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How Astrid Tuminez went from Filipino slums to president of UVU, and her inspiring message for young people

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: The world is longing for authentic leaders. Higher education is in need of transformation to meet the challenges of a 21st century global economy. Students are searching for hope and dreams they can passionately pursue. Young people want to believe they can make a difference. Utah Valley University may have discovered answers to all these questions in a single, passionately energized, yet unlikely source: President Astrid Tuminez. We will explore her extraordinary journey on the road less traveled on this episode of Therefore, What?

President Tuminez, thank you so much for joining us on Therefore, What? this week. We have a lot of ground to cover. So we're going to dive right into it. The first thing I want to address is you've had such diverse experience over your career and yet it really started simply. You had a couple of people who really chose to make a difference and we often question that in the world. Can I really make a difference? Is what I'm doing today really going to impact anybody? But you had a chance to visit with two nuns in the fall of this last year that did make that kind of difference for you. Tell us about that.

Astrid Tuminez: Yes. Those nuns, they come from an order called the Daughters of Charity. They were actually founded in France. And about 100 years ago, this order started a school in the Philippines. And I was then living in the slums of the city of Iloilo in the Philippines. I had five siblings at the time, and we were really too poor to afford a good school. But the nuns would go around every so often to do what they call slumming. They'd bring youths clothes and canned goods and they'd also teach catechism, and they found me and my siblings and basically the wonderful outcome of that meeting was that they invited us to attend their school for free.

And I had a chance to visit them. It was last June, with a UVU team with me. And, you know, film them. And one of these nuns, Sister Elvira Korea, who at the time was probably in her young 20s, she really changed the entire trajectory of my life and the lives of my siblings too.

BM: What did you learn from those nuns? You obviously got into education and something sparked.

AT: I learned many things from the nuns. So it was a Catholic Convent School. It was very strict. The first thing I learned from them was the reality of heaven and hell. And if you can imagine in those days, our religion class, Christian living, began with big pictures, beautiful, glossy pictures, and I had nothing like that in my home. I no radio, no TV, but there were these big glossy pictures at school and there was always hell and heaven and in hell you had the devil with a pitchfork, poking people as they were burning in hell fire.

So actually, that led me to think early on about the definition of what's good and what's bad. And even though that's simplistic and not so nuanced, I really started to think about what I wanted to do with life and what choices I was making.

Second, they were strict disciplinarians. So in terms of education and teaching, I had to speak English, even though I didn't know English. And so I just had to learn really, really fast.

And then the third thing, there was a nun whose name was Sister Susanna. She later actually left the order to get married. But I had a class with her. And one day she said to me, you know, "Astrid, you have to see God in every person." And I think I was 10 years old or younger. And that just had such a powerful effect on me, that every human being who stood in front of me was someone who had God in them, and therefore I had to see that potential, therefore I had to treat them as if God himself were there standing in front of me. So I'm sure she didn't even really realize that particular interaction would have a such an effect on me, but it did.

BM: We're gonna come back to that as we talk about some of the students you see every day down at UVU. But I want to continue on this education line first, because clearly something sparked in terms of reading and learning. And it set you on a very different course than you were on to begin with.

AT: Yes. When I was invited to the school, they had something called the free department. So this is where all the poor kids went. It wasn't the school proper, and I had a teacher, Miss Turiha, who was very, very strict. And I was just a visitor, I was illiterate so they didn't give me the status of first-grader. I was called a visitor and they seated the children by smartness. The smartest girl would be in the first seat, first row and there were six rows. And I was the sixth girl, sixth row. I joke about, you know, the shaming method in Asia which can be very effective. So I obviously at first felt very ashamed, but I also was just really excited. I didn't understand a lot of what was going on. I thought that a zero was 100. So my first quizzes that were all zero, I thought they were 100 and I would run home to my hut and tell my father look at this great grade, and it was a terrible grade. But it awakened in me because I learned to read very quickly. I didn't know how to spell my name when I started. I learned to read very, very quickly and then you just couldn't stop me from reading everything I could lay my hands on.

And then I got competitive because I realized for the first time in my life that I was good at something. I turned 6 two months into the school year and realized this thing that I could compete. And so I eyed that girl in the first seat, first row and I don't know how many months it took, I can't remember, but I displaced her. And then they moved me. I jumped a grade, I went straight to second grade from being a visitor to second grade. So it was the beginning of this journey of, "Yes, I'm good at something. And, I can just run with it." It was a great feeling.

