Doing Great Things

When asked if she ever imagined she would be paving the road for Latinos in higher education, Mildred García replied, “If you were to ask me, as I was growing up in Brooklyn, if I would be a university president, that would be far from my imagination. When I was growing up, the university was for rich people and we certainly weren’t rich.”

Dr. García, also known as Millie, became the seventh president of California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) last June. Previously, she served as president of Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she was the eleventh female president and first Latina President in the California State University system.

Millie comes from working class Puerto Rican parents whom she refers to as her “hero and shero.” She lost her father at the age of twelve, and her mother encouraged her to become a secretary to keep from working in a factory. But Millie developed her own path to higher education, as many Latinos had to do in her generation. Beginning in community college, she went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Baruch College, a master’s degree from NYU, and a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Yet she agrees that graduating from a four-year institution continues to be one of the greatest challenges facing Latinos and other students of color today. Millie believes there needs to be more university partnerships in K-12 and community colleges, focusing on engaging students and parents in the early years through educational programs that help students develop hands-on experience that will lead them to university campuses and completing higher education: “The issue is not discovering new steps but having the will to implement the steps. We are currently receiving students who do not have the skills even though high schools are saying they do but yet when they take our entrance exams they are scoring very low.

“The first step to fix this is to implement early assessment programs, the second step is summer bridge and early start programs with strong teachers, the third step is to upfront the first year experience---teach students to use the tools to reach high expectations by referring them to tutoring, advising, offering cultural awareness information to campus staff and provide diversity among staff and faculty as well. I’m also a strong believer of internships for students, when students start to see how their learning applies to where they’re going to want to go, it captures their imagination. If we can have every student that walks through our door experience at least two high impact practices in their career, the research shows they will graduate at a higher rate than those that do not.”

With her drive to continue to improve student success at two-year and four-year degree granting institutions, Millie was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence of Hispanic Americans in 2011. José Rico, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, recognizes her for assisting to develop key policy recommendations, focusing on financing a college education, expanding academic capabilities and empowering families to ensure the success of every student:

“First generation students---who are overwhelmingly Latino---are making extraordinary gains in college attainment, but they still lag behind other groups in earning four-year degrees. Many face unique challenges, where instead of lifting our kids up, costly education systems and poor academic environments hold too many of them back. As president of the largest Hispanic student-serving institution in the nation’s largest state, Millie García is in the driver’s seat to reverse that course where it counts most---to meet President Obama’s goal to have the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by the end of the decade,” he said.

Millie also strives to guide Latinos to higher education by using our culture to help our families understand the process. In the past, she orchestrated financial aid workshops completely in Spanish. One event included telenovelas from Univision. She feels it is equally important to nurture parent engagement, as it is to provide financial resources for our underserved students. “We need to break out of the traditions and reach out to our communities in different ways so that families can understand through their culture, their language and learn about [financial aid] in Spanish in order to learn how to finance post-secondary education in this country, ” she says.

Millie is looking forward her first fall semester at CSUF and she plans to use all her resources to make sure the university strengthens and improves the academic competence and success of Latino students: “It’s being systematic, consistent, and intentional to increase and graduate Latinos and other underserved students. Anybody that enters the doors at CSUF will have the support services necessary and the fabulous educational experience in order to graduate and go on to do the great things that they dream of doing.”

Sarah Rafael García