The first day we launched Humans of Fresno State, Khone, visuals editor for The Collegian, and I headed out on campus to find our first group of humans – just a reporter and a photographer looking to get a glimpse into other people’s lives.
We asked questions about relevant topics of the time including the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration and about the start of the semester. That’s when we met Fresno State students Lisa, Michael, David and Diana. At the end of our walk, Khone turned to me and said: “We should interview Castro,” referring to Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro.
It seemed like a far off dream for our newly established social media account, but we made it our goal. It would be our little milestone moment. Each day we’d say: “Soon we’ll be meeting Castro.”
Little did we know that after speaking with 115 random humans across campus throughout the spring 2017 semester, it would all be set to happen – a one-on-one interview with the top ‘Dog, the bold president of our university.
I carried a bundle of nerves with me as I strolled into the Henry Madden Library, hopped into the elevator and made my way up to the fourth floor.
Now, in our very own “season finale” of this little account that generated buzz across campus, we were about to do just that yet again.
The only thing I could think about was whether or not anyone could hear my stomach growling from my lack of breakfast. The Office of the President was quiet, and the staff was very welcoming. Khone nodded to the chairs near the wall for us to sit.
I smoothed my hands back and forth against the soft fabric of the chair as we waited to be called back.
I heard a familiar voice say, “Good morning.” And as I looked up, I saw Castro walking into the office, approaching Khone and me with a smile and an extended hand.
For some reason, I remembered that he was from Hanford – the small cowtown where I also grew up. My nerves had subsided.
He led us into his office, greeting each of his staff members by name along the way. We sat at the round table across from his desk.
The following is the end-of-year interview granted to The Collegian on Wednesday, May 17.
HS: Commencement is two days away for Fresno State students. Regardless of where these students choose to go this is a huge milestone moment. As the first person to graduate college from your family, can you describe what that moment felt like at Berkeley.
Castro: ”It was a magical moment for me. I think that getting in was the most powerful, transformative moment of my life. I still go back to that day and say that was one of the two or three most pivotal moments of my life, because that decision to go to that university changed the whole trajectory of my life, just like Fresno State does for our students. But graduation was an incredible moment, having my family there, especially my grandparents. I have the farmworker right on my desk because that’s my roots. My grandfather, who was a farmworker, being able to go to Berkeley and see his grandson graduate, that was pretty incredible. I’d say even more powerful than that was seeing my oldest son graduate from Berkeley. So I was able to do it and to have that gift given to him and to watch him do that was even better. When I talk about the power of higher education with parents, I’m able to share the experience of being first generation to college but also being the parent of a student who goes to college. It was an extraordinarily powerful moment. It really brings a whole family together, and it inspires more family members to pursue a college graduation. Having your cousins in the audience watching, several of them who were very little when I graduated, went on to get their degrees. My sister, who is five years younger, she came [to Fresno State] and received two degrees. I’m a strong believer in you get one into college and then others follow almost naturally it happens.”
HC: Was it always your plan to become a university president or did the opportunity just present itself?
Castro: “No, absolutely not. I think if you went back to my high school years I was thinking I wanted to be a lawyer. I think I put that in my high school yearbook. They ask, “What are you going to be doing in 10 years?” And I thought I was going to be a lawyer. That was my plan. I knew I wanted to go into some kind of public service, but I thought I wanted to do that as an attorney. So I went and studied political science and I was getting ready to, I was preparing for applications to law school, and what happened was, and I think this is a great lesson for life, is I was introduced to a whole new area of public policy. There was a foundation called the Alfred Sloan foundation, that had made an incredible commitment to diversifying the public policy field, so they were providing fellowships to students who were interested in public policy. There just happened to be one of the top policy schools in the country at Berkeley, so I learned all about that. There was a summer institute that was eight weeks. It was the first time I ever went on an airplane. I was twenty-one years old, I think so. I went to Seattle, Washington and I spent the whole summer there at the University of Washington and their public policy school. I loved it. I fell in love with that field. I met a lot of great friends that I’ve stayed in close touch with. I came back from that and I applied for my masters degree in public policy and was admitted and decided to stay at Berkeley. Mostly it was a great program, but my oldest son had just been born so I wanted to stay in California. It was easier for my wife and him so instead of law I did the public policy field which has served me really well. I went after that to get my doctorate but that was my path in terms of figuring out public service. I chose my major based on that. Then around the time I was getting my masters I decided I wanted to work in a university because of all the different institutions I could see in society it was the one that resonated the most with me because of the mission to prepare the next generation of leaders in our society. It had transformed my life so I thought I want to work in a place that transforms people’s lives. That’s how I focused on being at a university. But I really didn’t focus in on the presidency until about a year before I became president. I went to one of my mentors who was a president of the University of California, Mark Yudof, and I said to him I think I might