Cal State LA’s new Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs José Luis Alvarado has a strong sense of kinship with the university and the communities it serves.
“I feel like I’ve always been a part of Cal State LA. It’s the kind of place I feel I really belong in,” he says, citing the university’s deep connections to its surrounding neighborhoods, its commitment to social justice and equity, and its success in promoting the upward mobility of its students. “What I see at Cal State LA is that it’s about more than just words. It’s about action. I’m absolutely about that.”
To speak with Alvarado is to hear, over and over, key themes as he describes his aspirations for working with students, faculty and staff in his new position: Access. Opportunity. Transformation. Influence.
These words also apply to Alvarado’s path from immigrant child of impoverished farm laborers in Imperial County, to first-generation college student, then pathbreaking behavioral specialist and academician, and now, after more than two decades of service in the California State University system, to becoming Cal State LA’s top academic officer on July 20.
Alvarado arrived on campus after 15 years at San Diego State and then six years at Cal State Monterey Bay. At Monterey Bay, he was the founding dean for the College of Education. There, he established a “grow-our-own” program to train a corps of local schoolteachers to serve the predominantly Latino, low-income and chronically under-resourced farm communities of the Salinas Valley.
The Teacher Pathway Program, a collaboration of Cal State Monterey Bay with three area community colleges, is designed to eliminate barriers and provides intensive academic advising, mentoring, technology support and supplementary instruction.
The program graduated its first cohort in May, with 84% having earned their associate degrees for transfer in two years, 82% their Bachelor of Arts degrees in four years and a majority graduating with honors. The fact that 98% of the program’s graduates are from underrepresented backgrounds, 100% are first generation and 98% are from low-income households makes clear that all students are capable of achieving this level of success if they are provided access and support, Alvarado says.
“José Luis is a distinguished administrative leader in the California State University and has dedicated his career to student success and academic distinction,” Cal State LA President William A. Covino says. “His experiences, expertise, values and commitment to public service are aligned with the vision, mission and strategic priorities of Cal State LA.”
Alvarado sees himself when he considers the students, faculty, staff and alumni of the CSU. He is living proof, he likes to say, that a high-quality education can transform a life.
“I’ve come through the ranks, lived through the struggles,” he says. “I have a deep empathy for the challenges our students face, as well as our faculty.”
Alvarado’s future success was far from a given when he arrived from Mexicali, Mexico, in 1975 with his parents, two older brothers and sister at age 10, unable to speak English. The family settled in Brawley, a city in Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California, joining relatives who had already immigrated.
Brawley consisted of a wealthier, predominantly white western half and a poorer, Latino-majority east side, Alvarado says. He ended up attending an elementary school on the west side, a fluke based on the location in the middle of town of the small migrant housing complex in which his family lived. The school offered no bilingual instruction beyond one hour a day in English as a second language. “It was sink or swim,” he says.
There, he benefited from one of the first educators who believed in him: Mrs. Marquez, “who basically taught me how to speak English,” Alvarado recalls with affection.
In that era, the mid- to late 1970s, not everyone was ready to be in a young Latino student’s corner. His guidance counselor insisted that “college is not for you,” Alvarado says. The curriculum that had been dictated for him, heavy on classes like woodshop and small-engine mechanics, was not enriching or challenging. But he was already dreaming bigger.
Determined to prove his counselor wrong, Alvarado applied himself to his studies. “I’m going to become a counselor,” he remembers thinking at the time. “I’m never going to tell anyone that college is not an option.”
Alvarado learned about TRIO Upward Bound, a federally funded college-preparatory program, and was accepted into it the summer before his senior year of high school. He was able to take university-level courses and stay in the dorms at UC San Diego. “It was the first time that I was actually academically challenged,” he says. “And I loved it.”
From there, Alvarado’s career path and list of achievements accelerated. He enrolled at Imperial Valley College, discovered his love for the field of psychology and earned an Associate in Arts in General Education in 1985. He transferred to San Diego State’s Imperial Valley campus in Calexico and went on to earn his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1987.
As part of a senior-year research project, Alvarado worked with young children with emotional and behavioral disorders in a day treatment program operated by Imperial County. Finding the work fulfilling, he stayed there for five years. Along the way he earned credentials in bilingual elementary education and special education, also from San Diego State, and he moved on to teaching in the local elementary schools. (Repaying her life-changing kindness, Alvarado invited his old teacher Mrs. Marquez to visit him in his first classroom assignment.)
At the time, Alvarado says, California passed a law that required teachers who taught students with behavioral challenges to be trained in crisis behavioral management and principles of applied behavior analysis, or what has now evolved to be Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
The challenge was that teachers typically weren’t trained as behavioral specialists. Again thinking bigger, he became a school site trainer, applying his past professional experiences to helping others working in the classroom. His role expanded across the district, and then to a position serving the entire county.
“There was a common theme about trying to have a greater sphere of influence, trying to impact the largest number of students in a positive way,” Alvarado says of those years. He went from working as a behavioral specialist with 12 students, to a classroom teacher with 24 students, a trainer for a school site serving 500 students and then to a district serving 4,000 students. He was often the first Latino to serve in his roles as he moved up the ranks.
That same desire for expanded influence led to Alvarado’s decision to become a college professor, with the goal of training future teachers before they reached the classroom. For Alvarado, who had earned his Master of Arts in Special Education at San Diego State in 1994, that meant going back to school for his Ph.D.
With the backing of a doctoral incentive program, a full-ride fellowship and a forgivable loan from the CSU, Alvarado headed to the University of Virginia in 1997, sight unseen, with his wife, Patricia, and their two young sons. It was a leap, he recalls: He had not lived more than seven blocks from his family in Brawley or traveled farther east than Yuma, Arizona.
Committed to returning home to Southern California, Alvarado completed his coursework and defended his dissertation proposal in just two years, then finished writing the dissertation in one year after accepting a position as an assistant professor at San Diego State. He was awarded his Ph.D. in Education with a Specialization in Special Education from the University of Virginia in 2001.
At San Diego State, Alvarado says, he found great rewards in teaching and conducting research, often in service to the communities in which he had grown up in Imperial County. Again with an eye to broadening his influence, he started working in administration, rising to associate dean for the College of Education.
He continued his path to bigger assignments within the CSU with his move to Monterey Bay as a dean in 2014—not incidentally, he says, in another region of often underserved farm families—and now to Cal State LA with the opportunity to effect change across an institution.
As he begins his new role at Cal State LA, Alvarado says he will continue doing what he has always done: to draw on his experiences, lead by example, be open to others’ ideas.
“I’ve never asked anyone to do something I haven’t done myself as a student, a faculty member, an administrator,” Alvarado says. “But if there’s something I haven’t done, I’ll do it alongside you. I have no problem rolling up my sleeves and getting in there. It really is about being a role model and setting an example.”
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.