BM: So important to recognize those feelings when you know you're on a path that you can actually do something. So let's follow that path. Let's accelerate down. You went to Brigham Young University, which then took you to Harvard and to MIT. Tell us about that.

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez and Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson discuss higher education and leadership, Tuesday.
Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez and Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson discuss higher education and leadership, Tuesday.
Savannah Hopkinson, Deseret News

AT: Yeah. So first I actually went to the University of the Philippines. I was a 15-year-old freshman. And when I graduated high school, I took a test and applied for a government scholarship. So I became what was called the University of the Philippines, one of the very top schools in the country. I became a UP government scholar, and it was the first time in my life I had cash. They paid my tuition plus they gave me cash, and it was, again, very exciting. I didn't know what I wanted to be. I started in chemical engineering, but realized I wasn't as fast as the others at mathematics. And so I went into pre-med and I dissected the little animals without a problem. And then we had to dissect the cat. And the professor said we had to find our own cat. And I just said, "No, I draw the line there." And then I realized that's not what I wanted to do.

Then I got into languages and political science. And then by the time that I got accepted to BYU and was able to get my visa to come to the United States, I already knew that I wanted to study international politics. I was very concerned about issues of war and peace and the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union at that time, and nuclear weapons. And then I had a mentor at BYU, a wonderful mentor, Professor Gary Browning, who again took a big risk when I applied to be his secretary, and I flunked the secretarial test. I couldn't write a proper letter, I didn't know where the margins were, and how many spaces between "Dear so and so" and the beginning of the letter. But he didn't give up on me. He made me take a spelling test. And all those years of reading books in the Philippines made me ace the spelling test. So he gave me that job. I learned to speak Russian fluently. He was my Russian professor. He wrote me a wonderful letter of recommendation. He had done his own Ph.D. at Harvard, I think that helped in a major way. So I got into Harvard and then MIT and of course the years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were amazing years for me in terms of the exposure to the world at large. When I landed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, having lived in Provo for 3 1/2 years, I was shocked that that was also the United States. I think it was an even bigger shock than coming from the Philippines because everybody was different. And the universities were so different and people kind of rolled out of bed in sweat pants, whereas at BYU we actually combed our hair and like ironed our clothes. And anyway, so that journey of education was just a huge privilege for me and an amazing time in my life.

BM: Let's drill down on the Russia connection here. That sounds almost ominous, doesn't it?

AT: No, I was not a KGB agent.

BM: Good, that was my first question. No KGB agent, that's good. But you did have this passion around war and peace and poverty and good public policy in terms of how that plays out. So describe some of the experiences you had there. And, again, going back to what you learned from the nuns of seeing God in everyone. How did that play in your Russian experience?

AT: Well, what happened was I became a student of the Cold War, and because I worked for Professor Browning, he was someone who I think from a moral and ethical perspective really opposed the nuclear arms race. And so I saw that. Since he was my mentor, I started studying those issues myself. And I also came to the conclusion that it was unacceptable for these two blocks of countries to have, I think at the time, enough nuclear weapons to blow up the earth six times over. And I was reading a lot of books about this and I thought you know, this question of war and peace and how do we do better?

And, as you said, my Catholic upbringing and then later my Latter-day Saint upbringing, I'm a deeply religious person, I have always been ever since I was a child. And so all of that made me think about what's really happening here. And can we have a more rational approach to this? Can there be a middle ground? I read the poets, I read the physicists, I read the political scientists and what I was persuaded of was the fact that we lose all together or we can win if we saw in one another the same human, you know, dreams and the same human foibles too, the same human weaknesses. And then I went to the Soviet Union in 1985, you know, got to know friends that we debated politics a lot.

But at the same time, that journey of finding the pragmatic middle ground when you saw how much they love their families, and how much they love their country, and how much they love some of their ideology, because, you know, they didn't have a chance maybe to read other things. And so for me, it kind of awoke a commitment in me that I need to spend my life working to do good because there's so many opportunities to do good.

BM: Yeah, absolutely. So I wanted to drill down for a second now, we were talking about this before we started the podcast. And that is that you were able to see what happens when you actually do have a real clear mission and set of objectives and what that does from a leadership standpoint. First, describe that in terms of your experience in Russia and the United States' role as kind of a leader during that era, and then we'll come back and apply it to some higher ed in a second.

