We Celebrate Adela de la Torre for Hispanic Heritage Month

President, San Diego State University

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“It is important to have role models that look like me and who look like the students we are teaching,” Adela de la Torre.

For Hispanic Heritage Month we choose to acknowledge someone in our community who embodies hard work, perseverance, and is the ultimate #LatinaGeek, Adela de la Torre. She is the ninth president of San Diego State University and the first woman, and Latina, to serve in this role. She is a visionary leader and has served in various leadership roles at UC Davis and was the director of Mexican American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona. Not shy of firsts, de la Torre was also the first Latina to receive the rank of Distinguished Professor. She received a Ph.D. in agricultural and resource economics from the University of California, Berkeley. We welcome her to our community and are proud to see a strong Latina leader at the highest level of the education system.

I was excited to listen to Adela speak at L’ATTITUDE conference this week. She sat on a panel with other distinguished Latino leaders discussing the future of education. As a Latina in the crowd, I was proud to hear her vision of progressing Latinxs and encouraging us, at every level, to “invest in representation.” What does this mean? This means being mindful about who you support, asking the right questions, and voting for elected officials who not only look like us, but advocate for us. “We can’t transform education by just wishing about it,” said Adela. “We need to go out and we need to make our voices heard. As I say, ‘¡Adelante niños!’ We have to do it now.”

We had the honor of interviewing Adela and enjoyed learning about her inspirations, lessons she’s learned and advice she has for the women of our community. Read the message she shared with us below.

#LatinaGeeks: What inspires you?

Adela de la Torre: Student stories inspire me! Last Tuesday, at our Board of Trustees, SDSU was honored to have one of our very own students receive the prestigious Trustee Ali C Razi Scholarship—A scholarship that is awarded to the top graduating student in the CSU System and awarded at the Board of Trustees meeting in front of the full Board and 23 Presidents.

Manuel Gonzales, a senior who is majoring in psychology with a minor in public health, shared with me that despite battling homelessness in high school—with limited household resources and guidance—he’s able to realize his passion now due to his faculty mentors at SDSU who helped opened doors of opportunity for him. Manuel’s passion, determination, and intelligence is exceptional. We have so many students like Manuel, and I want them all to be successful!

What’s the strongest skill female entrepreneurs need to nurture to thrive?

I believe they need to be able to hold on to their core values as they navigate through the ups and downs of life. Believe it or not, this is a skill one has to learn, and I was fortunate to learn it early in life from my mother and grandmother. For me, family, education, and hard work have been core values integral to my career and academic writing.  Without these core values serving as pillars, I would never have had the foundation for success that I have been able to rely on and continue to build on.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve overcome to date in your journey?

Like many other Latinas growing up during the late 20th century, I faced many misconceptions and biases about my competence, and later my ability to fundraise as an administrator. However, the experience of being underestimated has proven to be an asset throughout my thirty years as an educator and as an economist in California. It has given me empathy for our students, and their families, many of whom are still dealing with these challenges and barriers to success.

What is some advice you would give to other women to overcome these obstacles?

Biases and discrimination continue till today, and you will not be able to avoid them.  However, you have to learn to focus on the work you are passionate about, the impact your work can have, and ultimately let that work speak for itself.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Although women have outnumbered men on college campuses since the eighties, only about a quarter of higher educational institutions have women presidents, and only a fraction of those positions are held by women of color. Latina administrators in higher education have made gains in community colleges and Hispanic service institutions, but are only minimally represented in leadership roles at 4-year institutions. The organizational culture of many institutions is not set to make the career advancement of women of color a priority, and so I’ve found that we need to make it a priority ourselves.

If we can’t find the spaces, mentors, or the communities we need on our campuses to succeed, we make them. As a student, and later as a faculty member and administrator, most every opportunity I was given was because of a relationship I cultivated.

No matter what you do for a living, building real relationships with people who can open these doors for you or share advice from their own climb will be critical. More so for women of color, who may not be approached for advancement first. That said, once you’ve achieved some success for yourself–whether by getting to college, graduating, or getting that promotion in your career—it is just as important to reach back and open doors for those behind you. I’ve told many of my mentees over the years to ‘lift as you climb’—and that the success of any one person can ultimately be the success of many.

What does being a Latina leading in a tech-driven economy (#LatinaGeek) mean to you?

I am honored to lead San Diego State University, which is known as a regional powerhouse in terms of innovative research and transformative teaching that is preparing the future global citizens, compassionate leaders, and ethical innovators with the skills and innovative thinking that will solve the world’s greatest challenges.

Being at the helm of a university where some of the most innovative technologies and solutions are being conceptualized is a great responsibility I don’t take lightly.

Recognizing that we have been successful in so many different domains but that we need to build on that success to stay current and competitive is crucial.

And understanding the importance of being both locally-minded and globally-focused is also key. I believe that we have a responsibility, as a university, to look at the health of the region both economically and socially as we prepare the workforce for the future. At the same time, we need to help our students gain an understanding of the global economy they will encounter when they graduate, so they leave our institution market ready. This means providing all our students with real-world problems and projects for them to tackle in interdisciplinary and innovative ways. The world outside of academia is not broken down by major or by discipline, and neither are the aspirations of our students.

At the end of the day, being a Latina leading in a tech-driven economy demands visionary leadership and the capacity to inspire others around me to think outside of the box, to collaborate in ways they haven’t collaborated before, and to push the boundaries of innovation through transdisciplinary work that leads to exceptional discoveries and solutions for the future.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

One of the best pieces of advice I heard early in my career was “No good deed goes unpunished.” At first, I didn’t understand what it meant, but over time I realized that as a leader, doing great work for the greater good will often be met with criticism. Staying true to my core values, surrounding myself with mentors willing to help along the journey, and allowing the quality of my work speak for itself—all of it has allowed me to stay positive and on track despite the criticism that will show up along the way.

I would give this advice to my younger self again and again because it has served me well.

Can you share a life changing / shifting moment that got you to where you are today?

I still remember the first time I crossed the US Mexico border as a child with my mother, sister, and cousins. I was crossing from San Diego to Tijuana, eyes wide open, realizing for the first time that I belonged to two distinct yet intricately connected worlds.

As I listened to the rhythm of my home language, the Spanish of my roots, every syllable hit me from every direction to remind me that I was part of a narrative much richer than I had imagined

When I think about the issues that we face today, as a university and as a society, I realize that too often the tendency is to see the barriers, the problems, the differences that divide us.

But the real opportunity—if we listen to each other and if we think deeply—is to see that this is a great time for women, for Latina women, and Latina women in STEM and technology.

That first time I was crossing the border as a child, my mom must have read the fear in my eyes because she put her arm around my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “Adelita, the border is nothing to fear but to embrace. All we have to do is hold hands—and together we can walk across without fear.”

Her words have impacted every border I have ever crossed—real or imagined.  Borders of prejudice. Borders of fear. Borders between the past and the future.

My hope is that other Latinas reading these words will pause and reflect on the tremendous opportunities they have to cross borders that they have never been able to cross before. The world needs you.

Hispanics are projected to become 28.5% of all entrants of the labor force in the next decade. We are the fastest growing demographic. Latinas are driving the overall Latino business growth. We hold the power to influence brands, government, businesses, and the economy. Adela de la Torre is the epitome of the American Dream, she is you and I. When we have women of color in positions of power, we are able to see ourselves in those roles too. The future is yours. ¡Adelante!