Latina University Presidents, Empowering Communities through Education

By Nilda Melissa Diaz

Latinas are making their mark in education as presidents of Universities across the country. While their journeys to the presidency are vastly different, their fierce commitment to their communities through quality education and beyond ties them together, as does their view on obstacles — or opportunities to learn and innovate.

 

Dr. Waded Cruzado
Montana State University
12th President

MSU president Waded Cruzado. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

It’s a long journey from a first-generation college graduate in Puerto Rico to president of Montana State University. Dr. Waded Cruzado was the first person to graduate college in her family. Just before her graduation, the department director called to ask about her life plans post-graduation and suggested she continue her studies.

“When you’re the first person in your family to graduate college, everything is new: the language, the customs, the culture,” she shares. “That conversation was very important.”

Dr. Cruzado moved to Texas, made a life there, and as she was finishing her degree, her alma mater contacted her with a teaching position.

“The student saw herself as a professor,” she says. After teaching a few years, she became auxiliary dean, with more fear than shame.

Soon after, the University of New Mexico called and Dr. Cruzado became their Dean of Arts and Science, eventually Provost and finally, their interim president. During that time that Dr. Cruzado was contacted three times by headhunters to add her name to the pool for the presidency at MSU. She was skeptical. The state Latino population was then at two percent.

“I asked him, ‘Do you know where I’m from? I don’t look nor sound like anybody there! What is it that you see in me?’ And he replied, ‘What we see in you is your experience in land grand universities, your passion for minorities and we are looking for someone full of energy.’ Well, he shut me up,” she says.

Dr. Cruzado decided, with the help of her family, to go for it. Later, she learned she was the last candidate, in fact, number 59.

Today, Dr. Cruzado has made Montana and MSU her home. Since January 2010, Dr. Cruzado has served as the 12th President of Montana State University. During this time, she has significantly reshaped the face and future of the state’s first land-grant institution.

She is well known for her understanding of the Morrill Act, which created the land-grant university system nearly 160 years ago.

In 2016, MSU welcomed its inaugural class of Hilleman Scholars. She holds the Hilleman Scholars Program close to her heart. Named after MSU alum and microbiologist Dr. Maurice Hilleman, the program gives mentorship and resources to 50 local students whose life or educational experiences might deter them from pursuing higher academics. The program is motivated by a desire to provide Montana students with more opportunities.

“Most of them are first-generation college students, part of the rural population,” she shares. “From the first group, we already have two students in the school of medicine.”

In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed President Cruzado to the International Food and Agricultural Development Board, a seven-member advisory council that advises USAID on agriculture, rural development, and nutrition issues related to global food insecurity. She was reappointed in 2017 and served on the board until 2020.

In 2015, President Cruzado received the “Hero” Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Montana Chapter for her initiative and commitment to establishing the MSU Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery. She also received the Chief Executive HR Champion Award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.  In that same year, President Cruzado was appointed to the inaugural Hispanic Advisory Board for TIAA-CREF.

In 2014, President Cruzado was elected to serve a three-year term on the APLU Board of Directors, the governing and policymaking body of the oldest university association in the nation.

President Cruzado serves on the board of Campus Compact, U.S. Bank, The Burton K. Wheeler Center, and as a commissioner of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

A passionate champion of the land-grant’s tripartite mission of education, research and public outreach, as well as the important role of higher education, Dr. Cruzado advises everyone to  “Accept the challenge, échale ganas,” she shares.You have the intelligence and capacity to move forward.”

 

Dr. Teresa Leyba Ruiz
Glendale Community College, Arizona
8th President

Life has come full circle for Dr. Teresa Leyba Ruiz, president at the Glendale Valley Community College in Arizona. From early on, her father, she says, told her “Mi’ja, you have to go to college.”

In eighth grade, Dr. Ruiz got involved with the wrong crowd, but her father nipped that situation immediately by transferring her to a school 10 miles away.

She was encouraged to become an engineer, but Dr. Ruiz followed her calling and became a math teacher. She taught for 23 years at the same school her dad withdrew her from.

“When I was about 23 years old as a student-teacher, an older man said to me, ‘why aren’t you at home having babies?’ That incident made me say, this is why I need to teach in our community,” she recalls.

Another fellow teacher and mentor gave her the motivation she needed to keep going. “This older man had a sign that said ‘con ganas.’ He believed in our community,” she says. “No matter how long you’ve been working, no matter the position, you can always use a mentor.”

After pursuing her doctorate, Dr. Ruiz accepted a position as a process engineer at Hewlett Packard. The day she arrived in Palo Alto, California, where the company was headquartered, she learned the company had gone through a major reorganization and her position had been eliminated. The company then offered her an administrative assistant position. It was then that she realized Corporate America was not a fit for her.

Ruiz continued in various roles in academia until 2016, when she became the interim president at Glendale community college. In 2018, she accepted the permanent position. Her first event as president was an HSI executive conversation hosted by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) at Apple Park in Palo Alto. It was the exact location where Hewlett-Packard used to have its headquarters.

“Talk about full circle. It was validating the opportunity,” she says. “You always have to be ready.”

Dr. Ruiz connects with students through surprise lunches and helping with math tutoring, a subject she loves. This connection has led her to learn more about the struggle the GCC students often face. “What stops our students from success are their basic needs,” she explains.

To alleviate this issue, GCC has partnered with a local nonprofit to provide housing vouchers for two years to their students, allowing them to concentrate on advancing their education. “Our typical student is a part-time, a Latina with a family to raise,” she says.