AT: OK, so leadership. Let me step back a little bit. When I was about 19 at Brigham Young University, 18 or 19, I arrived around that age, I actually took a 3-by-5-inch index card. And I don't know what the impetus was, but I was just sitting there at my desk at the Russian House. And I asked myself, you know, what is the purpose of my life? Maybe it was elicited by the fact that I'd read Tolstoy, "What Men Live By," A little novella and I was asking myself, what is my own purpose in life? And on that index card, I still have it somewhere if I dig through boxes, I put down three things. The first one was to be happy. I thought it's really important. I had such a difficult childhood, and I saw a lot of violence, a lot of suffering. I had a lot of indignity because I was poor, and a lot of humiliation I suffered because of poverty. And so to be happy was one thing that was really important to me.

And the second thing I wrote was to be useful, you know, what do I do with my time? What do I do with my talent? What do I do with whatever I have.

And then the third thing that I wrote was to be charitable. And it was funny because it's not as if I sat for days thinking about it. It was almost in the blink of an eye. At that age I said, these are the three things that I wanted to be. So when I look back now in my journey of leadership, I think those three things have pretty much informed everything I've done. My big chunk of leadership opportunity was the job that Harvard University gave me in what was then the Soviet Union, and later post-Soviet Russia, to be the director of the Moscow Office of what was called the Harvard Project on Strengthening Democratic Institutions. And we were there to bring global concepts, American concepts, best practices in terms of marketization, democratization, conflict prevention, how to organize government. I applied those principles to try to be happy, to be useful, to be charitable. And it was very humbling because at the end of that experience I learned that there were no easy answers to deep social and historical change. And we come with our models that can be quite glib, that are not very compassionate or empathetic about the history of people and what they've been through.

I had the chance to work, later when I was at Carnegie Corporation, on the conflict with Chechnya, for example. So from the Soviet Union, Russia and other aspects or stages in my leadership journey, I really did try to continue applying those principles — that I wanted to be happy, to be useful, and to be charitable.

BM: You found opportunities to do all of those as you pivoted, as you went to Microsoft and suddenly were back in Asia leading in a lot of different ways. Give us a quick snapshot there.

AT: Yes. Microsoft, you know, was interested in me in 2008, when I moved to Singapore. At the time I had a job offer from Google. And then I met the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy is the premier school of public policy in Asia and I had these options to either go into technology or help build a school of leadership and public policy. And I had been a fellow for five years at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. And I was just really intrigued about building a similar kind of institution in a continent that was growing so fast. It was growing so fast financially and economically. But it had a dark side to it. And so the question of leadership was at the core of whether the rise of Asia was going to be a peaceful rise, whether the rise of Asia was going to be a more equitable rise, you know, all of that. So I actually joined the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, but four years later when I was ready to make the transition to the public sector I just phoned Microsoft and they were very kind and brave. A gentleman named Jeff Bullwinkle, who remembered me from four years earlier, said you know, we may have something for you. And I am very grateful for the opportunity they gave me because I led a team that was the corporate external and legal affairs team, but I'm not a lawyer. And I think they took a calculated risk in me as a leader.

My geography had 15 very, very diverse and very, very interesting countries. Ranging from Singapore which is small and a First World country, to a country like Bangladesh, which is very big and very poor. Or Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world. And so I had to take all of that diversity, digest all of that diversity, and find ways to build leaders in technology who would understand how to use technology to empower — the mission of Microsoft was to empower every person in every organization to achieve more. So you're not going to dictate, but you have to ask these governments and the universities we worked with and the nonprofits we worked with what was important to them?

Myanmar was one of my countries and I spent so much time in Yangon and Naypyidaw, visited Mandalay several times, and these are difficult places. And again, to find the common ground and take a tool like technology, educate them on how they can use it. Don't buy what you don't need. And don't buy just to look fashionable, but ask yourself what do you need to do with your education system? What do you need to do with the Minister of Trade to make it work better? And then think about how you deploy technology. So the same leadership principles, you know, you listen, you have to kind of know where people are coming from, see them as they are and what their own strengths and their own opportunities for growth are. I think that's really important. Most people want to succeed, by the way. I have never once felt like people are out to fail themselves, you know. They're not and the attitude you take with them and how you help them see their own opportunities, I think that's really, really important.

