New Cal State Monterey Bay prez Vanya Quiñones talks about student growth, equity ... and a cute cow

Cal State Monterey Bay president Vanya Quiñones
Cal State Monterey Bay president Vanya Quiñones.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Cal State University Monterey Bay President Vanya Quiñones has plans to increase enrollment, expand academic programs and make an impact on students’ lives. Originally from Puerto Rico, she comes most recently from New York to lead CSUMB through ambitious plans.

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A Q&A with Cal State Monterey Bay president Vanya Quiñones

In her office, Vanya Quiñones, the newly appointed fourth president of California State University, Monterey Bay, has historical scientific artifacts displayed across the top of her bookshelves.

Just below the artifacts, which she says were once used to help discover DNA in labs at Rockefeller University in the 1940s and 1950s, is a portrait of a cow. Her uncle’s cow, Daisy.

“I took that picture because she looks like a diva,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m here, I just look at her ... I have her there to anchor myself.”

Seeing Daisy brings Quiñones back to where she was born — the small beach community of Arecibo, Puerto Rico — which, she adds, didn’t have a library while she lived there.

“But,” she said, “education was really important to my family,” who eventually moved to San Juan, the island’s capital, where she grew up.

Sitting in her office on the CSUMB campus last month, she discussed how her upbringing and professional career is informing her first steps in leading the university — including its more than 750 staff and just over 7,000 students, of which almost half are Latino and more than half are women.

Being one of the only women and people of color in research labs in her early career, Quiñones eventually sought positions, such as her latest at CSUMB, that would give her the opportunity to support students of a similar background as they pursue their academic goals.

In addition to strengthening the university’s academic programs, including its largest department of marine sciences, Quiñones is continuing a decadeslong mission to transform CSUMB’s 1,400 acres from its origins as an army base into a university campus.

On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay
The campus of Cal State Monterey Bay continues its transition from a former military base.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She said what drove her to CSUMB after more than 20 years working at City University of New York (CUNY) - Hunter College and at Pace University, was the university’s unique commitment to serving its community.

CSUMB is the only public university in the state that requires service learning for all undergraduate students in order to graduate. For example, students who enter CSUMB as first-years will have completed 55 hours of off-campus service with a local organization.

“That ability to look at what happens inside your fences and outside your fences and to make a difference in both places is a unique thing of the institution,” she said. “So that’s what attracted me here — the values, the student body.”

CSUMB’s physical campus, which sits between Seaside and Marina, also stands apart from other universities, as it was originally home to the Fort Ord army base. Between the 1950s and 1970s it was an important basic training base — Jimi Hendrix and Clint Eastwood were among the 1.5 million people who trained there.

Founded in 1994, the university’s campus also houses up to 3,219 students, and 541 of its housing units are occupied by faculty and staff.

Part of the university’s long-term plan to increase its student population up to 12,700 includes adding more housing. Currently, the school hopes to add between 1,000 to 1,500 dorm units, but when and what that looks like all depends on funding — which administrators are seeking right now.

“In order to expand enrollment, we need to think about housing, we need to think about programs and we need to think about differentiation from other universities,” Quiñones said. “What we’re planning to do ahead is to create these unique programs that are a combination of us with the business community or things that are needed in the area that will provide jobs.”

While 32% of the university’s students come from Monterey County, 8% come from Santa Cruz County, 57% come from other parts of California, 2% come from other states and 2% are international.

On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Quiñones, who started officially on the job Aug. 15, is still getting her bearings and getting to know students, faculty and the community. On the morning of her interview with Lookout, she had just arrived from having breakfast with students at her house.

She told Lookout about her goals, the school’s challenges and how she plans to approach them.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Lookout: With challenges of declining enrollment, and the university’s goal to nearly double enrollment in the coming years, how do you plan to bring more students to CSUMB?

Vanya Quiñones: At a time of decline and competition, the [University of California system schools] now have a mandate to have more California students. Then you have COVID-19, which has had a big impact on enrollment for community colleges. And, still we have this ambitious goal in the middle of decreased population numbers, increased competitions with the UC, and the increased number of transfer students. But we still see that we have the ability to grow. And the way that we see the growth is in very specific areas, like expanding marine science.

So we have about 600 undergrads [in marine science] that come here — most of our out-of-state students [have] gone for marine biology. We have one of the few scuba diving degree courses. How can we use that to expand enrollment? That’s one of the things that we’re planning to expand.

Cal State Monterey Bay president Vanya Quiñones
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Agriculture is the other one that we’re concentrating on. It’s not just agricultural science, but also we have a new degree of agribusiness supply-chain distribution that was approved and we’re going to start very soon.

