By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS
During a recent staff development event for California’s Community College System, Deputy Chancellor Dr. Daisy Gonzales asked her 158-member team to think about who they are, where they’re going, and why.
As the first Latina to serve as second in command for the country’s largest higher education system, that question prompted her to reflect back her own childhood experience.
“I grew up all over LA,” says Gonzales, who was born to an immigrant family, entered foster care at the age of two, and lived in foster care homes across Los Angeles. “My home is California.”
With a combined educational attainment of second-grade, Gonzales’s biological parents had to work four jobs at a time to support their family.
Gonzales was primed at an early age for discipline and self-sufficiency. During a brief return to her biological parents, she was helping her parents understand and sign their mortgage payments at only seven years old. At 12, she had her first job selling pumpkins from a pumpkin patch. When it came to education and college, however, she had few guides.
“No one had ever talked to me about college until Ms. Barker, she was my Chemistry teacher,” says Gonzales, recalling how that instructor offered her a sense of refuge and possibility when it often seemed there was none.
One day, Gonzales came to Ms. Barker to ask if she could eat lunch inside her classroom because she didn’t feel safe on the school grounds of its crime-ridden community. Ms. Barker agreed on the condition that Gonzales create a college club where she and the other students could discuss and submit college applications.
Ms. Barker’s support contrasted sharply with some of Gonzales’s other school experiences. For instance, Gonzales says her economics teacher would send all the Latino students to sit in the back of the class. When they asked why, the teacher said, “none of you will go to college.”
Soon after that incident, Gonzales and her friend received their college acceptance letters and took them straight to the teacher who had so quickly and discriminately dismissed their academic potential.
“We said, ‘We just wanted to show you this,’ and then left,” Gonzales recalls.
But even after she received her acceptance, she struggled to move on to college. In California, foster youth are typically aged out of the system at 18. However, Gonzales tried to leave the system earlier.
“I was given some advice that if I emancipated early, I would be able to get more financial aid,” Gonzales says. “That wasn’t true. And I became homeless.”
Fortunately, Ms. Barker, let Gonzales live in her house until she finished high school.
Finding her voice
Gonzales chose Mills College, a prestigious all-women’s school in Oakland in hopes of gaining a strong foundation for female leadership, but she was blindsided by some of the cultural clashes that came with it.
“I remember getting out of at taxi and seeing butlers and maids,” Gonzales says, noting this was something she’d only seen on television or in the movies.
The next shocker was the return of a class paper she’d turned in with no grade attached, just a note that read: “Learn English first.”
That made her angry—”I thought that I had made it in,” she says.
But remarks like this one fueled a desire to create her own power, so she launched a successful campaign for student body president, and upon taking office, she took that old essay with the “learn English” note the dean of the college. Thanks to advocacy like this, the college stepped up its efforts to hire female professors of color, and it establish a solidarity lounge.
“What I do now, and what I did then, was that I didn’t give up,” says Gonzales, who graduated from Mills College in 2007 with a degree in Public Policy Analysis.
She spent the next two years teaching in a low-income school district, followed by a position on the state’s assembly budget committee, before deciding to apply for a doctorate in sociology.
“One of the things that was missing in state policymaking was the right research,” Gonzales says.
Become a Leader
As the first Latina in five years to enroll in University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB)’s graduate program in sociology, Gonzales says she felt alone, but determined to make a path for others. As a result, she applied to volunteer with the UnidosUS Líderes Summit, a convening of high school and college-aged Latino youth that used to run concurrently with UnidosUS’s Annual Conference.
“The program solidified that I was a leader, and that people like me could become leaders,” Gonzales says.
Shortly after the Líderes Summit, Gonzales saw a local news story about a group of six foster children who were found in cages at a group home. Horrified, she started sending emails to local officials, asking them how they were preparing to receive the students from the group home in school classrooms.
“I was just asking a question,” she says, but before she knew it, officials asked her to create a foster youth program, that she modeled after some of the leadership she’d seen at the Líderes Summit.
The program came to fruition under the name LEGIT (Leaders Engage with Good Ideas Today), incorporating several of the children from that news story. The youth were tasked with interviewing other foster youth in hopes of improving the system and, at the end of the program, the local Board of Supervisors provided each youth with a college scholarship. At the end of the first year, LEGIT was even able to hire some of the graduates to help run the program. While Gonzales has since moved on, she continues to attend the program’s graduation every year.
Keeping the door open
Back on campus at UCSB, Gonzales was still facing her own hurdles. For example, one professor wrote on her application portfolio for her doctoral program that she was—”very unlikely to succeed because she’s first generation.”
But she got in, she persisted, and she used that negative comment to fuel her own determination.
“I’m going to finish in five years, is that going to be a problem?” She’d ask each potential chair for her doctoral thesis committee.