BM: Now we take all of that and we bring it back to Utah, to this wonderful institution called Utah Valley University. And I can already see how you're applying those same leadership principles, that same view of the value and dignity and possibility of all the students there. You're really not looking at those students as liabilities to be managed, those are assets to be developed. So I want to know what was the moment where you thought, yeah, because most people would say, if you told your Microsoft colleagues or your colleagues in Russia that you're now going to go to this place called Utah Valley University, I'm sure they probably look at you cross-eyed. But what was that moment for you, whether it was kind of a divine discontent or, hey, this is a chance to apply all of this in a new way, what was that moment where you knew Utah Valley was the place for you?

AT: So when my friend, Kent Christensen, who is an adjunct professor of art at UVU first suggested, I think we were in Bali, he came out to visit, and he suggested that I apply for this job, president of UVU. And I said, are you kidding? I don't think I fit there, and etc. And what happened, and maybe this is divine intervention, the thought literally would not leave my mind. And I think it was only a day or two before the deadline that I submitted my cover letter and my CV. And where was that aha moment for me, because there was an aha moment. It was one of those evenings — I traveled a lot for the job, you know, 50-60 percent of the time. And, you know, I'd get a lot of work done at night in my hotel room. And I just thought, let me just Bing — I use Bing as my search engine — let me just Bing Utah Valley University, because I was just being nagged by my mind about this. And I remembered it from the '80s as, you know, UVCC and UVSC and I wasn't really that interested in it. And then I started looking at the transformation of this university and I learned that it was, you know, open enrollment and you had this community college and the full university all in one place, they had an automotive department. I just got super excited. I was like, I want to learn automotive. If I became president, I said to myself, that would be the first place that I visit.

And then the other thing that struck a chord with me was that the pillar under President Matthew Holland, one of the pillars was inclusion and diversity. And up to that point in time, having lived and worked in five countries, having worked with people from so many different backgrounds, having worked in the peace process in the southern Philippines, between the Muslim minority and the government. It all made sense to me at that moment that the one place I could go where everything I've learned up to this point in time would be put to good use was a university like UVU, with that dual mission, with the incredible makeup of the student body, and it was not going to be an elitist approach to education or to life. It was an approach that said, we have a place for you. UVU has a place for you. And by the way, we'll hold you accountable. You're not going to come here, we're not just going to stifle you with love. But we're going to come here and see you as you are, but provide you with some of the tools and the learnings where, you know, you can make your own way and not be ashamed of where you've been, or what's happened to you. And it's going to be an amazing journey for you.

BM: Just listening to your description of the different key moments along your personal journey, you've mentioned several times that there was someone who was willing to take a risk on you, whether it was the nuns or whether it was a colleague, and it seems to me that there's sort of that attitude at Utah Valley University of come along with us, you may not think you're ready, you may not think this is where you belong, but come walk with us for a little while and let's see where we get.

AT: Yes. Last Thursday, I gave my first State of the University address. And in that address I unveiled, but frankly this was not a secret, because during my 100-day listening tour I've been talking to groups large and small on campus about the values on which we are going to pivot UVU to the future. But I kind of formally unveiled these values and there are three things that I think are really important and these values will determine how we think, how we act, and what we say every single day. The first one is exceptional care. So that's been a refrain in my life, where people have taken exceptional care. So they've taken a risk in me. And so exceptional care is the first value. The second one is exceptional accountability. So my second-grade teacher, the nuns, Professor Browning, all those people who took a risk in me, the Board of Regents who appointed me and selected me, I now have to be exceptionally accountable. So that's the second value.

And the third value is exceptional results. If we begin with care, I said to my community at UVU, if you begin with care, then we know one another and accept one another and can work with one another. And then we can hold one another accountable for our resources, for our time, for the mandates that we have, for the things that are under our control. And then because we care and are accountable, the exceptional results is a value we will see that and live that. And so I really believe that given who we are and what we are, we have a singular niche where we can make a difference in the lives of so many people. If you look at our student body, it's interesting. Seventy-seven percent are working students and 38 percent are first generation, so those two statistics alone tell you we are not your regular first-time, full-time, four-year, mom and dad pay the tuition, and we're just going to ride it out.

BM: I've always said, and we've talked about this before. I love UVU students. When I was in D.C., whenever we had the opportunity to get a UVU intern that was always a plus because there was this grittiness. And whether it was because they were first generation, or someone cared for them enough to take a risk on them. But that really seems to be part of the culture there at UVU.

