As a student at Harvard University — where she earned a master’s degree in Soviet studies — Astrid Tuminez would only sleep a few hours a night, spending the rest of her time studying. “When you’re the underdog, you have to work double hard. Triple,” she says.
Tuminez knows a thing or two about hard work. She learned to read and write from nuns who found her and her family in the slums of Iloilo City, Philippines. That fundamental education, fueled by her innate curiosity, eventually led her to Brigham Young University. There, she graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Russian literature before moving on to Harvard University and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she earned a Ph.D. in political science.
Her career is as equally impressive and varied as her education and includes an executive position at Microsoft, roles in philanthropy and venture capital, published works, and government relations. But at every step, she witnessed male colleagues get promoted before her. So she kept working two, three times as hard. “I hope to be a source of hope to women and anyone who’s ever felt underprivileged or underestimated,” she says.
Now, as the first female president of Utah Valley University, she’s using the lessons she’s learned along the way to empower every student at her institution with an education that is both accessible and valuable. In an interview with Deseret Magazine, Tuminez discusses the future of higher education and the reason why she still believes in it.
As told to Meg Walter; edited for length and clarity.
I still remember attending a big meeting on campus as an undergraduate. I heard one of the faculty members comment, “She’s a doll, isn’t she?” I was only 20, but I felt so self-conscious when I heard that comment.
When I first arrived in Utah County, I had quite a few people walk up to me and shake my hand. They would look at me with sad eyes. And they would say they felt sorry for me and that they felt nervous for me because I had such big shoes to fill, referring to my predecessor at UVU. Honestly, I was amused by those comments, but it was also a little bit of a microaggression. After six months in Utah County, nobody said those things to me anymore. I think people had gotten to know me. But if I had been a tall, male blond, I don’t think anyone would have shaken my hand and told me they felt sorry for me. So it means a lot to me to be the first female president as a woman of color.
My experience, in part, is why I believe we should have a lot of universities like UVU that accept a person no matter what their past was. No matter what their ACT or SAT scores are, we don’t care. We want to help.
“The old model of academia is snobbery. The new test is whether you know how to get stuff done.”
But when you provide access to everyone, the questions become: What are we actually training people to become? Is our instruction actually worth attending? And what I’ve seen in the last five years is that it is more than worth it. UVU is ranked No. 1 in Utah among nine colleges and universities for alumni earnings. Business Insider ranked us as one of the top three universities in the nation for the best return on investment. Every year, we graduate 5,000 students to four- and five-star jobs, as defined by the Department of Workforce Services. We place graduate students at MIT, Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge.
The old model of academia is snobbery. The new test is whether you can make it in the workplace, and whether you know how to get stuff done. I know graduates of elite universities who are on their third or fourth internships and cannot transition those internships into jobs. Yet at UVU you can get a two-year mechatronics degree and begin at an $80,000 salary at Micron or Texas Instruments.
It is a moral imperative that we give access and that we make sure students get support and as many of them succeed as possible. Whether or not I’m the president of this university, I’ll always be blown away by the UVU model because I love what it does for real lives and real potential.
The core values of that model center around care, accountability and results. We must see our students for their struggles in life and their journeys as individuals. We must understand how we can best use our money, time and technology. Then come the results.
We shouldn’t be embarrassed to be ambitious. I was at Microsoft for six years before I came to UVU, and that job actually prepared me for the challenges of higher education today. We leverage technology so students can watch lecture recordings if they get sick or their child gets sick. We run data analytics to identify the students who need the most help. We train faculty to teach online. We are constantly examining ourselves.
Historically, academic culture is very slow to change. Hundreds of colleges and universities have already closed in the United States. But we live in a very fast-paced world. We need to read the writing on the wall and ask ourselves how we can be more agile and how we can actually be more impactful. Then we have to really measure that impact.
Deseret Magazine: What is … An essential part of your daily routine?
Astrid Tuminez: Listening to a podcast. One of my favorites is “The Way Out Is In.” It’s Zen Buddhism. Oh, and I listen to Taylor Swift music every day.
DM: The best book you’ve read recently?
AT: The most entertaining book I’ve read recently is “Less.” It reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s so entertaining and so well written.
DM: Your favorite motto?
AT: “The way out is in.” When you have a problem, you’ve gotta go through it.
DM: One thing you can’t live without?
AT: Chocolate. Maybe I should have said “my husband.”
DM: Your secret superpower?
AT: My husband. There is nobody who has been more supportive of me and more proud of everything I’ve accomplished than my husband. After we got engaged, we were walking at Harvard Square and he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re responsible for your own happiness.” That was the wisest thing he’s ever said. I am responsible for my own happiness, but he has supported me every step of the way.