want to try to be a president. I’ve seen what it looks like and it looks very meaningful and challenging and exciting. Throughout my career I always accepted challenging and sometimes risky assignments, things that most people were like oh I don’t think I want to do that, but I would go for it because I figured if I failed most people would say well he tried and failed, a lot of people have failed. I saw it as kind of a no-lose, and then if I did well then it could make a positive difference and a growth opportunity. So I went to [Yudof] and he said well let me tell you what being a president is. He spend months with me, I tried to meet with him about every other week, and he spent months we me telling me how hard it would be. It was a test to see if I was ready. I still remember he used in our first meeting, he said: “the best part of being president is telling your mother that you were appointed and then after that it gets really hard.” And he was right, it’s challenging but he prepared me really well. At the end of the six months into that he said: “I think if you want to do this, you should do it. I’ll nominate you for it.” About that time is when Dr. Welty had just announced his retirement and I saw that this position was open, so [Yudof] nominated me. Some other people nominated me, because it’s not the kind of thing where you apply, you get nominated. Then they talk with you and you go through this whole elaborate process that was all confidential. I really couldn’t talk about it with many people. I would go to these hotel rooms and they’d say they’d call me at this time and I’d go down the hall and up floors. The committee was always in secret location and they did that because The Fresno Bee was trying to figure who was a candidate. I don’t think they would have even recognized me so it didn’t matter for me, but there might have been some people they recognized. It was a very secretive process. Going through that process helped me to understand clearly what the opportunities and challenges were at the time and for me to present a visual for where the university could go, then let the committee decide if that’s what they wanted. It was a very freeing opportunity for me because I kind of put myself out there. If they want me, great. I had a great job at U.C. San Francisco, it was very meaningful and challenging. I lived up by Muir Woods, so I could hike in the redwoods any time I wanted, so I was happy. But this was extraordinarily meaningful. It’s been every bit as challenging and meaningful as I thought it would be. This is my fourth year so it’s gone fast.”
HS: I remember, I’m from Hanford,
Castro: “Oh that’s right. Yeah.”
HS: I remember when you spoke at, not my graduation but the graduation before mine. I was in ASB and I was helping set up and I remember your speech.
Castro: “Thank you. That was so fun. I remember doing that.”
HS: Did you graduate from Hanford High?
Castro: “I did. 1984. Yeah, and you graduated in 2014?”
Castro: “That was a special night to be able to do that with your classmates.”
HS: Everyone enjoyed your speech. I remember them talking about it. I really enjoyed your speech as well.
Castro: “Thank you.”
HS: You mentioned your son, you’re a father. Do your goals as a professional kind of overlap your goals as father? What are your goals as a father?
Castro: “I grew up without a father, so I’ve tried to be a very good father. To spend time with them, to guide them, and I have three kids. The son I just talked about earlier, he’s going to be thirty this year, I can’t believe it. He’s going to get married in August. He’s a graduate student here at Fresno State in the master’s program. Then our daughter just moved back from Humboldt and she wants to transfer here and get her bachelor’s degree, so she’s preparing to do that. She’s twenty-four. Then we have our bonus little guy and our family was not complete until he came. He’s six-years old, so I get a chance to do this kind of again. It’s like having another generation of children. Most parents don’t get to do that, but Mary and I do and we’re really lucky. So I try, as hard as it is to spend big chunks of time with him because the job is all encompassing, it’s 24/7, but we find time to be together and have developed a very close relationship. His life is completely different from the other two. When the other two were his age we lived in a very small apartment. My oldest son says: “Jess’s bedroom is bigger than our whole apartment was, he’s so lucky!” And he is. He’s got a different dad, I’m older, probably more patient. I notice if my voice goes up even a little bit he’s just really sensitive to that because he’s used to calmness. Where I think Isaac grew up with the twenty-year old version of me who was not always so calm. They get a different parent, and Mary is different too. We spend, like last night after the dinner that I hosted, we played soccer in the front yard. We take long walks together and swim together. Then with the older ones I find they want time too and I love that. “Dad can we have lunch today?” My daughter would want to hang out and watch movies. I try to spend as much time with them as I can. But they know that they can count on me and they can count on their mother. It’s an important part of my life trying to be the best father I can be. It’s a fun job.”
HS: Have you ever faced an adversity that you had to overcome or deal with? How did you deal with it?
Castro: “Yeah, many. I don’t know if you’ve heard me say this but whenever we go through a difficult time on campus I talk about the path to greater heights of success is neither smooth, nor straight. That’s how my life has been. It’s never been smooth and the path has never been straight. It kind of zigs and zags. I try to never back up – to use a metaphor – I try not to go into cul de sacs because with cul de sacs you go in and you’ve got to come right out the same way. There are cul de sacs in life that sometimes look like the right decision but they’re not because you kind of waste time going in and coming back out. I always try to think about the path forward, and the path forward can be challenging. It can be very hard. I’ve had different moments in life whether it was when I was a kid, growing up in those circumstances. I lived in an apartment complex in Hanford, 9 ¼ Avenue, Kings Garden apartments.”
HS: Yes, I know where you’re talking about.
Castro: “You’ve been out there? Did you live around there?”
HS: No, but I had a friend who did.
