WIHE Interview: Dr. Mildred García

Written by
Lisa Mednick Takami

Dec 1, 2021

Dec 1, 2021 • by Lisa Mednick Takami

Dr. Mildred García assumed the presidency of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in January 2018. Previously, she served as President of California State University, Fullerton and Berkeley Colleges NY and NJ. I became acquainted with Dr. García at an alumni event during her tenure as President of California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Describe your job in one sentence.

I represent the country’s regional state colleges and universities that educate the new student majority in America.

You impart passion for making a difference in higher education. How do you encourage others to take a stake in today’s college students and graduate underserved students?

You must be authentic. I recall bell hooks’ quote that you must be a little vulnerable and share a bit about yourself for people to understand the lenses you use to see the world. I tell my personal story, my family’s, my nieces’ and nephews’ and how we started from very little to where we are today. People connect and… realize that not everyone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Everyone can reach their highest potential if they set their mind to it and have mentors.

What were the significant educational and professional steps in your career trajectory?

My mom gave me the best education I could have when she allowed me (at age 14) to get authorization to work in the factory over the summer where she and my cousins worked. I realized I never wanted my family or me to work in a factory again. It was an awakening. Like many first-generation, low-income students, you want to get yourself and others out of poverty. When you go to school and college, it is your teachers and professors who help you to fall in love with education….I had wonderful teachers and mentors along the way who encouraged and saw things in me that I did not see in myself.

You have spent much of your career in California. What impact did your upbringing have on your career path and decision to return to the East Coast as AASCU President?

Growing up in Brooklyn, there were two tenement buildings filled with people from different ethnicities: Italian Americans, African-Americans, Jewish Americans and Puerto Ricans, all living together. We learned and understood diversity from each other. We learned so much about our neighbors’ cultures, and they learned about ours. I brought this experience of diversity to California.

I also brought my school trajectory to California. I started at a community college, which was fortunate. More than 50% of Latinos and many African-American and low-income students start at community college. These things were unique for me and for so many others today, including that my first language was Spanish.

My parents were very strict about speaking Spanish at home and learning English at school so I would have the asset of speaking two languages. When I talk to families, I impart the importance of their children learning English, but I also tell them to hold onto their own language because the asset of language will be important to their kids’ future. I transferred and continued my path, which led to earning a Doctor of Education and a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University NY.

I now represent 3.5 million students from so many different backgrounds, regardless of income, from red states and blue states, it does not really matter. I represent students in all states to reach their potential.

How would you describe the transition from serving as a university president to a national public policy advocate?

I was the first Latina woman president in the California State University system, and I am the first Latina president at AASCU and of the six higher education presidential associations. It is about showing that we have a seat at the table. I am using my bully pulpit not only for Latino students, but for all students, particularly the underrepresented.

When you look at the presidential associations today, there are men at the table, and there are also women! It is extremely important that those who come after me see there is a seat at the table for them. I have the opportunity to represent all students, but especially the underserved. This is important for students but also for the country. The country is slowly starting to recognize that if we do not educate those who have been underserved, this country is in trouble.

What opportunities are inherent to your role at AASCU?

State college and university presidents have the opportunity to share, learn, and speak about challenges and mistakes among peers they trust. That is exciting for me. All our professional development programs help diversify executive leadership: The New Presidents Academy and The Millennial Leadership Institute, now 22 years old and started by African-American presidents to diversify the presidency. We have 165 leaders who have become presidents.

AASCU also offers the Academy for New Provosts and the Becoming a Provost Academy, among many other programs.

In the four-year public sector, we have more underrepresented people as presidents than in the private sector. To be the voice of public, regional, comprehensive institutions on Capitol Hill is extremely important. Our students’ debt is on average $12–16K when they finish a degree, not the $100K of many other institutions. We stake our rightful place on the Hill and in the public, so that families understand we are more affordable, we are smaller, and our faculty teach classes, rather than teacher assistants.

What mentors and sponsors have had the greatest impact on your professional journey?

My parents have a wonderful saying that I often use in speeches: “The only inheritance a poor family can leave you is a good education.” This expression has stayed with me all my life because it rings true. If you have a good education, you can go far in this country. I had teachers and staff at the community college that saw potential in me. I still have a thesaurus in which a professor wrote, “To Millie, a young lady that will go very far” and encouraged me to go on to my four-year degree.

The staff I worked with in Financial Aid made me a peer advisor and put me through professional development training, all of which helped me to grow. Friends who went before me, my dissertation sponsor, all encouraging me to keep going. My dissertation sponsor, Bob Birnbaum, wrote in his book, “To Millie, who will someday be a president.”…When I became president of CSU Fullerton, I called him, and he said he was wrong [because] you are on your third presidency! My sisters and brothers have been fundamental to my success. Family!

What was the most significant challenge you faced in your career and how did you navigate this situation?

I had been President of Berkeley College for four days when 9/11 hit. We lost 11 students and a faculty member’s husband. I remember taking a deep breath, getting everyone together in the auditorium and saying: “Let’s hold hands. If you pray, pray. We are going to get through this together.” There was no playbook for presidents for 9/11, just like with Covid now. The time after 9/11 and the healing—speaking with family members who lost loved ones and the graduations with posthumous degrees—I still get emotional about it. As a president, I had to be compassionate and upbeat and talk about hope—that was the most challenging… It is about taking moments behind closed doors to acknowledge what you are feeling and then going out there to be empathetic…and to help people get through a horrible situation.

What suggestions do you have for WIHE readers aspiring to serve as the CEO of a college, university or national public policy agency?

Continue learning. Understand…why you want to do these positions. They are not easy. They may look glamorous—they are not. Do the job you are doing well, and other people will recognize you and help you to move forward. Have mentors. Susan L. Taylor writes in her book In the Spirit (1993) that in the front row of your Theater of Life should be people who are encouraging you, applauding you and helping you along the way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dr. Lisa Mednick Takami, Ed.D. is a higher education administrator, writer and equity, diversity and inclusion advocate. She can be reached at ltakami8@gmail.com.