And for those Latinas looking to become leaders in their communities, Dr. Ruiz has some advice. “You lead from where you are,” she says. “We need you. We need your voice, care, and compassion. We know what it takes to save our communities. Get your credentials and get your degree.”

 

Dr. Irma Becerra
Marymount University
7th President

At Marymount University, Dr. Irma Becerra has a plan. After increasing graduation rates at Florida International University and improving academics as provost at St. Thomas University, she spearheads efforts to make Marymount a nationally recognized name.

“That’s the goal of our strategic plan called Momentum,” she shares. “I want that to be my legacy at Marymount.”

The seventh President of Marymount University in Arlington, Va., Dr. Becerra exiled Cuba at two years old. Her family moved to Puerto Rico, and at 15 years old, she moved to Miami with her grandmother, who had been a wealthy woman in Cuba and had started over in the U.S. as a maid.

“My passion for higher education is based on my own grandmother’s experience of having to leave everything behind and start again from nothing,” she says. “She would tell me no matter what happens in life, no one can ever take away your education.”

She enjoyed numbers and pursued degrees in mechanical engineering. She worked as an engineer in charge of the reliability of the system power grid at Florida Power and Light early on in her career, but something was missing. “I was spending all that time in the computer room,” she shares. “I was coding and I missed people, I consider myself a people’s person.”

Then, the company went through a quality management initiative and announced that they were looking for a statistics corporate instructor. Dr. Becerra jumped on the opportunity.

“I volunteered to teach for the company, one week every month,” she says.  “I have to say that it was at this moment that I fell in love with adult education.”

As a woman in a male-dominated field in the 1980s, where flexibility for mothers was practically unheard of, Dr. Becerra decided to pursue her newfound passion. She finished a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and started her mark in academia.

Dr. Becerra has introduced several initiatives with long-lasting effects supporting Marymount’s mission and vision for the future. This includes adding market-driven academic programs that prioritize career preparation, overseeing the transition to a new academic structure, acquiring The Rixey luxury apartment building next door to Marymount’s Ballston Center and improving the university’s IT infrastructure through the implementation of the state-of-the-art enterprise resource planning application, Workday. She has also navigated the school community through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To Latinas who want to take their careers and communities to the next level, Dr. Becerra has some advice. “Don’t take that no for an answer because if you have it in your heart that it is a yes, then you should keep going and keep striving and keep pursuing,” she says. “Always remember how important you are to others other students that are coming after you that are seen you as an important role model.”

An educator who began her career in the private sector and the holder of four patents and copyrights, Dr. Becerra advocates for a STEM-educated workforce and holds the mindset of a trained scientist and seasoned entrepreneur.  Prior to Marymount, she served as Provost and Chief Academic Officer at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Fla., and spent three decades at FIU in a variety of positions that include Vice President, Vice Provost, Entrepreneurship Center Director, and tenured professor in Management Information Systems. She founded FIU’s Knowledge Management Lab and led major projects as principal investigator at the National Science Foundation, NASA (Headquarters, Kennedy, Ames and Goddard Space Flight Centers) and the Air Force Research Lab. She was also a Sloan Scholar at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research. In addition, Dr. Becerra has authored four books and numerous journal articles in knowledge management and business intelligence. She earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Miami and became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Florida International University (FIU).

“It’s possible to pursue your career, your passion, and have a successful family life. We can have both. I think that it does require some creativity,” she says. “Not expecting to be perfect at everything but doing the best in the things that are most important.”

 

Ana Patterson
Southwestern Adventist University
26th President

Ana Patterson was a high school student the first time she heard about Southwestern Adventist University. A New Yorker of Chilean-Italian descent, she moved to Texas to attend the university she now presides.

“Education played a strong role in my life from the time that I was a child,” she says. “Both of my parents pushed me in that direction. My father worked for the New York City board of education as a guidance counselor so I was around education my entire life.”

She completed both of her degrees at SWAU, and while completing her MBA, a professor lit a spark in her. “[The professor] talked to me about possibly teaching and higher education in the future and really it was that professor who helped me to think about a career in higher education,” she shares. “I started as an adjunct instructor. That is what got me on the path to teaching because I fell in love with the classroom and just the interaction with the students.”

Before pursuing her MBA, Patterson was an entrepreneur, owning a family construction company, and applied that knowledge, from running a business to the classroom. This experience allowed her to connect with her students.

“I was able to really talk to my students about what life was actually like in the business world and bring examples from my experiences to them,” she shares.

Patterson taught for seven years. In 2019 she was named Special Assistant to the President, and in 2021, she was unanimously chosen as the first Latina and woman President.

“Ana Patterson is the epitome of both competence and humility. Her passion and love for both the university and its students and their continued success made her the ideal candidate for the role of president. We thank God for his leadership in the selection process, and we know the university is in good hands because it’s in God’s hands,” said Carlos J. Craig, chair of the Southwestern Adventist University board of trustees and president of the Southwestern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

She has been an active member of the community surrounding the university for the past two decades, acting as a board member for several organizations serving children and as president of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Johnson County’s board of directors

While she has faced setbacks on her journey, Patterson sees them differently. “I wouldn’t call them obstacles. I like to take any obstacle and see the opportunity,” she says. “The decisions that I had to make are very similar to decisions that most women with careers have to make, and those are decisions that have to do with your family, like life-work balance.”

 

Photo courtesy of Ana Patterson and Southwestern Adventist University.

 

 

 

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