a good education.” For them it meant a high school diploma but I fell in love with learning. My parents loved to constantly learn although their families could not afford for them to go to school in Puerto Rico. They both had 8th grade accomplishments yet they were so smart. My father helped me with my algebra homework and when he died when I was 12, my mother managed a household with a factory salary and never felt poor.
Growing up in the housing projects after my father passed, we felt that college was for “rich people.” Yet I had terrific teachers who encouraged me to continue. My mom in her own way supported me as well. She would have my dinner warming on a radiator when I came home late from my part time jobs while I was going to college, she would encourage me to continue studying.
My graduating from college was a big achievement not only for me but my entire family. It also set the bar for those in my family coming after me.
Being the youngest of seven, how did this accomplishment impact your family? My entire family was very proud of my accomplishments and today my nieces and nephews ask a very different question. Before the question was “Will I go to College?” Today the question is “Which College will I attend.”
A college degree not only transformed my life but the lives of my family. I have many professionals in my family now from lawyers to physician assistants to financial planners!
Cal Sate Dominguez Hills is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse universities in the western United States. How have you and do you use your experience to reach your students? First of all I do use my experience. It is so important that students realize that I wasn’t born into the middle class and that what they dream is possible. When I speak to students, I tell them my story. They are so amazed at times to know that my parents worked in factories, that my dad died when I was 12 and that my mom raised us on her very small salary. I tell them that a high school guidance counselor told me I would never go to college and out of the stubbornness taught by my parents and my promise to myself I proved them wrong.
Students need to see success stories from people who look like them. I also tell them the importance of mentors and that mentors come from all walks of life.
How did your childhood and young adult experiences impact your interest in equity, diversity and outreach and their respective impact on policy and practice? For me, it was all about opportunity for all. I am not the smartest in my family, I had great opportunities. It was the time of integration of public schools and instead of walking to the public schools in the housing projects; I walked to the public schools of the exclusive Brooklyn Heights neighborhood in NYC. There I had caring teachers who took an interest in their students and provided a strong education. I started learning French in the 2nd grade, was provided music lessons and a violin to take home to practice, taken to the NY Philharmonic for concerts and Broadway plays – all activities my parents could not afford. They opened up a new world for me.
My passion for equity, diversity and outreach comes from my own experience. All children can reach their utmost potential if we provide the strong and caring teachers and tools need for them to reach their potential, surrounded by individuals that care for them.
How has your leadership style changed since your first professional positions in New York? I’m not sure my leadership style has changed, but it has certainly deepened. My leadership style stems from coming from a large family. Things were done collaboratively. Yes someone gave direction, but together we were able to accomplish much.
Watching successful leaders and then asking them to mentor me has helped me tremendously in my career. I tell individuals wanting to be in leadership positions to think about their styles and also watch successful leaders and what traits they admire. Then tell that leader how much they admire those traits and ask if they would mentor them. Almost always the person never says no because they are flattered, appreciate the observations and wants to help.
In addition to having mentors – I believe you need mentors throughout your life – my education and continuous reading about leadership deepens my thinking. I know that while I tend to be collaborative, leadership styles change depending on the situation. The importance of viewing the environment and then determining what is needed at the organization at that particular point in its history is something I learned through my studies.
What has been the driving force in your life? My parents instilled the driving force of all that was possible. I marvel how they left their family and friends in Puerto Rico, not speaking the language, being in an environment that wasn’t welcoming to them and yet they successfully raised their children with tremendous obstacles. Their commitment to us, their community, their passion, their stubbornness for us to succeed is ever present for me. I look at my nieces and nephews and want the same for all of them. But I also want the same for all children. Those of lesser means can be tremendous contributors to our society if we as a society understand the importance of an excellent education and embracing all in our country as Americans. We seldom discuss that love is powerful and love with guidance, support and excellent teachers is what this country needs.
We all should be up in arms in the way our country is moving away from the importance of education. The short sightedness of what that will mean not only for those families but also for the entire country. The citizenship should be demanding from the legislators that cuts to education has to stop. Shouldn’t we all be worried that young boys are dropping out of school at alarming rates and the young men of all races are not going to college in record numbers? Education is not only an individual benefit; it is a societal benefit as well. I can hear individuals speak about accountability and I am all for it, so put accountability measures in place, hold schools to standards, but cutting what is the most precious resource in the world, peoples’ ability to learn and enhance their creative and imaginative selves, is a disgrace to our country; one that needs an educated citizenry that will be leaders in their communities, the owners of businesses, the work force and the leaders of tomorrow and that will ensure social justice and equality.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome? I believe the biggest obstacle I had to overcome is being a woman and a woman of color in my field. Throughout my career I was told I couldn’t. I was told that if I started working in a community college I would never work in a university. Or if I worked at a university I wouldn’t be able to work in a research university. I was told that if I started in student affairs, I would never work in the academic division of the University. Or if I hadn’t taken the traditional route in reaching a presidency – through the faculty ranks – I would never be a president. So far all those predictions and rules have been broken! I’ve made transitions throughout all of higher education career and I am now on my second presidency.
I was also told that if I wanted to be a president I had to cut my hair; take off my ankle bracelet; wear conservative colors and stop doing research on diversity, equity and access and success. I did none of that. I wasn’t giving up my soul and who I was for a chance to be a president.
What is the bravest thing you’ve ever done? Oh I had to think about this one. Perhaps it was when a controversial speaker was coming to speak at an institution where I was a vice president. The community was up in arms over the speaker and the president told us she was prepared to uninvite the speaker. Because I truly believe you need to listen to both sides of the issues, the vice presidents (3 of us) decided and told the president that if she did that we would all resign. Was I scared – you bet I was, I was young, supporting myself, no significant savings, afraid of being poor again but I believed deeply in my principles. By the way the speaker did come to campus.
Or maybe it is my career adventures. You see I am close to the family and yet I moved to Phoenix by myself for my career and then moved to Los Angeles. It is not easy moving New Yorkers out of New York! I am here without the love and grounding I get from my family and I miss them dearly. Yet I love what I do and try to see them often. Also, I do have a cousin here, he lives in Pasadena and we try to see each other a couple of times a month.
How do you escape day-to-day pressures during the school year? I’ve learned to escape the pressures. That was something I needed to learn the hard way. I was always on the go, running, and everything in my profession was important. Then my body crashed and my medical doctor – a fabulous woman – told me that if I wanted to live a long life, things had to change.
So now I am more conscious, although still difficult, about free time. I do work out three times a week, I love seeing my family and since they do not live in California I take time to fly to NYC and to Phoenix. My family keeps me grounded and to them I am not a President of anything, I am Millie having to do my part in our family. Friends are important in my life as well. Having fun, spending a weekend going out with friends to explore, see a play, movie, concert, or even just having dinner. I am still trying to develop friendships in LA and also find a place in LA that I could dance salsa without feeling I am the older person surrounded by teenyboppers! I love to dance!
Finally I am also taking more time to read for fun instead of always reading for my profession or the latest on leadership.
It is always a battle for me to find that balance. I believe single women have it harder since they don’t have the significant other helping you to keep that balance.
What haven’t you done that you want to do, perhaps next chapter? Right now I am marveling that a kid from Brooklyn from poor, humble beginnings has accomplished what I have. – with a lot of help from so many! As I thought about this question, I think that now what I am open to is opportunities. What are the doors that will be opened to me in the future? What adventures are next? Where will life actually take me?
As for doing things I haven’t done before, I would love someday to have the time to refresh and relearn French. In languages when you don’t use them you loose them. How about taking classes just for fun! As an academic I am one of the few that has never had a sabbatical. Wouldn’t that be dreamy!