Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales, PhD, stepped in as Acting Chancellor for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office on July 26. Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley recently accepted a temporary position with the Biden administration as an advisor to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Student Senate of California Community Colleges (SSCCC) President Gerardo Chavez is studying history at Riverside City College (RCC) and served as the RCC student government secretary and Region IX delegate for the 2019-2020 academic year. Now in his role as president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges (SSCCC), he looks forward to continuing working with student leaders to ensure that the SSCCC is serving and representing all 2.1 million California community college students in all platforms, gauge the voice of students to system partners and California Legislature and empower student leaders. 

Acting Chancellor Gonzales and President Chavez sat down for an interview to discuss bolstering student participation in participatory governance, college affordability and accessibility to basic needs and resources and the drive to see that students, especially those underrepresented in higher education can have equitable access and success.

President Chavez: Congratulations on your new role as Acting Chancellor! Thank you for speaking with us.

Acting Chancellor Gonzales: It is always a pleasure to be able to speak directly with students. Students are always at the center of everything that we do. 

You have been Acting Chancellor for a couple of months now, what is happening under your leadership? What are areas of focus and goals for the next four months?

In short, we are going to continue full steam ahead. I have spent the last four years as Deputy Chancellor and working to design policies, tools and supports to help us implement the Vision for Success. So we have plenty of work to do. We have the full support of the Board of Governors and the Chancellor’s Office, we will continue to focus on policy, fiscal and advocacy tools that will help our students achieve their dreams.

The California Community College system is the largest and most diverse in the United States, how does it feel to have the responsibility to lead the system?

It is both exciting and challenging at the same time. I never thought I would be here and have the honor of serving in this capacity. However, I would like to point out that I am not a team of one. We have an incredible team at the Chancellor’s Office and two other great women, Marty Alvarado and Lizette Navarette, will be co-piloting with me. They too know about navigating this ship. They bring much experience and knowledge to the table, and together we are forming a team unlike any other ever seen. We are the first team of Latina women to serve in this capacity, leading the largest system of higher education in the United States, which makes my role so much more significant. Moreover, our collective Chancellor’s Office team is a committed group of working professionals who are unapologetic about being student centered.

As the first Latina to lead the largest system of public higher education in the United States, you have broken the glass ceiling. What does it mean to you to trail blaze for other women of color in higher education?

It is personal. It is about helping students by advocating with them. To me an advocate for students empowers students to embrace their power as leaders and scholars. I also know that my story resonates with the majority of the students that we serve.

I am the first in my family to go to college, a former foster youth, English learner, as a Latina woman, I fundamentally understand the immense responsibility and opportunity this presents. I was a student leader too and I believe in the value that our students bring to rooms where they may be the first or sometimes the only ones. I also know what it is like to be homeless during the holidays and sleep in my car when the dorms are closed for winter break. And I know what it is like to have no one to lean on. I have been there. That is why I do what I do.

I have learned throughout my life that the most important thing you can do is pay it forward. To me that means treating everyone with dignity and respect. And in my daily work, it means being committed to ensuring that the students who are coming behind me can succeed. I understand California demographics, the student struggles, the system shortcomings, and if I can do anything to make things better for students, I will. I believe in the Vision for Success and know that it deserves to be a reality for our students.

The majority of the student population is not aware of the mission and goals of the Chancellor’s Office. One of the commitments of the Vision for Success is to design and decide with the student in mind, what does this mean to you?

The Vision for Success sets a path to increase certificate and degree attainment, to improve transfer rates and to close equity gaps. Essentially, it is about putting students first. It puts us all up to the challenge at the Chancellor’s Office and across 116 colleges. It means that the core of our design and decision-making is our students.

The Vision for Success is also about removing barriers to success in a systematic way and in service of support for college; so that they can continue the great work they are leading. But to do it systematically, we have to address the ecosystem that helps students succeed. For example, community college students typically come from underrepresented communities, where the idea of going to college is difficult based on the total costs involved. While the unit cost in our system is already very low ($46), we can’t ignore the fact that most students are poor, work full-time or more to make a living, have issues with housing, maybe are parents and have childcare issues, are food insecurity and so much more. When you account for who we serve and who we are trying to empower, you realize that going to a community college is not that cheap anymore. Therefore, in order for our students to succeed, that ecosystem has to include housing, textbook costs, supplies, food, transportation and yes, even childcare. What we call total cost of attendance.

For our students, the Vision for Success is a bold system plan to help students achieve their dreams faster. Without a doubt, we serve the most resilient group of students, but this pandemic and the wildfires have presented new challenges. But, we are not giving up. That is why we are here. We get students. This is our time to make those much-needed changes. Close equity gaps. Make higher education more attainable to as many Californians as possible. Promote post Covid-19 recovery. And help students with the total cost of attendance. We are here to get degrees and certificates in students’ hands and better paying jobs. The success of students is better for California, their families and generations to come.

What is the unfinished work that you are most excited about?

Thank you for the question. We are leading national conversations about the integration of diversity, equity and inclusion “DEI” and anti-racism within Guided Pathways as well as strategies for addressing basic needs for students, including financial aid reform. This includes doubling PELL for students, continuing to address financial aid equity in our state and presenting a new model to lead in anti-racism curriculum and core competencies for all educators in our state. I know most of these are issues that the SSCCC has championed, and I am excited to continue to collaborate.

Our changes to student placement have had profound effects on higher education, spurring national changes in the recognition of student capacity and getting students fair credit for their skills. This has reduced the reliance nationwide on inaccurate standardized tests for placement in community colleges and for admission at selective colleges and universities. This work will continue and we will evaluate and continue to challenge ourselves. That is the most important thing we can do as educational leaders. We can never stop learning and improving what we do.

The SSCCC plays a critical role in elevating the student experience and being the voice of students in Sacramento and in every space where decisions that impact students are being made.Why is the student voice important to you and how can we work together to elevate the student voice during your tenure as Acting Chancellor?

I am here to listen to students. We have many advisors and professionals on the ground collecting and reporting data at all times. However, the most important data that we can obtain is the direct customer experience. Students are our customers. 

As student leaders, you have unique opportunities: first person experience, the ability to influence people like myself, and propose policy changes. I believe the best leaders listen and have the interest of the communities they serve. Trust me I am listening. The Chancellor’s Office is listening and I know we will do great work together. 

As students, we are often asked what do you want to do one day or what is your biggest dream. When you were my age, what did you want to be and why? 

That question does take me back to difficult times. As I mentioned I grew up in the foster care system, constantly moving, living out of a trash bag. Stability in my life was non-existent. I dreamed about stability. Along the way, I met educators that lent a hand, gave me advice, and directed me towards a better place. In these instances, I felt good to know that somebody cared. Therefore, my first career choice was to be a teacher, so I could help guide, teach, and be there for other youth. I was a third grade teacher once and a professor. Technically, I have never stopped being an educator. That is what brings me here, to promote positive change, and be there for students. 

Oftentimes students struggle to find their identity and passion in their college journey, what advice can you give those students that are struggling? 

Stay optimistic. Life is hard, but so is giving up on your dreams. Never stop dreaming and pursuing your aspirations because there is always a path. There is always a good person along the way that cares and wants to help. And now I get to be the “old” person that tells you, there is no better time to pursue your degree or certificate. You have to finish your education because it will provide you options and opportunities you never dreamed of…like leading the largest system of public higher education in the United States and helping 2.1 million students. So my advice is believe in yourself because you are worth it. And remember that we are working hard to make things easier and to support your success.