“If you apply yourself, I think you can do it,” responded the fifth potential chairperson she interviewed.
Five was indeed the magic number—she graduated in 2016, exactly five years after she began her program.
The greatest potential
Even with the PhD by her name, finding a good job took some time, and the responses from prospective employers weren’t always pleasant. One even told her she’d never be worth more than $50,000. But then came a call from Stanford with an offer to serve as a researcher in its Policy Analysis for California Education center.
“My job was to make (that research) relevant to state policymakers,” Gonzales says.
This work, combined with her lifelong passion for educational equity ultimately led to her current role as Deputy Chancellor of the California Community College system.
“I get to implement reforms and initiatives that will allow students to succeed,” Gonzales says.
Those reforms could transform the outlook for tens of thousands of students in the state’s diverse community college system, in which 73% are people of color and 44% of students are Latinos.
Because students can enter community college with multiple goals, be it to obtain an associate degree, transfer to a four-year college, earn a career technical certificate, or obtain a micro-credential that could help them advance their career, the community college system in the state is uniquely positioned to unlock California’s potential.
“There are a lot of people who are being displaced by technology,” Gonzales added, “It’s equally important to help people get a BA as it is to help them get credentialed.”
For example, there are 2.1 million students enrolled in California’s community college system, yet there are another 2.6 million students that the system does not yet serve because they don’t have GEDs. However, these individuals could potentially qualify for micro-credentials that could help them advance their careers.
“If we can’t get our system to work, then we have failed our entire state,” Gonzales says. And yet, 62% of students who enroll in community college in the state of California don’t end up finishing their degree or their certification. “In any other industry, you’d be out of business,” Gonzales says.
This is a sharp contrast to Gonzales’s own undergraduate experience in a private institution. Gonzales failed the English placement exam she took after admission to Mills College. But the college ensured her a timely graduation by providing her with extra English language support.
That’s not how it worked in California’s community college system. Until two years ago, some students were required to take classes at the high school level to “catch up” with their classmates instead of being allowed to take the required classes that they needed to complete their degrees on time. As a result, students who were behind in English or math stayed there.
“No wonder it took an average of six years for students to earn a degree that is supposed to take two years,” Gonzales says.
Her office’s advocacy was instrumental in the creation of a new state law, AB 705. Passed in 2017, the bill requires California Community Colleges to use multiple measures when assessing students’ potential. The new law asks colleges to provide students with tutoring and corequisite courses when they need extra help.
For Gonzales, that’s one way colleges can better serve their students. Another is to change the structure of funding that colleges receive so that it’s tied to student performance rather than enrollment.
“Enrollment is the primary way of funding community colleges,” Gonzales adds, but says that doesn’t necessarily translate to higher academic support and achievement. Because students only have to be enrolled for two months at a college to count as enrolled for the entire year, this funding formula incentivizes practices like two months of free parking. As a result, students counted as enrolled aren’t necessarily being given the support they need.
Under the performance-based approach, colleges receive more funding when they have students succeed. For example, colleges that help students graduate with an Associate Degree for Transfer, (where students transfer to a four-year college after graduation) can receive more funding than colleges where the students don’t graduate at all. Additional funding is provided for colleges that help low-income students succeed.
At the same time, Gonzales is concerned with is how students are able to pay for their studies, particularly those who are low-income or first generation. At $46 per unit, California’s community college tuition is the lowest in the nation, but it’s an expensive state to live in, so those unit costs can really add up.
“To help students succeed, we need to fund the total cost of attendance at community colleges—tuition, transportation, housing, books, supplies,” Gonzales explains,
The majority of California’s community college students don’t qualify for the state’s CalGrant financial aid program because it is focused on students aged 18 to 24 seeking a four-year degree with no more than a one-year gap between high school and college. The state’s community college students have an average age of 26. Additionally, according to the California Community Colleges #RealCollege Survey in March 2019, half of community college students in the state faced hunger insecurity and 60% face housing insecurity in the past year, which is a direct result of their ability to access financial aid for their education.
Changing an Institution
But knowing what reforms need to be made and ensuring that happens can be especially difficult when turnover among top college leadership is high, and in California, most college presidents only stay two years.
That’s another track record the trailblazing Gonzales would like to break. This past year, she was nominated to be part of the Aspen Presidential Fellowship, which is aimed at training the next generation of college presidents. The program reinforced her desire to belong to a network of leaders who are committed to transformational change regardless of how much resistance they will likely face.
The fellowship is a key part of Gonzales’s view on who she is, where she is going, and why. As she reflects on the struggles that she’s experienced, she says she believes she has a responsibility to keep the door open for other members of the community to succeed.
“I know how to lead transformational change through statewide education policy. Through this program, I will learn how to drive change at an institution and build the infrastructure to make that change sustainable,” she says. “My other hope is that by completing this program, I can open the door for more Latinos to become college presidents.”