In October, Sonya Christian was introduced as the 10th president of Bakersfield College. It was a sort of homecoming for her.
Christian served as BC's math instructor and dean of science, engineering, allied health and mathematics from 1991 to 2003 until leaving for a job at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., where she worked as vice president and chief academic officer.
She began her job as the leader of one of the largest community colleges in California on a part time basis in December. Working full time since January, Christian shared a bit about her new job with Bakersfield Life.
"I am really looking forward to this new adventure," she told Bakersfield Life. "I am very happy to be back."
It is great to be back in Bakersfield. I've missed being able to go to In-N-Out Burger for lunch! I'm always moved by the view driving down the Grapevine, and even things like seeing the oleanders along Highway 99 is a pleasure.
I didn't know what life would bring when I left Bakersfield for my work in ... Oregon. Life certainly has unpredictable twists and turns.
Nearly 50 people applied for your job, and 14 were interviewed. Why do you think you were chosen?
I came to the process with a love of Bakersfield because this is where I started my work. I think my affection for BC and the community was visible from the start.
My years spent at Lane added to my experience and gave me a full and rigorous grounding and understanding of the important work of community colleges. At Lane, I was chief academic officer and academic/executive vice president, and became thoroughly immersed in the breadth and depth of issues facing community colleges, including dealing with budget cuts, accountability measures, the explosion of technology and more.
This is a time of great change in higher education. When interviewing, I said my experience in the educational system, wide range of work responsibilities, and my passion for community college education in general and Bakersfield College in particular gives me the background, skills, and commitment needed to function effectively as president.
You worked part time throughout December. How did you spend that time before taking over full time this month? How did you prepare?
My time was spent starting up my new job at BC, wrapping up my responsibilities with my old job at Lane, selling a house, buying a house and all the other logistics that go with a mid-year transition. The five days I was here in December I spent talking with faculty and staff, getting acquainted with what has taken place at BC since I left, what the current state of the college is, what needs and concerns are pressing, and what kind of teams can be formed to address those needs and concerns.
What is your short term focus at BC?
In many ways, short-term and long-term plans are tightly connected. Education is facing budget issues nationally, so I am focusing on engaging with the current budget challenges. My primary focus is galvanizing all employees -- all 717 of us -- to have laser focus on our goals. We are looking at leveraging external funding to redesign some of our processes and practices with a goal of long range fiscal sustainability. I am also focusing on building our ties with the community BC serves. At an all-campus forum during my interview process, I made clear to both our internal and external communities that we will solve our problems together, as a community and in community. I have full confidence that this work of building community will lay the foundation for our students, the community, and the college to not only survive these hard fiscal times, but also to thrive.
What about your long term plans for the college?
The fundamentals don't change -- Bakersfield College exists to serve the educational and workforce needs of students and community. But the larger picture of higher education is certainly in flux. Ensuring that BC is well-positioned to address the changing national and international issues and pressures while maintaining our local character and commitment is essential to our long-term success. We are celebrating our centennial year -- 1913 was when we opened our doors to students in our community. BC will honor our tradition of excellence and equity while we boldly move into the future creating learning environments of the 21st century.
Why did you get involved in education -- whether in teaching or administration -- in the first place?
Education is the cornerstone of improving one's life situation: gaining economic, social, and professional mobility. My journey from outside of the United States into the American educational system, and then working within community colleges, gave me a unique perspective and appreciation that continues to this day. It's an incredible and powerful system that is unequaled in the world.
Education is a life changer and equalizer in society. Education provides disenfranchised individuals the opportunity to be empowered and realize the American dream. It is what keeps America competitive in a global economy.
How do you approach your job every day?
I wake up quite early every morning -- 4:30 a.m. -- and have a sense of anticipation, a sense of possibilities. I usually have a few quiet hours in the morning before the craziness hits. Almost on a daily basis when I get to my office, I chat with Carlos, our custodian, who is quite committed to creating and maintaining a safe, clean, and beautiful environment for our students.
He understands the work we all do, from custodian to president, is about education and its transformational power for individuals and our communities.
My days are full and go by quickly. Meetings on and off campus. Meetings related to academic matters, student issues, facilities and technology, finance and more. Issues that are unfolding in Washington, D.C. and in Sacramento that could have an impact on community colleges.
I typically work late into the night. I try to squeeze in some exercise time a few nights a week and the weekend.
I am also always wired in: laptop, iPad, cell, etc.
Why should local students choose Bakersfield College for their college education?
I would answer that by thinking about the different kinds of local students who come to Bakersfield College. All students find a friendly campus of dedicated professionals who are really here for the students, and who quickly become partners in the student's growth and success, whether that is faculty, counselors, advisers, facilities staff -- everyone is focused on the student's success.
There is a sense that when you come to Bakersfield College, the college is really standing there with you. It is especially critical for first-time students. College-bound students find the support and career advising they need, plus an amazing faculty with broad and deep knowledge, expertise and dedication. Students looking for employment skills find all of the above, plus experiential learning in a wide range of job skills, and a business community which really stands by our students as well.
Students and the community should know that Bakersfield College does all of this at a remarkably low cost and record of success in meeting student needs. Whether they are just starting higher ed and don't quite know what to do yet, or are transfer, employment or enrichment focused, we serve them all and do it well.
Tell us a little about yourself, your family, and your life outside of work?
I grew up in Kerala, India, and came to the United States to do graduate work in math. I went to University of Southern Californian, and now my daughter, Eisha, is doing her residency in neurosurgery at USC. She graduated from Highland High School, and loved her experience here in Bakersfield.
Outside of work, I enjoy long walks and meeting friends to enjoy the local cuisine at some of my favorite Bakersfield restaurants. I also enjoy movies.