AT: Yes, I love that you mentioned the word grit. So you know, our mascot is the wolverine and I actually had to look that up because I didn't know what a wolverine was. And it has all these other names like devil bear, skunk bear and then in the Wikipedia entry it said that this is a pretty vicious animal, actually, it can take on prey larger than itself. And I thought that was probably visionary when they chose this mascot, a long, long time ago when UVU was a small technical college. So we really try to emphasize that grit, because, you know the research on grit by Angela Duckworth, that a greater determiner of success is not so much innate talent or IQ, but grit and persistence.

BM: As we come down the homestretch here why don't I ask you just a couple of rapid fire questions. In terms of the responsibility to be that role model, to then in turn take chances on others the way people took chances on you, how do you see that and how are you helping your faculty and the people around the UVU community really embrace that part of the mission?

AT: Yes. One of the things that is really critical for me to do is messaging. I think most of the community knows my life story, that seems to resonate with a lot of people because I get emails, notes, I have kisses blown through my glass window when people look into my office, and I get it from students. I get it from divorced mothers who have returned to school so they can support five children. So the messaging and then the story of my life. So that's there. I think now the tough part is in the doing because at the end of the day I always say, inspiration, what is that? Five-10 percent? Ninety percent is a cliché, but it's true, it's perspiration. And then when I look at what we need to do to enhance our completion rates, our retention rates from freshman to sophomore year, I know we need to raise a bigger endowment. I know that we need to improve our scheduling. I know that we need to improve our pathways from the community college two-year degrees to feed that logically and seamlessly into the bachelor's degree.

This is hard, hard work and I have been messaging that we need to be comfortable in our discomfort. We need to say that the way we've always done things may not be the way we're going to keep doing things. We have to pivot our culture, build on our strengths, and see the opportunities ahead of us. I'm proud of our faculty. They're so committed to the social justice mission of Utah Valley University and I know that they work hard. Often I hear students tell me that they feel our faculty isn't out to fail them, but they are out to help them. And that's probably the single largest compliment that could be paid to our professors. At the same time, professors are also a tough audience but I cannot succeed without them. The staff as well. I need to make sure that they are not burning out. The students, that they are being accountable for their learning. That they can be persuaded to move a little faster, work even harder. So it's really now in the doing, and I have been repeating at UVU that this is not my story. We succeed or we fail together. I have never been under any illusion that I've got something magical but I will work my heart out and I think my people know that. So we'll work together, we'll work really hard.

BM: Fantastic. As we come to a close today, everyone knows I have a wall of fame. And I have autographed baseballs, not only from great athletes, but more importantly from people who have made a difference in my life — teachers, bosses, good friends, people I've never met I've actually had sign baseballs. So if you were starting your wall of fame today, give me one or two names of people you would immediately go, I've got to get their signature on a baseball.

AT: I'd put my mother on there. I was only 5 when she left so I didn't know my mom growing up. I didn't meet her again really until I was 14. She's 85 years old now, she can barely hear. But later as an adult, as I learned about her life and the difficulty she had to overcome, like where did you get diapers? You know, she had eight children and no medical care. Where'd she get diapers for me in the village? And she talked to me about cutting the sackcloth where corn meal came in that sack and washing it 10 times by the river so it would be soft enough, after 10 washes, to put on my bottom. OK, so she is definitely going to be in my hall of fame. I think the nun who found my family would be on the wall of fame. My father, who passed away in 1992, would be in the wall of fame. And an author — I would put Bono in the Hall of Fame. I know he's a big rock star, has a big ego, but I love his lyrics. I think he's a spiritual singer. And one of my favorite books is called "Care of the Soul" by Thomas Moore. I'd probably put him on there.

BM: That's a really good start. We'll fill up your wall pretty fast.

And the very last, the show is called Therefore, What? So as people have been listening for the last 25 minutes, what's the Therefore, What? What do you hope people come away from this conversation thinking different or doing different as a result of what we've talked about today?

AT: Yes, I say that we live in a world that's changing ever more rapidly. But with technology and because of that, things change, but also things don't change. It's still a world of haves and have nots and to me the Therefore, What? is always to ask myself the question, what good can I do so that the greatest number of people with a potential to achieve something and live dignified lives can actually get there? What can I do to help? I think that's the Therefore, What? for me.

BM: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your passionate pursuit of the road less traveled. It's a great example to the students and faculty at UVU and for all of us. We we appreciate you not only pursuing that road less traveled but leaving a trail for the rest of us follow. So thank you so much for being with us today.

Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on and subscribe to our newsletter. This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?

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