Kern County leader named California Community College chancellor at system’s pivotal time

Sonya Christian
Sonya Christian, named chancellor of the California Community College District, has led the Kern Community College District since 2021.
(Kern Community College District)

Sonya Christian, head of the Kern Community College District in the Central Valley, has been named chancellor of the state’s 116-community college system, officials announced Thursday, taking over as campuses are reeling from enrollment plunges and are challenged to find ways to serve students facing barriers to higher education.

Christian — praised for her work to close achievement and equity gaps — will be the first woman and first person of South Asian descent to hold the post. She said that she feels a “sense of urgency and moral obligation” to the work ahead and emphasized the importance of community college as a way to advance socioeconomic mobility in marginalized communities.

“It is a uniquely challenging time for public education,” she said. “I believe our greatest challenges enable us to do our greatest work.”


She was appointed to the position after a nationwide search that began in July. She begins on June 1. The 11th chancellor to lead the system, Christian was appointed to a four-year term and will draw an annual base salary of $411,252.

“The California Community Colleges proudly serves as the first for millions of Californians — first-generation students, first post-secondary institution attended, and we are pleased to continue that tradition with our first woman to lead the system as permanent chancellor,” said Amy Costa, president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

Community college enrollment is at its lowest level in 30 years as educators scramble to meet the needs of a new generation of students who may be questioning the value of higher education.

Nov. 18, 2022

Between fall 2019 and fall 2022, enrollment in California community colleges tumbled to 1.4 million students — a decline of nearly 300,000 students, according to state data. The historic drops reflect a student body grappling with rising costs and the state’s affordable housing crisis, forcing many to prioritize work and family caregiving responsibilities over attending class.

Nearly 70% of California’s community college students are considered low-income. Forty-seven percent of students are Latino, 24% are white, 11% are Asian and 5% are Black, according to state data.

Christian, who has served as community college chancellor in Kern County since July 2021, started as a math professor at Bakersfield College in 1991. She later became division chair before moving to Oregon to become an administrator at Lane Community College.

She returned to Kern County in 2013 when she became president of Bakersfield College, according to the district.


There, many saw her as a leader dedicated to students.

Christian traveled to away games for the school’s sports teams, recalled Romeo Agbalog, president of the Kern Community College District Board of Trustees. She once stood at the bedside of an injured football player, and arranged for his long-term care.

“You have a chancellor now with heart,” he said during the governors meeting where Christian’s appointment was announced. “She will implement with care, with compassion and with love.”

That care for students is what appealed to Paul Medina, a student member on the Board of Governors who took part in the interview process for chancellor candidates. He felt Christian, who arrived to Los Angeles as an international student, could relate to the experiences of many community college students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

“She’s a fierce leader for first-generation students like myself,” said Medina, a student at Compton Community College.

Joshua Elizondo, another student member on the board, said Christian emerged as a front-runner during interviews because of her track record of supporting and listening to students. That attentiveness, he said, will be crucial given the vast differences and needs of students throughout the state.

Elizondo also said he was impressed by the way the Kern district has rebounded from enrollment declines during the pandemic.


“She has been able to bounce back enrollment [to] pre-pandemic levels, and hopefully she could do that across the state,” he said.

In the Kern Community College District, Christian is also credited with spearheading a statewide coalition in 2015 that raised philanthropic money for what led to the development of Guided Pathways, an effort to redesign community college education to better support students.

California community college students say taking classes online allows them to juggle work and family, and pursue their dreams of higher education.

Oct. 10, 2022

Under her leadership, the district also developed the California Renewable Energy Laboratory, a direct air capture hub, which extracts carbon from the air to reduce emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

Christian said Thursday that community colleges must be at the forefront of addressing climate change — both in training workers for jobs in renewable energy and upgrading campus facilities to make them more sustainable.

She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Kerala in Kerala, India, and earned her master’s degree in applied mathematics from USC and her doctorate from UCLA.

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that improve education equity, said Christian is dedicated to addressing education gaps that disproportionately hurt students from minoritized backgrounds, especially Black and Latino students.

Siqueiros said Kern County is a leader in awarding associate’s degrees for transfer, which guarantees students admission to Cal State University. She credits Christian, who also serves on the board for the Campaign for College Opportunity, for working closely with faculty who were skeptical of a state law passed in 2017 that sought to eliminate remedial classes.


“She’s not afraid to talk to those that are not in agreement with her position,” Siqueiros said. “And she’s been unafraid to be out front, pushing for unpopular change in service of students.”

Christian replaces Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who resigned from the position in August to become president and chief executive of College Futures Foundation, an Oakland-based nonprofit focused on improving college graduation outcomes for students of color and students from low-income families.