Santa Rosa Junior College’s Incoming President, Maria Angélica Garcia

Santa Rosa Junior College’s next president, Maria Angélica Garcia, who was chosen after a nationwide search, has big dreams for the students and community as a whole.

A former social worker, Garcia, president of Berkeley City College, will take over from outgoing President Frank Chong, who has led SRJC since 2012 and is retiring this summer.

Garcia will be the first Latina and the first queer president in the school’s 105-year history. She currently leads Berkeley City College, which has a student body of about 7,000 students.

In July, she will take over at SRJC, which has about 21,300 students.

Garcia sat down with a Press Democrat reporter Friday to answer questions about declining enrollment, community relationships and her leadership approach.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Press Democrat: What is your background pre-community college?

Garcia: I’m originally from the Central Valley. I was born and raised in Fresno. But my higher-ed experience actually brought me out to the Bay Area.

At the time I wanted to play basketball, and so I thought I was going to stay local. But in the end, I really wanted to have a different experience. I come from a very large Mexican Catholic family, so the only way that I could actually go to college was going to a Catholic college. That’s how I ended up at St. Mary’s College of California (in Contra Costa County). Then I started as a high school teacher and coach.

PD: What was a moment that shaped your presidency at Berkeley City College?

Garcia: I joined Berkeley City College two months after the entire state went into shelter in place in May 2020. It was memorable because we got to see a community coming together in action.

We were able to provide some in-person support to students through a warm meal food distribution. Students were just really struggling financially. Many of them were losing their jobs, and we were trying to figure out how to stay connected to them. So, we partnered up with local community organizations and we were able to figure out what they needed.

It’s important that I share that because I think that my entry into a presidency was one that really called on engaging from this very humanistic perspective. And that’s actually aligned with how I just operate as a person. I’m a trained social worker by trade and so I felt like it allowed for the connection to be community member to community member instead of some perfunctory regulatory piece.

My understanding is that Santa Rosa did that as well. To know that Santa Rosa was there for students and the community in the same ways speaks volumes.

PD: We still have a lot of struggling students here, many of whom are homeless. What do you envision for SRJC in facing the reality that people are leaving or might not be coming to SRJC because of the high cost of living?

Garcia: Sadly, that is a story that I know all too well, being currently president in the East Bay.

Certainly the regional cost of living impacts every fabric of our society, for employees as well. We had a lot of folks who were forced to take stock of their lives differently.

I think the assumption is that somehow the junior college might want to attract folks from outside the county to come to the college. Certainly, it has a history of that. But the beauty of a community college is that it’s the community’s college. And SRJC is the community college for the entirety of Sonoma County.

From Petaluma all the way up to Windsor, all the way out to Forestville at the Shone Farm, we are in this prime position to be either the reentry point or the access point for community members to find their way. The JC has a stellar reputation for academic quality, excellence and rigor and a top transfer rate.

Also important is the percentage of students that are coming in for career education programs. For students who are struggling financially, the JC has been programming these services and connecting with students to help them figure out what the first step is to keep going.

PD: How do you see the SRJC’s relationship with SSU developing in the future?

Garcia: The benefit for me is I get to connect and build from something that is already incredibly strong. Dr. Chong has been connected with the president of SSU, even in the most recent transition. This is one of those parts where if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it. You just kind of add some sparklers to the bicycle handles or something.

In my current role as the president of Berkeley City College, I too have been working with SSU to promote housing assistance for community college transfer students and additional scholarship support. So I’m looking forward to bringing what we’ve been able to generate as an agreement between SSU and Berkeley City College. If that’s not in existence at SRJC, I’d love to see how we can include that.

And I must say I’ve already received a very warm congratulatory welcome from the president. I think it’s important to know that that’s the level of outreach that happens among higher-ed leaders.

PD: With the unfortunate reality of declining enrollment, how do you plan to keep these programs going and retain staff?

Garcia: The Santa Rosa Junior College has a group that has already started the work. An enrollment management plan has already been developed by broad constituencies of faculty, staff, administrators and students looking at data.

Looking at that, you’ll find that we’re really ramping up dual enrollment, working with the many high schools for students looking to get college credit.

While there has been a decline, there’s been an increase overall 8% from spring 2022 to ‘23. In that time, new students have increased by 26%, which does not include students who take advantage of our dual enrollment opportunities. That is letting us know we do have community members who are coming.

Part of the work that we need to do is understand who the young scholars are right now. And so I like to think: who is currently in third grade? Do we know who the third graders are? What’s their racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, demographic background? How are we as the JC preparing to ensure that we are the institution of higher education that has been designed for them?

PD: So who are the third graders right now? How will the JC be ready to welcome them?

Garcia: I use the third graders example because I have a second grader who will be in third grade in the fall.

Thinking on the support system for the current third graders is important because it’s not just about preparing the JC for students, it’s knowing who cares for them, who’s a part of their network, and how do we partner to provide programs and services and access to higher education or job skills training.

But this goes to your previous point. I really believe that people should be able to be born in this ZIP code. They should be educated in a meaningful and thoughtful way, in a culturally responsive way, in their ZIP code.

They should be able to attend higher education in their ZIP code, be able to get a job in the ZIP code and own their home. Right? Because for me, it’s about unapologetically disrupting generational poverty. How do we combat this high cost of living and people getting pushed out?

It is making sure that the county as a whole is coming together from all the sectors to make sure that if you are born in this community, you are going to thrive and you’re going to be able to keep generations to come.

I know that might seem lofty, and there’s going to be a lot of ways operationally that happens. But that’s my vision for engagement. Because that’s my belief in the power of public higher education and the power of community college education.

PD: What is your message to the 21,300 students at SRJC?

Garcia: I really, really love being in a community space, where people get the chance to learn, to grow to be challenged, to be able to realize their greatest potential. And I don’t mean that as like a cereal box slogan.

I genuinely mean that when a student feels excited because they finally pass that statistics course or that one test, that is as big a celebration as the student who gets accepted to UC Berkeley with top-notch financial aid package, the adult learner that is coming back to up-skill, or the migrant farmworker community engaging in language acquisition classes.

So my message to students is: I can’t wait to meet you. I’m looking forward to seeing you, not only at the campus, not only at the JC, but in the community. My family and I are looking forward to moving to Santa Rosa. And I hope that they feel this like love and care that I have for them even though I don’t know them.