Castro: “I grew up there. I’ve been thinking of visiting it again just to see how it feels. I loved it. I had such good friends there but I also saw a lot of tough things. One night I came home and my best friend was crying on the curb. He was trembling and screaming and there were cop cars everywhere, which was a common thing in that apartment complex. His mom had just shot his dad because his dad had been hurting his mom and she had just had enough. Things like that. I went through some of those things. My mother was not married and she had some boyfriends that were just not stable guys. I grew up around a lot of that: drinking, domestic violence and gangs. One of my best friends in elementary school got into a lot of trouble and I could’ve easily gone down the path he did. He was in prison on the day I was appointed president. His mom said he was cheering from his jail cell for you. He’s gotten out thankfully, but there were so many times where I could’ve gone into these different directions but I tried to stay focused on doing the right thing. Sticking to my goals and making the right decisions. For me that’s been the recipe for getting where I’m at; not choosing the easy path but choosing the right path, that felt right for me, even if it was the hardest path. I do try to share that message with others. I was with a group of students in juvenile hall last week, they asked me to visit, and they were mostly kids of color. It was sad for me to see the situation they were in. But I didn’t show them that, I showed them that we’re the same kind of person. There’s so much outside of here for you. You’re future is bright. Let’s get you out of here. A lot of them were convinced that they could do that. [Saying:] “Yeah I want to come to Fresno State. Can we watch a game together?” And I’m like: “When you get out we’re going to watch a game. We’re going to do this.” There’s all these incredible opportunities for our students. Most of them are first generation of college, and a lot of them come from [the same] background. A lot of those boys in there grew up without a father. So they understood how important it would be for them to do these different things to be successful. So whether it’s students like them, or students like the two of you who have made great decisions, my job as president is to support you so that you can get to that next level. Those are the things I’ve tried to keep in mind in my life. I’ve made mistakes just like everybody. You just try to learn from them. Whether it’s in my job or in my life, I think the most important thing is to learn from your mistakes and to not make the same mistake twice. The first time, okay it’s all good. We make mistakes around here and sometimes my staff will go: oh, I really blew this, I’m so sorry. My response is usually: I understand, how do we make sure we avoid doing this a second time. And then we make a different mistake, but that’s how life is and we just try to learn from it. That’s the most important thing is learning from it and getting stronger and better as you get older. I benefited from being raised by my grandparents. They were very wise. I love to talk to people in their eighties and their nineties because they have so much experience. Even though their lives were different from mine just listening to how they look at life or make decisions is very helpful. If they’ve been here for 90-100 years then they’ve done some things right.”
HS: What are your words for future students out there?
Castro: “I want every student of the Valley to succeed and the definition of success is really based on them, not me. I think the key is making sure that gifts that each of us has gets aligned with a life, a career, of challenge and meaning. With that comes impact and I believe that strongly. I think that one challenge is that people need to listen to their own instincts. Sometimes other people influence us. I’ll give you an example: my grandfather was an incredibly supportive man and for a long time he wanted me to be a dentist just because he thought that would be, well maybe because he wanted to be a dentist. Well I didn’t ever want to be a dentist. I hated blood, I would’ve been a terrible dentist and he understood after awhile that I wasn’t going to be a dentist. But sometimes we let other people influence us to do certain things that may not be the right thing and I think it’s really important to listen to others but then make the best judgement we can about our own lives and to make choices that really strengthen us and challenge ourselves. Another trap I find in life with very smart people is they stop growing. They stop taking chances. They get comfortable. One of my messages for graduation is ‘yeah, you got the degree, but there’s a whole lot more to do. Many more goals to achieve.’ I think that is the other thing to keep setting those goals and achieving and being bold every single day in making decisions. Also I’d say, the service part, thinking of others and beyond our own self interest because the people I talk to who live really long lives, I have one good friend who’s ninety-nine. He’s going to be one hundred this year – amazing man. He just stopped driving recently. The thing I learned from him: he has such a strong family unit. He has his children nearby all within a few blocks. He’s figured that out. Strong family is a core thing and some people don’t have big families but I think the lesson is to surround yourself with people who love you, and who you love. Family and friends. Interact with them and to give to other people. The service part of it that we talk about so much here at Fresno State, learning by serving, because you grow so much serving others. Those are some of the pieces of advice I’d give to students. To think as boldly as they can. The stakes are really high. We need a whole new generation of leaders to take our country to new heights. I think that this generation has made some progress, but one of the reason I work at a university is because we help to prepare the next generation of leaders. You’re a generation that can catapult the country to new heights in achievement.”
Surprisingly, I grew more starstruck as the interview progressed. To see such an accomplished person enjoy such simple things was humbling and motivational.
When I left the office, the interview resonated with me for the rest of my day. There was a comfort in seeing someone from my hometown not only make it out into the world but selflessly bringing his knowledge back to lead our community.
This experience reminded me of the mission of the Instagram account: to share the stories of others, for others.
By continuing this mission and discovering more stories of people that walk through this campus, Humans of Fresno State will grow into a platform that reflects a diverse Fresno State community.
This is only the beginning.
Razmik Canas contributed to this blog post.