Normally, when a new college president takes office, there’s a lot of handshaking, sitting in the dining hall with students and getting coffee with faculty members.
But not for Dr. Angélica Garcia, president of Berkeley City College. Previously the vice president of student services at Skyline College in San Bruno, Calif., she started her new role on May 7 in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic.
“… I haven’t been able to interact in-person with a single colleague,” Garcia says. She helped distribute meals to students, but from multiple feet away, “in proximity but not really able to connect.” Meanwhile, day-to-day, informal opportunities to build relationships, like just passing in the hallways, aren’t an option.
It’s a challenge, “though not one that’s insurmountable,” she added. “I feel nothing but love and warm welcome in all the virtual by phone and videoconferencing spaces that we have.”
In addition to social distancing from colleagues, Garcia is coming into the presidency at a time when big decisions need to be made about how to keep students safe and how to offer quality online learning as the crisis continues.
The Peralta Community College District — of which Berkeley City College is a part — plans to start the fall semester fully online. Garcia praised the “collective wisdom” and collaborative, participatory governance style of the college system during this time, as well as its response to previous financial struggles. The district was put on probation by accreditors for persistent financial troubles in January, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, after a 2019 report offered 75 recommendations for change, which Garcia says leaders are tackling.
“As I came to BCC, I knew it was a part of a district that experienced some challenges, but it was also a district that had shown monumental strides,” she added.
Having handled COVID-19 at her former institution this spring, Garcia feels prepared to address the kinds of questions the coronavirus will bring in the next academic year, including challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion. About a quarter of Berkeley City College students are Latinx and about 16% are Black, she says, requiring a “race-conscious” approach to student supports as the pandemic disproportionately hits communities of color.
Beyond the crisis, she wants to see Berkeley City College serve as “an ongoing pathway for liberation,” especially for minority students, she says.
For her, that means creating policies that make it easy for students to enroll in the courses they need — “culturally relevant” courses that “tell their stories” — and supports that guide students to timely graduations. She also wants to close equity gaps for transfer and certificate completion rates.
Garcia’s attitude is, “We love having you here, but you have got to go,” she says. “We want it to be clear that you come in, and because we have done our job, you are able to maneuver and transition to the next step.”
Ideally, “a student stays not one extra class, not one extra minute more than they need to,” she added.
At Skyline College, Garcia designed the Promise Scholars Program to boost two-year and three-year graduation rates. She also started the Student Equity & Support Programs division to adopt a guided pathways model and led initiatives to address food and housing insecurity among students.
Garcia partly draws from her own college story as a driving force for her diversity work.
In a statement, Dr. Regina Stanback Stroud, chancellor of the Peralta Community College District, says Garcia’s “experience as a first-generation college student, and student of color, informs her teaching and leadership, always putting students first,” describing the new president as someone who “moves mountains” for student success.
Garcia grew up in a low-income community in the Central Valley. She knows “how high the walls of higher education” can be, and what it’s like to go to college with parents who deeply value education but don’t have the language to help navigate it.
As a first-generation student, she described avoiding an advisor assigned to mentor Latinx undergraduates. She figured the frequent emails inviting her to meet in an administrative office meant she was in trouble.
“I just didn’t know the rules,” she says.
Thinking back on moments like these, she can empathize with her students.
“My being a first-gen student, I don’t automatically assume that a student’s challenge is about their capacity,” she says. “I don’t automatically assume that their challenge is because they don’t want it enough or because they and their families don’t value education.”
She sees her role as a college president and woman of color as an “opportunity” and a “responsibility.”
“I get to model a leadership that has a racial justice lens,” she says. “I am committed to anti-racist work. I am committed to anti-sexist work. And I aspire to lead with that level of authenticity.”
This article originally appeared in the June 25, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.