Castro returns to Valley roots

Anne Marie Mendez learned in a phone call from her son, Joseph Castro, that not only was he coming home to work in the Valley, he was coming back as Fresno State’s new president.

The shock rippled through the family as the news traveled.

“I wasn’t able to speak the first few minutes after I heard,” April Aquino, Castro’s sister, said. “I was very proud of him. I couldn’t believe he was coming back home.”

As emotional as his family was at hearing the news, Castro said in an interview with The Collegian staff that the support he’s received since the announcement has been heartwarming.

“It’s been very heartening and overwhelming in positive ways,” Castro said. “It began the day of my appointment, literally after the trustees announced it. My email address exploded with notes, and it hasn’t stopped. I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls and emails and letters and cards, and it’s just been very nice.”

Mendez said that it was not surprising that Castro was considered worthy of being a university president. The extra excitement came from the fact that the job was back in the Valley.

Castro and his family are now only a short drive up the highway from Hanford, his hometown.

“I knew he would be doing something great,” Mendez said. “When he told me he would try for it [the presidency], I thought it would be great to be so close. Sure enough he landed back here in the Valley. He said he always wanted to come back here.”

Growing up in Hanford, Castro’s mother and grandparents raised him. While the family may not have been wealthy, Castro didn’t let it stop him from setting lofty goals

“He talked about going to college when he was very young,” Mendez said. “Deep down, I was hoping it would happen for him. My parents put a little aside for him because as soon as I made money, it went out to cover bills. I knew he was a good student. It was hard to think of sending him myself, but with the help of his grandparents, grants and scholarships, he made it happen.”

While working toward his academic goals, Castro contributed what he could to help the family financially.

“Even when he was young, he would try to help me,” Mendez said. “He would do a newspaper route, and he would help with a little money. He would pick up a little bill here and there. He’d keep me going. He’s a special son.”

It wasn’t all work and no play, however, for Castro.

“He loved his Super Bowl parties, especially his Dolphins,” Mendez said. “He’d have his friends over with the small TV that didn’t work too well in the back of the house. We had both TVs on. He lived for Super Bowls. He’s a die-hard fan. He hangs on to them and has been a fan since he was very young in elementary school. He loves baseball, too, and he’s a big Dodgers fan.”

Castro’s drive to excel was noticeable at a young age, Mendez said. He kept track of everything he had to do to make it to college, and his reward after his senior year of high school was acceptance from one of the top public universities in the country: University of California, Berkeley.

“When he went to Berkeley, I thought it was so far away,” Mendez said. “He was only 17 years old, and I cried a little bit when we dropped him off. I always teased him that he was leaving me before he finished raising me. He was the little man of the family.”

When he moved away for school, the chance to see family face-to-face became rare.

“We would make trips when we could to see him,” Aquino said. “He would see us when he could. We missed him a lot.”

“I’ve been away from home off-and-on since 1994,” Castro said. “I was here for a brief period helping to build UC Merced. But for the most part, I’ve been outside of the Valley. I’d help on a project and get here often, but it’s not the same as living here.”

At Berkeley Castro earned two degrees. First in 1988, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and then in 1990 he earned a master’s degree in public policy. In 1998 he finished a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership.

Castro made work stops at the UC Office of the President, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced and UC Santa Barbara before arriving at UC San Francisco in 2006 as the associate vice chancellor of student academic affairs. Castro rose to vice chancellor before he got the call to return home to the Valley.

His success was something his family was aware of, but only in general terms.

“He is definitely humble,” Aquino said. “I wasn’t even aware of awards he’d won until I saw his résumé. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ because he doesn’t go around telling people.”

Rather than spending too much time telling people what to do, Mendez said her son puts the focus on the other person.

“He loves people,” Mendez said. “He listens to people. In our family, the kids look up to him. He’s someone you can talk to. My girlfriend was telling me that, ‘You know, it seems like Joey is enjoying it all.’ He’s just going to do the best he can to make things better.”