Vanya Quiñones: University president, neuroscientist, cowgirl
Vanya Quiñones is in her first year as president of CSU Monterey Bay. She oversees a university of more than 7,000 students that faces challenges in a post-pandemic world.
KAZU's Doug McKnight had the opportunity to meet with President Quiñones at the KAZU studios on CSUMB campus. The university holds the FCC license to operate 90.3 KAZU.
She wore a baseball cap sporting the school’s mascot name — Otters — and introduced herself by her first name, Vanya. It’s a name that is both unusual and insightful.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vanya Quiñones (VQ): It's a Russian name.
Doug McKnight (DM): How did a woman from Puerto Rico wind up with an Eastern European name?
VQ: With a very creative mother. It’s a gender neutral name, so yeah, it is a man's name. It's Russian. I think it shows that my family was very progressive and when you have something that is out of the norm, such as your name, you start becoming out of the norm too and think out of the box.
DM: Do you think it contributed to your creativity and openness?
VQ: Yeah, besides being bullied all my life because of the name. You know, it happens, when you have something different in the second grade or third grade, you know, anything that is different, people pick on you. So sometimes having a unique name when you're growing up (it) helps you to stand up a little bit more.
Vanya grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Puerto Rico, attended college and eventually earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience. She says higher education is a family tradition inspired by her grandmother.
VQ: Before the 1930s, she decided that she wanted to go to college. And through her education, she actually changed the trajectory of our whole family. She became a schoolteacher of a very, very small town. And today, three generations later, all her great grandkids have secondary degrees. I always say that it takes one member of your family to move the needle and is (through) the power of education.
This story of my family is not unique. And I think at CSUMB there are so many people with dreams and we can help them to achieve those dreams.
DM: You also talk about how education gave you freedom. We often think about the university as providing a method of income. But you say it gave you freedom from a low-wage job. You've even talked about it in terms of relationships, that you had the opportunity to leave because of your education.
VQ: My family used to say the only thing that I can give you is your education. That education provided me the ability to get a job, to move from a job that was toxic or from a relationship. I was able to support myself and support my kids.
I think there is a crisis in our universities because people don't see the value of education. But if you don't go through education and get a degree, you're limiting your future, (and) will be less likely to be promoted, You will be less likely to move forward, you will be more likely to get stuck in a job.
I guess my parents were right, the only thing that they could give me was an education and the ability to move forward. I'm always thankful for that. Very grateful for that.
DM: You've been here at CSUMB for about six months now. Has there been anything that surprised you?
VQ: I can tell you the first time that I was driving to go to Salinas and I saw people working in the field. I come from a farm. I'm a cowgirl. So I'm not surprised about labor or hard work, because that's what you learn on a farm, but I was surprised how it affected me because I thought, these are the parents of my students. They're working hours and hours, picking the crop for a better future for the students. I can get a little bit emotional because I was just thinking how hard they're working for that dream, for a better dream for their families.
And so I remember coming back to CSU and parking and there was a student. She started talking to me and she said she doesn't know that many people, she comes from Salinas. What I'm proud of is we helped that student achieve her future and (her) parents that are picking all the fruits and their dreams.
CSUMB has a minority majority student body. 46% are LatinX, almost two-thirds are women. And just shy of half are the first in their family to attend college.