By Joyce Gemperlein
Joseph Castro, PhD ’98, grew up listening to stories about his immigrant great-grandfather building railroad tracks through California’s Central Valley while living in a tent with his young family.
His grandparents described working in the nation’s most fertile produce fields, and his mother related rich tales of dancing at Fresno’s historic Rainbow Ballroom. He watched her doggedly support her family as a beautician for 40 years.
Those narratives helped shape Castro, 49, now the eighth president -- and first Latino and Central Valley native -- of California State University’s Fresno campus. Those who know him say that, in addition to working to improve academic programs at Fresno State, Castro has shown deep empathy for the everyday challenges facing students and their families by spearheading on-and-off campus programs addressing student health insurance, community service, food insecurity, and more.
These accomplishments and others have led Castro to be named one of three winners of the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s (GSE) 2016 Alumni Excellence in Education Award, which recognizes alumni who are transforming education, changing communities and influencing policy.
He will receive the award on Oct. 20 during reunion week along with Haydee Rodriguez, MA ’02, a teacher in the Central Union High School District in El Centro, Calif.; and Piya Sorcar, MA ’06, PhD ’09, founder of the nonprofit TeachAIDS.
“Joe is interested in the entire lifespan of students, not just kindergarten through high school but all opportunities along the pipeline. And he is very committed to the region. He is deliberative and collaborative. This makes him stand out,” said Kenji Hakuta, GSE professor emeritus and a longtime friend who met Castro at Stanford.
In a letter supporting Castro’s nomination for the award, Fred E. Wood, chancellor of the University of Minnesota Crookston and a former colleague in the University of California administration, wrote of Castro’s “deep understanding of the student experience, especially those who have been historically under-represented, under-served and disenfranchised within higher education.”
At Fresno State, Castro manages a student population of about 24,500, of which 80 percent are from the Central Valley. Sixty percent receive Pell Grants, the federal college aid for low-income students.
Since he arrived in 2013, the graduation rate has risen from 48 percent to over 58 percent and demand for admission has skyrocketed. Recently, U.S. News and World Report ranked Fresno State the No. 1 public university in the nation for graduation rate performance.
Castro, who said he was completely surprised when told he was to be honored by the GSE, said that his youth in Hanford, a community just south of Fresno and in the heart of the Central Valley, shaped his thinking about life and education.
“I have worked with my colleagues to remove barriers here and make higher education as user friendly as possible to clear the path to success,” he said.
Among those initiatives are programs addressing hunger. Fresno State is in the center of an area that, despite its soaring agricultural productivity and nickname of “the nation’s salad bowl,” has the highest poverty rates in the state. Nearly three-quarters of its current college students are the first in their families to seek higher education.
Castro and his wife, the former Mary Borges, were quick to realize that more than one-third of Fresno State’s students are “food insecure,” the relatively new term for being unable to afford or find daily meals.
The Food Security Project was created with Mary Castro as its lead volunteer. Its website locates free food supplies, including information about the Student Cupboard that discretely distributes bags of donated groceries and toiletries to anyone with a school ID, help in food or health emergencies, and gift certificates for dining halls. The Catered Cupboard, an app on the website, sends students push notifications about catered events on campus that have leftover food.
Castro also launched the President’s Commission on the Future of Agriculture that resulted in a formal report and ongoing community feedback to ensure the economic viability of the region.
Adding to a long list of awards, in 2015 he was presented the Spirit of Abraham Award by the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno for his efforts to provide Muslim students a space to conduct religious practices and prayer.
Recently, Castro was a driving force behind securing and implementing a $500,000 grant from the College Futures Foundation to the Fresno Unified School District, UC Merced, the State Center Community College and Fresno State to collaboratively analyze data that will drive policy changes within those institutions to accelerate student success.
Castro’s own road to success began when he was 17 and, at the urging of a high school counselor, he attended a field admission event for UC Berkeley, and, to his surprise, was admitted and given scholarships on the spot. He refers to this as "a transformational moment that altered the trajectory of his life."
He never got over that delight with academia, receiving his bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 1988 and his master’s in public policy in 1990. He then “put all my eggs in one basket” and applied to Stanford, where, in 1998, he received his PhD in Higher Education Policy and Leadership.
He sought out James March, the Jack Steele Parker Professor of International Management, now emeritus, as his principal advisor because of his international status as an expert in the field of leadership, organizations and organizational decision-making. Castro wrote his doctoral dissertation on university presidents and leadership.
“My four years of study at Stanford were the most intellectually rigorous and rewarding of my life. It was a tremendous privilege to learn from an extraordinary faculty and amazing students,” he said. “I graduated with a much deeper understanding of policy and leadership issues and was inspired to share these gifts with others as a university professor and administrator.”
In between attending Stanford and leading Fresno State, Castro held numerous administrative posts in the UC system, including vice chancellor of student academic affairs at UC San Francisco. He credits much of his success to what he learned in each position and to the support of his family.
Castro met his wife, the daughter of a local milker, working at a Burger King when she was a high school senior and he was a college freshman on winter break. The Castros have three children, Isaac, 28; Lauren, 23; and Jess, 5, “our bonus child,” he said.
Lauren, an undergraduate at Humboldt State University, is interested in a career in business. Isaac was a student services adviser in the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, where he used to run around the hallways when his dad was assistant dean from 1993 to 1997. He recently moved to Fresno to enroll in Fresno State’s masters program in higher education leadership.
Castro’s sister, April Aquino, holds two degrees from Fresno State and is a speech therapist in Kings County. His mother, Anne Marie Mendez, is retired and still lives in Hanford.
He said he wants graduates to remain in the area, as his sister did, and those who have left to “boomerang back,” as he did -- to live, work and lead.
“Fresno State is improving the overall quality of life for everybody in the Valley. It is a beacon of hope for our region,” he said.
Joyce Gemperlein, a freelance writer in the Bay Area and a former Knight Fellow at Stanford, is a contributor to the Educator, the online newsletter of Stanford Graduate School of Education. Please read our previous issues and subscribe.
All photos are courtesy of Joseph Castro.
For more information about the GSE Alumni Excellence in Education Award reception, and to register for this special event, please visit the GSE’s Reunion Webpage.