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The many paths to success

Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez shares her thoughts on the college experience and making higher education more inclusive

Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks about the Wasatch Innovation Network during a press conference at Colliers International in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks about the Wasatch Innovation Network during a press conference at Colliers International in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Astrid Tuminez is extraordinarily well-educated, but never set out to be an educator herself. Still, her role as president of Utah Valley University isn’t a surprise in a resume packed with accomplishments.

There’s a smile in her voice when Tuminez tells me, “I have had many lifetimes.”

Indeed.

The student’s life: Coming up in a city slum in the Philippines where she and her six siblings went to school, she later earned successive degrees related to international studies, with emphasis on the Soviet Union, from Brigham Young University, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The linguist’s life: In addition to English, she is fluent in Filipino, Tagalog, Ilonggo, Russian and French.

The executive’s life: She’s worked for companies like Microsoft and AIG, for nonprofits and in venture capital.

Her seat in the ivory tower is very down to earth — she loves wrestling and attends every meet at UVU. She’s as comfortable waving pom-poms as she is in corporate boardrooms. And here’s a twist: Tuminez — a runner, mother of three and wife who loves French poetry and Russian literature — has a permanent seat on the Council on Foreign Relations. At a time when nuclear proliferation kept Americans awake at night, she contributed to the work that led to the removal of nuclear weapons from the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus.

“We were very concerned that after the Soviet Union broke up, you’d have all these new nuclear countries,” said Tuminez, who worked for the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York at the time of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in the early 1990s. “I kind of had a front-row seat to all of this.”

Deseret Magazine caught up with Tuminez over Zoom.

Deseret News: Your life has taken many turns. At age 18, who did you think you were going to be?

Astrid Tuminez: When I was 18 years old, I was thinking of becoming a lawyer or a dentist, because I grew up in the Philippines, and in Asia, a lawyer, a doctor, those are the two best professions. I just had that image in my mind that I’d be a lawyer. I certainly didn’t think that I would become a university president. I certainly wasn’t thinking that I would go to Harvard or MIT. None of that, because I had just landed here in the United States and had started at BYU. I was just learning about the world, coming from a background of very little sophistication, very little information, very little exposure to what the world is all about. Really, I had no clue at 18.

DN: When did the idea of being a university president come to you?

AT: That just landed on my horizon when I learned about the opening at Utah Valley University.

At that point in my career, three years ago, there were opportunities to stay on in the tech world in ever-bigger roles. But when I learned about the university, I got very intrigued by the proposition of running a very different kind of higher education institution, one that was super inclusive, open admission, which is counterintuitive to how higher education is supposed to function. You’re supposed to exclude people. This one was saying, “Let’s include everybody and see what we can do with them, what we can do with their human potential.”

I was intrigued by the fact this is in Utah County — very different from the ’80s; this is a more diverse place. The area is now 19% people of color and Hispanics, and UVU’s enrollment is exactly 19% people of color. That growth and the scale was also interesting, the programming, the combination of a community college and teaching university so that people at all types of preparation could begin wherever they’re comfortable beginning — and then keep moving up as they are prepared to move up.

DN: What are the biggest challenges young adults face?

AT: Definitely mental health. This is an epidemic across the nation that keeps me up at night. One response I have is to instill a sense of pride in our students, that they are always worthy, that they are always good, that they’re always worth the effort that they and others put into their lives and their success.

Another way I think of mental health is that it is the job of everyone at UVU. I was talking yesterday to deans and department chairs. And I mentioned that professors are at the front line. While mental health is not their job, they have to see their students for who they are and take the time to observe and notice. There is one number to call if there’s a mental health concern.

Another, of course, is financing: 36% of our students are Pell Grant eligible, so we are working with people from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and the more money we can raise for students, the better. Delay is the single most important reason for dropping out. It delays graduation. If they lose a job, they’re gone.

DN: Is college really the best pathway to position oneself to succeed?

AT: I believe the answer is yes. Based on all the data that we know, there’s nothing more useful than getting higher education. If you look at earnings across the board, I believe that college students earn maybe 56% more than high school students. And when you ask employers today, the majority — I would say close to 90% — still say a higher education degree is something they’re looking for in workers and that it’s important for the world of work. However, there is now a divide between the general population and what employers think. I think the number for the general population in one survey that I looked at, only 67% believed higher education is important for employment.

DN: What does the university experience give you?

AT: It gives you exposure to the kind of discourse that we all use in our lives, where people may agree or disagree with you and you’re around people who are coming from very different life experiences. I think in all of that there is value. There’s value to mentoring from professors, faculty members, leaders of the university.

Having said all of that, are there other ways to succeed in life? Absolutely. I use the example of programs, let’s say at Google, where for $39 a month — and the programs can be anywhere from three to six months — you can get a certification. Microsoft has the same; you can get a Microsoft certification and get a job in Germany, because all the Germans understand what a Microsoft credential means.

The costs are lower. The skills are real. But I think the offering is also limited. And then of course, you have the exceptions to the rule, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses of the world who by dropping out became extremely successful. But again, those are extreme exceptions. We would be deluding ourselves if we think for a moment that most people will be OK with a high school education. ... And once you move up through management ranks, you need more education rather than less education.

People with a very entrepreneurial mindset and restless energy can do it. But if you ask me in a classroom of 100 people taking an entrepreneurship class, a handful will truly succeed as entrepreneurs.

DN: How do you see diversity in Utah?

AT: I lived here in 1982 to ’86, and certainly Utah as a state and Utah County as a region were a lot more homogeneous. Today that has changed. So how do I define diversity? Equity and inclusion are the words we use. I define diversity in a very broad way. It does mean gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity — but at UVU, we also define ethnicity as your socioeconomic background, whether you are rural or urban, your mental health state. We ought to be unafraid of really giving everybody a voice and being nonprejudicial in our approach to opportunity.

I also believe we ought to be historically well-informed, historically educated on where we have failed as a society and as a nation in how we have treated minorities, people of color, our Black population. I’ve given public talks where I use the word “repentance,” that there is a need to repent.

Having said that, we need to now look at what we can do together as one society, and not close the door in each other’s faces. I think there is plenty of room to listen and to include. At UVU I use the term “non- prejudicial education.” I think that’s what we do. When we think about diversity and inclusion, we always need to link it to our core business, which is education.

We are running an enterprise whose mission is to educate every type of person for success in work and life. Everything we do in diversity inclusion needs to link to that. That money that we have, the full-time people that we have, it has to go back to ... are we succeeding in recruiting, retaining and graduating our people so that they leave UVU with greater confidence, greater skills and a greater ability to navigate life as a whole, because life is difficult to navigate.

The world is not a safe place. I say that over and over again. But we have it in us and we need to help one another to go out there and navigate.

DN: Any last words?

AT: If we are lucky, life is long. And never underestimate the amount of good that we can do.

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.