By Czarina Obieta
In between conferences with faculty and staff, meetings with student leaders and fulfilling campus commitments such as signing the final beam for the Collins College of Hospitality Management building, Soraya Coley, Cal Poly Pomona’s new president, sat down with The Poly Post. She discussed her plans for the university, share what she has learned throughout her career in higher education and and impart advice to students.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Poly Post: What does “learn by doing” mean to you, and how do you plan on continuing that emphasis during your time at CPP?
Soraya Coley: Learn by doing for me means that first of all, students must have a depth of knowledge in areas. They must understand the theoretical concepts of the discipline.
We want a broad-based and educated student, but then you get the chance to apply the concepts. So for example, over in the Collins College today, I see the classrooms students are learning about hospitality management in. But then, they were actually serving ” they were actually hosting us for lunch.
The thing that’s so great about the learn-by-doing philosophy is that we all in life will find ourselves. Within that learn-by-doing framework, you get a chance to fail. Things don’t quite work out, but you learn from it. That’s what life is about.
So I think it really mirrors what life holds for beyond the time that you leave CPP.
PP: Your educational background is in social planning and research. How did you decide that a career in student affairs was the one for you?
SC: I think I really came to understand that education is a game-changer. It can put people on a different trajectory than they ever imagined. It can bring their families along on a different path than they ever imagined. So when you think about what is that core thing that can often times move people in new directions ” it’s education.
So my favorite day, I guess I’ll have to say three days of the year, is Commencement. I love Commencement because when I see these students go across the stage, I say to myself, ‘I wonder what their story was.What did it take for them to get here?’ I will never know all of those stories, but I know that we’ve helped these students be launched into a hopefully a better person.
PP: You mentioned your childhood experiences in your conference and how that only encouraged you to break barriers. What sort of barriers would you like CPP to break during your time here?
SC: You can define barriers in so many different ways. You can have personal barriers. You have self-imposed barriers where you think, ‘I can’t do that.’ We definitely want to break those barriers for our students. We want you to try things that will test your ability.
If we say ‘No, you can’t do this, because you have on a gray suit,’ that’s a people-made barrier. We as people can unmake those barriers.
We want to have students be barrier breakers so that you understand that ‘I’m entering an area where I don’t see a lot of people that look like me, but I’m breaking this barrier.’ Because then, as you break barriers, you bring others along and begin to open the pipeline.
PP: This campus’s previous presidents have made their own legacies by reaching out to students. Do you plan on keeping that tradition?
SC: I met with James [Cox] yesterday, and certainly right now, we’re probably going to continue Pizza with the Presidents.
But we’ll find other ways to stay connected to students. I really enjoy the engagement. There are going to be formal structures of engagement with students but there will also be the informal. I will just pop up at something. That’s what fuels me.
PP: You mentioned inclusion a few times in your message. Can you name a few things you plan on doing to achieve this at CPP?
SC: This campus is such a model in so many ways, so it’s really extending what has already begun. When we talk about valuing diversity and so forth, what we understand is that diversity is not a principle; it’s a fact. You’re diverse or you’re not, but the real issues are inclusion and equity.
The other thing is we really want to make sure that students understand how to navigate beyond CPP. When you go into your first job, it’s not just how things work, but what are some other dimensions of that job. We want to make sure that you are comfortable, well-prepared and that you see yourself as a leader.
PP: If you had to guess what CPP students would say the biggest issue is on campus right now, what do you think it would be and what would you do to fix it?
SC: We’re trying to address [parking]. I think that parking will continue to certainly impact the classes and students’ ability to get the classes they need.
[Also, we need to continue] to offer more internships and learn-by-doing and other kinds of activities that really complement what is happening in the classroom. We’re also going to be continuing to be concerned with cost.We can continue to have scholarships and other support, so that students can continue to complete their education.
PP: If you could only give one piece of advice to students for the rest of your life, what would it be?
SC: Hold a bold vision for your life. Don’t second-guess what you can do. There will be detours, there are going to be things that are going to come up ” life happens. But hold a bold vision, because even though you might not achieve that particular bold vision, you’ll get further than you would have if you didn’t start off with your vision.
PP: What do you hope CPP students would say about you and your legacy at CPP?
SC: That she earnestly focused on being student-centered, faculty and staff focused and community minded. And as a result, we’re better off as she crossed our paths.
Coley said that in addition to her formal duties as the new leader of the CPP community, she is most looking forward to exploring the campus, learning about the Bronco culture and meeting and speaking one-on-one with students.
Stephen Acosta / The Poly Post
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