This is the first of a two-part Q&A with Gavilan Superintendent Pedro Avila.
On July 18, Pedro Avila took office as president and superintendent of Gavilan Community College District. BenitoLink sat down with him and Gavilan’s Public Information Officer Rosie Zepeda for an introductory interview.
BenitoLink: Can you tell us a little about yourself, Dr Avila?
Avila: I was born in Mexico and my family moved here in 1984, when I was nine. We lived in Castroville and worked as farm workers in Salinas picking strawberries. Like most immigrant families, we went through adversity. We were homeless and low income and all of that. Growing up as an ESL student and learning English as a second language… I think all of it had an impact on my character, on who I am and why I do the things I do. That’s what grounds me.
Things did get better for us. My parents started their own business…myself and my two siblings attended Fresno State. I graduated with a business degree and a Latino Studies degree. My older brother graduated with a criminology degree and my sister graduated with an interior design degree.
BenitoLink: What made you move into the educational field?
Avila: My first job was in the private sector. I was working for a large corporation in Fresno; they moved to Kansas and I went with them. I got my MBA at Rockhurst University in Kansas City- they’re part of the Jesuit system. I was at the point in my career,,, where I was still young, wasn’t married and had no kids and I was still exploring; I thought this was going to be my passion and it wasn’t. I realized this was not fulfilling.
When I was an undergraduate at Fresno State, I worked in school education doing tech support and I really enjoyed the educational environment because I was being mentored and nurtured by the faculty. I really missed the environment, so I took a job at West Hills College in Coalinga in 2003. I came in with a business mind set, good ideas and the chancellor liked me. So he took me under his wing and asked me to be part of his executive cabinet.
I bring 20 years of experience working in community colleges but all 20 years have been on executive level, in the room with presidents, vice presidents, chancellors- its how I spent 10 years at West Hills eventually becoming vice chancellor for that district.
Living in Fresno was a long commute. I was now married with two young daughters so I took a job with the State Center District in Fresno [State Center represents three community colleges in Fresno] as dean of enrollment. A year later I became associate vice chancellor. In my three and half years, we were successful in growing that district. We grew by 17% and serving about 30,000 students.
From there I went to Santa Rosa where I took the vice president of student services position but I was also the assistant superintendent. I was there for five years and my biggest accomplishment was building affordable housing for 350 students.
And now I’m here. In 20 years, it has come full circle. These 20 years I’ve prepared myself for this opportunity of being president.
BenitoLink: What is the best part of being in the educational system?
Avila: For me, it’s always been about affecting change. The part I enjoy the most is changing the system and having an impact on the system so it benefits students. I bring my unique perspective as an immigrant, as a low-income student.
Zepeda: Dr Avila, do you want to share a little bit about your fiscal background and using data to really improve the user experience?
Avila:I do have an MBA and I bring that strong fiscal background. Everywhere I have been I’ve worked very closely on the fiscal side of the house. I always make decisions based on data. I also have a lot of experience working with budgets.
Zepeda: I want to add… I think the position that Dr. Avila had… institutional research and the effectiveness is that you’re really looking at the granular level of data but then having worked on the student services side you’re able to make that connection. I want to add what Dr Avila shared with me and this is key, a lot of folks rush through the system to be president or superintendent and it was very important for him to take his time doing so.
Avila: At West Hills I wanted to take a step back and make sure that I understood all the different areas, so I took a step back from being a chancellor. Then I took a lateral step to Fresno in the State Center to work in a bigger district and that gave me the opportunity to experience multi colleges. And then to Santa Rosa. I wanted to learn as much as I could before considering being president.
The Gavilan presidency made a lot of sense to me. It seemed like it’s a really good match because I understand the community and demographics. But also because of my background. I think the college was in need of a leader with a strong fiscal and enrollment management background.
BenitoLink: Dr Avila is there anything else you would like to add?
Avila: I would like the community to know we are reimagining Gavilan College. We have this beautiful campus in Gilroy, a beautiful location but it’s an aging campus. With Measure X we are going to be rebuilding the campus and I get to be part of the community and will be part of that together. Also, we will build the new campus in Hollister which I think is way overdue.
Zepeda: He’s the right president at the right time, basically coming home. I think that’s going to be beneficial as we look towards Hollister and building the new campus. It is long overdue, but it is here.
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