How Daisy Gonzales rose from foster care to the top of the country’s largest higher education system

Credit: Courtesy of California Community Colleges

Acting Chancellor of California Community Colleges Daisy Gonzales speaking at Hancock College 2019.

Who is Daisy Gonzales, California’s New Interim Community College Chancellor? Her journey, which she describes as an “incredible story”, can resonate with many of the system’s 2 million students.

“I realized I was in foster care when I was 4 years old,” she said. As a child, Gonzales grew up in a variety of places including group homes, daycares, and even with parents.

As she made her way, earning a doctorate. and over the past four years as Vice Chancellor of the System, Gonzales has proudly worn her foster family identity as a “badge of honor.”

Gonzales said she knows the experience of being in foster care is something people hide or don’t share.

“I know it’s still a stigma… but it’s an amazing story,” Gonzales said. “Only in this country can you go from being a host family to running the largest public higher education system in one lifetime. “

Gonzales, 36, who identifies as a Latina, last week became the first woman of color to serve as chancellor and lead the country’s most diverse and extensive public education system.

She is only the second woman to hold the post since Acting Chancellor Diane Woodruff was appointed in 2007.

“I am delighted to see her take on this role as she is an important role model for women of color in education and women in education,” said Su Jin Gatlin Jez, executive director of California Competes, a group of education and workforce policy research. “We have this Covid-19 crisis and all the uncertainty and volatility that few people anticipated. So it is very important that there is this stable leadership in community colleges and also a very forward looking, student centered and equity oriented leader.

As one of the first women in her biological family to attend college and as a former young foster family, Gonzales said she knew she was an example to other young people.

Gonzales entered the foster care system when he was only two years old. Sadly, a “long history of domestic violence and abuse” has persisted, she said.

She was reunited with her parents three times, but “when I was 15, I decided that I didn’t want to be reunited with any of my family anymore. My case was not a fairy tale. I did not live with other families but always in a group.

The trip was not easy.

“I emancipated myself when I was 17 because a social worker told me I would be entitled to more financial aid, but it just wasn’t true,” she said. , adding that instead all her benefits had been cut and she was considered independent. adult. “I had nowhere to go.”

Fortunately, she had a high school chemistry teacher, Patricia Barker, who took her in and became Gonzales’ family. The two are still in touch and Gonzales was the bridesmaid at Barker’s wedding.

Barker, who was only beginning her teaching career at the time, said she was not fully aware of Gonzales’ background when she was her teacher, only that she had seen a student who was an “amazing leader” and wanted to “bring people together for a purpose. “

Gonzales would take charge of academic projects at the school and organize other students to work together. His motivation was the impetus that led to what would become a lifelong friendship with Barker.

“Maybe that’s what drew her to me… it was a mutual benefit,” she said. “It wasn’t like I needed to go help this girl. There was never the slightest feeling that she needed me to help her. It was more because it was just the right thing to do, and we had that respect for each other.

At 18, Gonzales enrolled at Mills College in Oakland and began his college career in a program for first-generation students. She received scholarships like the California Chafee Grant, which goes to former youth in foster care, and she worked three different jobs to complete her college education.

Her accomplishments have propelled her to the head of the state’s 116 community colleges, while Eloy Ortiz Oakley takes a four-month sabbatical as a higher education advisor in the Biden administration.

Gonzales and Gatlin Jez recently worked together on an initiative to examine adult learners in California. “And I was in awe of his passion to achieve more equitable results for this population,” said Gatlin Jez.

As acting chancellor, Gonzales takes over at a tumultuous time. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, college enrollments have plummeted and transfer remains a concern as too few students continue to transition to universities.

It is also coming in as many community college districts are considering making vaccines mandatory for students and staff to access campuses. One of Gonzales’ first actions as chancellor was to urge these district leaders to demand vaccines against Covid-19. (The chancellor’s office has limited authority over colleges and does not have the legal authority to require vaccines because state law leaves the management of communicable diseases to community college districts.)

Despite these challenges, Gonzales said she was optimistic.

“This optimism comes with the journey of your lived experience,” she said. “I have survived a lot of different systems that weren’t designed to help me be successful, from fostering to learning English to being a college student. first generation. This is not the first time that I am the first in a role.

She sees her new role as “empowering the rest of the team” and leading the statewide community college system to create partnerships that will help the system succeed and unabashedly advocate for students. at the state level.

Gonzales said she was also optimistic because she knows from experience that community colleges are “some of the hardest working faculty and staff, the hardest working office in the system, and the most resilient students.”

Gonzales has notably led the work of community colleges on diversity, equity and inclusion to create a more anti-racist system by improving faculty diversity and improving measures of student success such as transfer rates among students. blacks and latinos.

Oakley recruited Gonzales in 2018 to the State Assembly, where she was a senior consultant to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, to the community college system for the post of vice-chancellor. She focused on setting and guiding policies in colleges and implementing the system plan to improve student outcomes. She received a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Mills as well as a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Gonzales worked as a Kindergarten to Grade 12 teacher, in addition to her role in the State Assembly, where she was responsible for providing policy strategy, expertise and analysis in education and economic development. .

Later this month, Gonzales will embark on a student-centered listening tour across the state to learn how the system can change to better serve students and their needs.

The chancellor’s office remains focused on increasing completion and transfer rates, ensuring students can have well-paying jobs and reducing racial equity gaps in student outcomes, she said. .

Gonzales said she knows people are curious about whether her priorities will be any different from Oakley’s, but “our core values ​​don’t change… the core value has always been our students. So the work will continue on behalf of our students.

Under his leadership, Gonzales said, “Our daily priorities will not change. “

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