Joseph Castro still remembers his first experience with UC Berkeley. He was 17, newly admitted from his Hanford, Calif., high school and the first in his family to attend a four-year university.
“I was visiting campus for the first time to take my writing exam, and I remember taking it in this room with 500 people. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is this place?’” Castro recalled in a recent interview. That place, Berkeley, turned out to be his academic home for the next six years and the foundation of his career-long love of higher education.
In January, Castro will take over as chancellor of the California State University system, which, across 23 campuses, enrolls some 482,000 undergraduate and graduate students and is the country’s greatest producer of students with bachelor’s degrees.
Castro will be the first California native and the first Mexican American to hold the position. He credits his four years studying for a bachelor’s in political science and two years earning a master’s at the Goldman School of Public Policy as experiences that showed him the power of public education.
Castro recently talked with Berkeley News from his office in Fresno, where he has served as Fresno State’s president since 2013.
You spent six years at Berkeley before getting your Ph.D. at Stanford. Then you came back to the UC and CSU systems for 30 years. What’s so special about public schools?
Joseph Castro: One of the most magical parts of my experience was that I was admitted from my high school, on the spot, in Fresno. I had never even been to Berkeley. That changed my entire life.
When I got here, I lived at Casa Joaquin Murrieta, which is the Latino theme house on Piedmont Avenue, right on Greek Row. To come from the small town of Hanford, which has a population of 20,000, and to come to Berkeley, that was a huge change for me.
It was really my experience at Berkeley that inspired me to want to go into higher education, because I could see what a university education was doing for me and for other students.
What was Berkeley like then, in the mid-1980s? What made you so enthralled?
I love that period. It was it was a time of hope and optimism. I felt like I was part of a group that was coming in to help diversify the campus. Casa Joaquin Murrieta was really my anchor; there were 40 of us. Some of us were first-gen, some of us were second- or third-gen, from all different parts of the state or country.
I had never really spent much time outside of the Central Valley, so I remember getting my eyes opened by my fellow students and then being on campus, soaking up the vibrancy of Berkeley: Going to lectures, visiting the Morrison Reading Room for a nap, or to read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Or just relaxing between classes, sitting on Faculty Glade.
I took African American studies at Berkeley and learned about the history of African Americans, and I took Chicano studies classes, Asian American studies classes and even women’s studies classes. I had a chance to really open up my horizons. It was a magical period for me, even though it was rigorous, and I was working really hard.
You mentioned earlier that you were the first in your family to go to college. What advice would you give to another first-generation student, whether they’re going to Chico State or UCLA or Berkeley?
I first visited Berkeley with my grandparents and mother, who was a single mom and ahead of her time. She loved Berkeley and loved that I was going. My grandparents were very skeptical, and they did not want me to go. I remember how scared they were, at the beginning.
Every university has a personality that aligns with their students. And for me, Berkeley was such a great experience because I was able to get outside my comfort zone and meet people from all different backgrounds and cultures. That has served me very well as a leader, because I have a better sense of those issues than I would have if I had gone somewhere else.
Research shows that first-generation students underselect their options — doubt what they’re capable of — so I would like to see more of them going to different places and succeeding. That’s good for them and their families.
You’re the first California native to hold this position of chancellor of the CSU system. What’s that mean to you?
That distinction really surprised me. I was the first Californian to be appointed here to my current job as president of Fresno State. I was the first Fresno State president to be born in the region that I serve.
I’m hopeful that being a Californian with 30 years of experience in public higher education and being educated all my life in California will give me some insights that perhaps others have not had in the past.
I’m also hopeful that students who come from backgrounds like mine, first-generation, or from an ethnic or racial group, that they’ll think, ‘OK, well, if he can do it, maybe I can achieve my dreams in this particular area.’
What do you think the future holds for California’s three-tier system of higher education?
With the coronavirus moving classes online, we’ve been demonstrating lots of different examples of innovation at different universities, and what I’m hearing from students and faculty is textured. Some can’t wait to be back in person, and others are saying there’s real value in a remote model.
I do think that we’re headed to a new place. It’s going to be a hybrid model. What that looks like will be driven by what students and faculty and staff want.
You don’t worry that the magic you experienced at Berkeley won’t translate to a hybrid or online model?
I felt very privileged to be able to walk onto campus every single day, and I would want that for as many students as possible.
At the same time, I know that that’s not realistic for every student. Some students are telling me that this all-online model is actually more accessible for them because they couldn’t drive to campus easily. A lot of them are modest-income students, for whom every single penny matters.
I’d like, as chancellor, to empower people to try new things and to be focused on our mission and values without being restrictive on how we do it. I do think that when there’s less stress, when the pandemic is over, some pretty exciting things will happen.