Bringing with him more than a decade of university administration experience and a life’s story that illustrates what a dream and a college education can do for an individual, Ramon Torrecilha became California State University, Dominguez Hills’s new provost and vice president for academic affairs on Feb. 20.
Born in Brazil to a Puerto Rican father and Brazilian mother, Torrecilha spent much of his youth at a state school for poor children, where he took classes in the morning and worked in the fields in the afternoon. When he moved to the United States at the age of 17, he once again worked the fields, this time picking fruit in an orchard in the state of Washington.
But Torrecilha envisioned a different life for himself. Despite the long hours working, with only one day off a week, he enrolled in night school to learn English, and after a year, he quit the orchard, moved to Portland, Ore., and began a journey in higher education that would lead him to this campus.
Dateline Dominguez recently spoke with Torrecilha about where he came from, how it shaped him, his education and career, his new role as CSU Dominguez Hills’s chief academic officer –and the mystery surrounding the pronunciation and spelling of his name.
Dateline: You came to the United States when you were 17 as a migrant worker. What prompted you to come to make such a big move at such a young age?
Torrecilha: It was primarily the conditions and the poverty around me that said ‘you have to find other alternatives for yourself.’
Dateline: How did your journey lead you to Portland State University?
Torrecilha: On my second Sunday at the farm, I went to the road and I hitch hiked. This car passed by and then came back. It was a family and they took me to a Baptist Church. At this church, somehow they gave me a Bible in English and a Bible in Portuguese. That’s how I began to learn English, and because of this community I learned about Portland, Oregon, and so after a year at the farm, I left to Portland.
Dateline: Why did you choose to study sociology?
Torrecilha: Through sociology I was able to contextualize the importance and impact of social structure on the individual.
Dateline: After receiving your Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. Why did you make the change from faculty to administration?
Torrecilha: I struggled with that, because the question is, how do you make a difference? When you’re a faculty member you have the opportunity to impact and change lives of the students. And that impact is what keeps a lot of faculty doing what we do. When you’re an administrator, you lose that.
I got into administration because of program development. I was interested in curricular change and how to design support services for students that go along with curriculum?
Dateline: How can/do you identify with the needs of students at CSU Dominguez Hills, many of whom are first in their family to receive a college education?
Torrecilha: I was one of them. In many respects, I had to learn how to navigate this very complex system which is the university. For example, I remember feeling intimidated by the library, not because it was a sterile space but also because I did not know how to be in a library. It was a space outside of my reality.
Dateline: Your career in higher education administration, up until now, has been with private institutions, mainly Mills College in Oakland, where you had served as vice president for institutional advancement, acting president, and adviser to the president. Why did you make the shift to a public institution?
Torrecilha: I’m a product of public education, but I spent a lot of time in the private institutions. I spent a lot of time at Mills College, for example, because I believe in the mission of a woman’s college. I think we still need these institutions where women can go and hear their voices. Secondly, I have been very concerned about what’s going on in higher education, in California and the nation. Access to higher education continues to be a challenge and I am concerned about the privatization of higher education and how higher education is becoming inaccessible to a lot of people.
Dateline: What perspectives do you think you bring to CSU Dominguez Hills from Mills College?
Torrecilha: My experience in promoting and supporting institutional change.
Dateline: What energizes you about your new role as CSU Dominguez Hills’s provost and vice president for academic affairs?
Torrecilha: It’s been very informative to learn about all the positive changes during Dr. Garcia’s presidency. It is clear that the institution has accomplished so much in spite of challenging economic times. The commitment demonstrated by the faculty and staff motivates me. Delivering an affordable quality education to our students motivates me. Our students motivate me.
Dateline : Given the university’s budget has been cut each year for the last several years and could see more cuts in the future, what challenges does that impose on delivering quality, well-rounded education to students, and how do you ensure that the educational quality isn’t diminished?
Torrecilha: It is a challenge because I am determined to maintain the integrity of our academic programs and ensure that our students have the courses they need to graduate.
Dateline: Despite the budget, what are some of the things you would like to accomplish for CSU Dominguez Hills?
Torrecilha: I want to make sure we maintain academic excellence. I want to reaffirm our commitment to the students and communities that we serve. The diversity of our community defines who we are and I want to support that diversity in every way I can.
I also want to make sure that Dominguez Hills is known for a quality undergraduate education with stellar selected graduate programs.
Other priorities include increasing the number of tenure, tenure-track lines, establishing a writing center and a math success academy, and funding faculty development. That’s sufficient for now.
Dateline: You have arrived to CSU Dominguez Hills on the eve of a presidential transition. What are your thoughts about that?
I’ve been through several transitions. Dr. García has served this institution well; she accomplished a great deal in a short period of time, and we are all grateful for her hard work and efforts.
I look forward to welcoming and working with Dr. Willie Hagan, our new interim president. It’s important that we keep the momentum of the past few years; I will do everything I can do support Dr. Hagan’s presidency.
Dateline: We will end our conversation with a few light questions. Who is your favorite author?
Torrecilha: That’s easy. Simone de Beauvoir. Simone was very daring and she used the power of the pen to shake our social consciousness and to change our understanding of the position of women and the marginalized other in society.
Dateline: What is your favorite food?
Torrecilha: Rice and beans. It’s a Latin thing.
Dateline: And lastly, how DO you pronounce your name?
Torrecilha: Ra-mon Tor-e-C-ya. The correct spelling of my name is T-o-r-r-e-c-i-l-l-a. But my birth certificate was done in Brazil and there is no such thing in Portuguese as the double “L” so they stuck an “H” when it should be a double “L” because my father’s name, his correct name, is Torrecilla. The “H” throws people off. Think about a double “L” instead of the “H.”