On paper, Christina Gonzales’ father was a copper miner with an eighth-grade education. In reality, he was a progressive member of his community in southern New Mexico who knew the value of an education. Without college or even high school credentials, he had to work that much harder for his transformative accomplishments.

Herminio “Chumino” Gonzales founded a credit union that made property ownership a possibility for people of color in his rural Latino community. He was a social justice leader before the phrase was coined. He was so knowledgeable about his trade that the high-ranking engineers who cycled through the mines he worked in often leaned on him for assistance.

Gonzales’ priority wasn’t to relay his many accomplishments to his daughter. Rather, he laid the groundwork for her successful career by instilling in her the value of an education and the importance of serving the community. He and his wife made sure that their three children understood their community, including how they were perceived by others.

“People think about segregation in the South, but there’s also segregation in states like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona,” says Christina Gonzales, who is the middle child of the family. “My family made sure we understood this.”

First-Generation Hurdles

Like her father, Christina Gonzales is passionate about helping people and often downplays her personal story of challenge and success as a first-generation Latina from a New Mexico neighborhood where her parents were physically punished for even speaking Spanish in school.

“I’m a college dropout. Not many people know this about me,” says Gonzales, who became Cal Poly Pomona’s vice president for the Division of Student Affairs in July 2020. “I know what that felt like to be that student that couldn’t navigate college. I want to make college easier for students because I don’t want them to do what I did. Most first-gen students who drop out don’t come back.”

Gonzales did come back — and she hasn’t left higher education since. From Arizona State to UC Berkeley to the University of Colorado Boulder, she left behind a trail of accomplishments and a community inspired by her humility and her unrelenting drive to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

In particular, the field of student affairs is close to her heart because she understands that what happens outside of the classroom — working a part-time job, family responsibilities, transportation challenges — has a profound impact on how students perform inside the classroom. When the university supports students’ basic needs, mental health and career planning — it can make all the difference in student success.

Everyone Belongs

Gonzales knew from an early age that she would pursue higher education, and after graduating high school in her hometown of Bayard, New Mexico, she enrolled at a regional institution, Western New Mexico University. Once she got there, however, she encountered many obstacles, didn’t understand how to navigate college and didn’t receive the help she needed. Ultimately, she dropped out after two tumultuous years of feeling disconnected and overlooked.

“I had no idea what I was doing when I got there,” she says. “I felt lost. I just couldn’t understand it.”

Two years after she dropped out of college, Gonzales returned to Western New Mexico University driven to succeed and also to obtain leadership positions on campus to affect change for students like her. She joined student government, sought out support on campus and began to blossom, thanks to meaningful mentorship.

As vice president at Cal Poly Pomona, Gonzales looks back on her first two years of college and remembers feeling confused, overwhelmed and disconnected. Fueled by that experience, she’s determined to extend a sense of belonging to every Cal Poly Pomona student and she especially relishes the chance to interact with them.

“Based on the numerous interactions I’ve shared with Vice President Gonzales, I’ve noticed she will go above and beyond what is required of her so that all students have the resources, opportunities and space to strive at Cal Poly Pomona,” says Aliza Ortega, the 2022-23 ASI president. “Some initiatives that [ASI Vice President] Daniel [Foncello] and I are eager to begin working with her on include ensuring an equitable state for students on campus via an equity research study at CPP. Representation on campus is crucial, and the support of Vice President Gonzales shows she has a genuine interest and is a true advocate for student success.”

Kaitlyn Sedzmak, chief of staff for Student Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona, is inspired by the way Gonzales embraces the challenges students are facing and relentlessly pursues solutions.

“She doesn’t have to draw on second-hand experience,” says Sedzmak. “I’ve really been in awe of the way she relates to our students.”

A Leader is Born

How did Gonzales find her way through college? She followed her father’s footsteps — focusing on her education and serving her community.

With a goal of helping students facing similar circumstances, she was elected the Western New Mexico student body president and later one of the state’s first student regents. As a student leader, the feelings she endured during her turbulent introduction to college became her greatest asset.

While she was focused on advocating for students, she was the recipient of far more support than she ever expected. She was nominated by a state representative for the student regent position, interviewed and appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the New Mexico Senate. Rep. Murray Ryan later told Gonzales that her father was instrumental in getting him elected so that he could help address problems their community was facing.

As student body president, Gonzales was also humbled by mentorship from Western New Mexico’s Vice President for Student Affairs Jerry Joy. In addition to monthly meetings with him, he also facilitated her travel to other universities with the Western New Mexico football team.

“He was showing me other universities without telling me that’s what he was doing,” Gonzales says. “He was mentoring me. He was giving me advice and setting me up for the future.”

A Seat at the Table

There’s a message that Gonzales’ father drove home more than any other: Do what it takes to get a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Her parents didn’t have the credentials (though they did obtain their high school equivalency diploma in their 40s), but Gonzales saw up close their capability to affect change despite not having a formal education. That inspired her to work harder to gain that seat at the table and do something with it.

“It’s easy to be an administrator and be quiet and maybe make some decisions here and there, but in all the places I’ve worked, I’ve been pretty bold and sometimes outspoken to where it makes people uncomfortable,” Gonzales says. “I may bring up things that people don’t want to talk about, but I’m at the table that my parents, my ancestors could never be at.”

Entering her third year at Cal Poly Pomona, Gonzales’ leadership has reimagined the Division of Student Affairs. Most notably, the division’s new purpose, vision and priorities were unveiled in 2022 following a process that included extensive feedback from staff members and an external review by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Several key leadership positions have been filled during Gonzales’ tenure, including the hiring of Jonathan Grady, senior associate vice president and dean of students, and Megan Stang, associate vice president for student affairs. Both are quick to recognize her passion to help students succeed.

“She is a systemic reformer, servant leader and advocate who stands with conviction and a deep-rooted commitment to student success, equity, justice, inclusion and access,” Grady says. “Her future-focused and student-ready vision and leadership philosophy remind all of us to be exceptional and accountable because our students deserve excellence.”

Gonzales knows many of the pitfalls students are navigating. She nearly fell victim to some of them herself. That’s exactly why she’s so convicted about where she now sits.

“In these moments, I’ll take it in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this girl from a small mining town in New Mexico is here making these decisions,’” Gonzales says. “So, it’s very important that I’m thoughtful, that I understand what the students need. I take it very seriously this privilege that I have.”

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Student Affairs Is Here to Help

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By Clay Fowler
Published November 30, 2022