New Orange Coast College president sees community colleges as her calling

Angelica Suarez, appointed in April to be Orange Coast College’s new president, will take over for interim President Kevin Ballinger on July 1. “There’s definitely a commitment ... to promote success, and I wanted to be a part of that and be a champion for the college,” she says.
(Courtesy of Southwestern College)

When Angelica Suarez showed up at East Los Angeles College in fall 1985, she didn’t know what to expect.

She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. Her parents wanted her to get a full-time job after graduation, but she insisted that going to college would better help the family of six children. So they allowed her to go.

As a first-generation college student who immigrated from Mexico when she was 3, she felt like a “fish out of water, unsure of my abilities and questioning whether I was academically prepared for college work,” she said in a recent interview.

But a few years later, with an associate degree and more than 100 college units under her belt, Suarez figured out what she wanted to do — work with community colleges.

Now, with a trifecta of collegiate degrees — bachelor’s and master’s in psychology from Cal State Long Beach and a doctorate of philosophy from Loyola University Chicago — and 30 years of working with community colleges, Suarez has been named the new president of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. Her contract was approved by the Coast Community College District board of trustees on April 17. She will take over July 1 from interim President Kevin Ballinger, who will return to his previous role as vice president of instruction.

Suarez’s contract is for three years with an annual salary of $232,527.

“From someone who had no history of higher education, [and] I came here as a child from Mexico, to someone who was able to get a doctorate from Loyola, none of that would have been possible if not for community college and everyone who worked there,” Suarez said.

She said she had many mentors while attending East L.A. College in Monterey Park and felt she had “a lot of support and people that cared about me that made me feel I mattered and I was valued and that they were invested in my education.”

“The community college provided me with an opportunity to break tradition and start a new tradition — one that is firmly rooted in higher education as a foundation for changing the trajectory of families and communities,” she said.

Suarez, who currently is vice president of academic affairs at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, said she was seeking a presidency and knew there were positions available throughout Southern California.

She said she did research on some of the openings but felt that Orange Coast College “stood out as a place where I could see myself contributing. So, I called the consultant that was doing the [national] search and the rest is history.”

Angelica Suarez, the next president of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, appears April 17 at a Coast Community College District board meeting where her contract was approved.
(Courtesy of Orange Coast College)

“Since I’ve been in community colleges, I’ve known about OCC and their reputation of excellence,” Suarez said. “It’s the unequivocal focus on student success and the results that they have. ... Over the last 70 years, the pathways they have created are unparalleled.

“They’re focused on holistic student support, and it’s very evident in the work they’ve been doing with ... all the renovations. ... There’s definitely a commitment from the governing board, chancellor and community to promote success, and I wanted to be a part of that and be a champion for the college.”

Recent and ongoing projects at OCC include a new planetarium, aquatic center and student housing complex.

Suarez’s farewell ceremony at Southwestern College will be Tuesday, though her last day there will be at the end of the month.

“Angelica has been an amazing leader for Southwestern College, helping us move through several transitions,” school President and Supt. Kindred Murillo said in a statement. “Her historical perspective of the college and her service to our students will be greatly missed. And we are excited for the impact she will have at Orange Coast College.”

Suarez’s appointment at OCC follows the retirement of former President Dennis Harkins, who was the third-longest serving president in the school’s 70-year history.

“Dr. Suarez is recognized as a collaborative and inspiring leader who is focused on creating equitable and accessible pathways to higher education for all students,” Coast Community College District Chancellor John Weispfenning said in a statement following her appointment. “She brings a depth and breadth of experience in student services and academic affairs to lead OCC into the future.”

Suarez said it is important for her to engage with faculty and students on campus “so they can share with me what they’re excited about.” She said she wants the goals she sets for the campus to mirror those of its community and build on the school’s history.

“One of the things I love to do is get to know the people I work with and have them get to know me as well,” Suarez said. “Those are things that are absolutely essential. For the campus to thrive, people need to feel invested and empowered. My goals will be informed by the work we do together.”

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