We’re going to do more of going to the community and saying, “What do you need from us, to provide the future employees for your companies?” I think that at this time, we need to work with the community and the community needs to work with us. If you bring nurses from other areas of the country, they will only stay for a limited time. But if you hire students that graduated from here and they’re living here, they’re more likely to be permanent contributors to the area.

The approach that we’re taking is to talk to the business community to see what they need, so we can provide a better feeder of future employment and more economic stability for the area and also to provide upper mobility for the students.

Also, 50% of our students are residents and 50% are commuters. So this means if you want to double enrollment, you have to provide residences for the students. We’re the No. 1 residential campus in the Cal State system. So one of the plans that we have for growth is to increase the number of dorms. So right now we have a plan to increase about 1,000 to 1,500 dorms.

On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: The university has been able to retrofit and reuse 66 military buildings on the main campus. While the university has successfully reused many of the buildings and created new open space and recreational areas, students say they have a hard time getting to parts of the campus in a timely manner, among other concerns. What are the goals to redesign the base to be a more accessible campus?

Quiñones: You’re blessed to have old buildings because you don’t have to build them, but then you’re cursed because you have to renovate them. Sometimes renovation is more expensive than constructing the buildings. So I know that in the master plans, we have renovations of some buildings and building other ones.

For example, there is Building 12, which is a typical army building. We are going to renovate that building just for student success — to move all the different student support areas that are around other buildings to the main quad so they’re all here — the area that the students are always circulating.

Then we’re trying to figure out how we can move, for example, health [services] altogether. Kinesiology is another very popular degree. How can they have facilities closer so students don’t need to be moving from one side to the other? It’s a pretty long walk. The master plan is made for the growth and also for the design to create community.

On the campus of Cal State Monterey Bay
The CSUMB student union building.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: One of your goals is enhancing the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The spring 2022 Campus Climate Survey student results showed that most students and faculty are having a positive experience, but some students reported experiencing discrimination and some staff reported microagressions or not feeling valued, among other concerns. What is the university doing in response?

Quiñones: The No. 1 thing we can do for DEI is concentrate on education. I think most institutions, they say we do DEI, but they forget one or two of the letters. So you do diversity, and you do equity, but you don’t do inclusion — you’re not doing DEI.

Most people forget [inclusion]. They feel like DEI is a checkbox. They say, “OK, I checked the ‘D’, OK, I have diversity. This is the number of people I have.” But they don’t have the policies and processes to ensure that you have the whole package.

DEI is not just a race issue. DEI has a big umbrella. I think the No. 1 thing is a zero-tolerance environment. I have zero tolerance for bias or microaggression. We are working on strengthening the reporting mechanism. If you see something, report it, so we can have better data showing that there is bias or microaggression. And to strengthen the policies to ensure that every single aspect of micro-aggression or bias or racism is documented.

I am concerned that some of the replies from the survey show that people feel that these things are happening. I think that in order for us to ensure that we address those issues all of us [must] work together to have zero tolerance and to ensure that we have a very specific record. If people feel this way, please report it and we can see patterns.

Lookout: During your breakfast with students before this interview, you mentioned you had conversations with them about having a sense of belonging, and struggling with imposter syndrome. Could you share more about how you responded to the students?

Quiñones: Part of my job being the president of the university that is a Hispanic-Serving Institution is not just to ensure like any other president that things are working or that we’re moving forward. I think every single president of a university is committed [to] the best of the university.

I work very long hours. I have this rich, complex profile of things to do. But for me, specifically, being Puerto Rican and Hispanic, I think I have an extra role to ensure that the students know that sometimes in life, you feel like you don’t belong.

A student told me, “I feel so terrible, because I want to do more, and I don’t do enough. And I just feel like I’m not fulfilling what I’m supposed to do in this position.” That’s when we talk about impostor syndrome.

Sometimes because of our culture as immigrants, we have that feeling that we don’t belong. And it comes from how we were raised to how we see each other in the position. I was trying to talk about, “know your value, and you’re different.” I think that part of me being here is about how some immigrants don’t see themselves in a university setting. Part of the barrier is not only an education barrier, but it’s like, you don’t see yourself and your family doesn’t see themselves in these white walls. It’s imposter syndrome to the max.

I think that Monterey County should be proud that out of the four higher education institutions we have in this area, three of them are now run by Hispanic presidents. I always say, “si, se puede,” which means, “yes, you can.” I think that by just me sitting here or having breakfast with a student, I’m showing this, “si, se puede.” That’s the anti-impostor syndrome, isn’t it? You can do it.

I think we need more role models like that. That’s why it’s critical to have a diversified workforce, especially in academia, because the students have to come and see themselves — especially the population that we’re serving. They need to see themselves and that it is doable, and that it is accessible for everybody.

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