Commentary: New OCC president impresses retired college faculty, administrators

Angelica Suarez, Orange Coast College’s new president, began in her new role on July 1.
Angelica Suarez, Orange Coast College’s new president, began in her new role on July 1.
(Courtesy of Southwestern College)

Orange Coast College has had 11 presidents in its 72-year history, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with seven of them.

It was the quintessential theme park thrill ride. I loved it.

For 37 years I served as Coast’s director of community relations. I retired in 2008. I enjoyed working for every chief executive, though some were bigger challenges for me than others. I loved them all.

They had distinctive voices, personas, communication styles, idiosyncratic deportments, management skills, academic backgrounds and educational philosophies. But the one thing they shared was a love for Orange Coast College and its students. Gifted beyond belief, they left their indelible stamps upon the place.

The college wouldn’t be what it is today — one of the finest community colleges in the land — were it not for their contributions.

I had an opportunity the other day to meet for the first time OCC’s brand-new, 11th president, Angelica Suarez. I was impressed. Her academic chops and her leadership style and skills are striking.

I’m a member of a group of retired OCC faculty members and administrators who meet once a month at noon for chow and chatter at Zubie’s Dry Dock in Huntington Beach. It’s free-wheeling, and we talk about a host of subjects like grandchildren, new cars, favorite vacation destinations, films and the latest surgical techniques.

But mostly, our conversations focus on OCC, the swirling pivot of our universe. We share stories, and most begin this way: “Hey, remember the time that …?” Decades-old athletic contests are rehashed in great detail. Would you like to hazard a guess as to how many times we’ve restaged the 1963 Junior Rose Bowl?

A dozen of us regularly attend the luncheons and, together, we’ve racked up more than 300 years of service to the college. That’s a huge cache of institutional memory. We’re partisans. Loyalists. Pirates!

“We love OCC,” says our unofficial commander, Fred Hokanson. He was a track and field coach at the college for decades, was athletic director, and served as dean of physical education. He’s our de facto “commander” because, frankly, he’s bigger and stronger than the rest of us combined.

“We’re Pirates through and through,” Hokanson says. “We attend athletic contests, and we cheer the teams on. We may be biased, but there’s no place like Coast.”

Other members of our group include (former) head men’s volleyball and basketball coach, Bob Wetzel; professor of aviation technology, Robert Clifton; physical education professor and head athletic trainer, Leon Skeie; head men’s tennis coach and assistant football coach, George Mattias; head women’s basketball coach, Mike Thornton; professor and learning specialist, Dean Bosse; and myself.

We extended an invitation to OCC’s new president to dine with us this month and she graciously accepted. We were out to sell her on Orange Coast College, but we didn’t have to. She’s sold. She’s done her homework, and she deeply understands and shares the college’s values and academic culture.

“Coast is a wonderful place,” she told our group. “I’ve learned a great deal about it in recent months, and I’m learning more every day. Coast is known nationally and worldwide. I understand why.”

An immigrant and first-generation college student, Suarez earned an associate in arts degree from East Los Angeles College. By the way, her Pirate fidelity will be tested early this football season when East L.A.’s Huskies come to LeBard Stadium to play the OCC on Sept. 14. It should be fun!

Suarez earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s in counseling psychology from Cal State Long Beach. She completed her doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies at Loyola University, Chicago.

Before being selected as OCC’s president, Suarez was vice president of student services for the Southwestern Community College District in San Diego County. She also served as acting superintendent/president.

When our luncheon with OCC’s inspirational new president came to an end, we rose as one and gave her a Pirate cheer. We salty sea dogs were impressed.

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Former Daily Pilot columnist Jim Carnett previously served as community relations director for Orange Coast College. He lives in Costa Mesa.

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