Courtesy of Cecilia Santiago-Gonzalez

Student success advocate wins national recognition

By Sherrie Williams and Cecilia Leyva, Mar. 1, 2022

Cecilia Santiago-Gonzalez, assistant vice president of strategic initiatives for student success, was awarded the Outstanding Advising Administrator award by the National Academic Advising Association earlier this year for her accomplishments in academic and student advising.

Santiago-Gonzalez was nominated not only based on her numerous contributions to Cal Poly Pomona but also her eagerness to serve the campus community. Leading student reenrollment and support campaigns, implementing the use of campus-wide student progress reports and the transition of student advising to virtual instruction during the pandemic are few of the achievements that merited Santiago-Gonzalez’s recognition.

Courtesy of Cecilia Santiago-Gonzalez

“I love this campus so much,” said Santiago-Gonzalez. “I had this opportunity to make a difference and think of ways in which I could make Cal Poly Pomona the best it could be for students and everyone who is part of the community.”

Her nomination did not come as a surprise, given that she was asked to submit her resume and additional information, but she was humbled nonetheless, saying to her colleagues, “Oh, you don’t have to do that; it’s OK,” knowing the nomination was not an easy process.

Erin DeRosa, director of university advising and former NACADA committee member, nominated Santiago-Gonzalez saying, “I had been a part of the nomination process in the past and saw the amazing folks that are nominated, and I thought Dr. Santiago-Gonzalez deserved to be in this category.”

The award recognizes those who continue to bring innovative approaches for academic advising to help both student success and advisor advancements.

Since joining the university’s Office of Student Success, Equity & Innovation nearly 13 years ago, Santiago-Gonzalez has been a part of numerous projects such as the California Promise and CPP Connect. She serves as an investigator for Project CAMINOS on campus as well as working on the team that created Billy Chat.

Santiago-Gonzalez remarked, “There is a lot of human heart behind Billy. I get all the messages and I read every single one of them.”

The goal of each organization she has promoted has been to provide additional aid and resources throughout a student’s journey in higher education at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Cecilia has always put the student experience first,” said Zoe Lance, communications specialist for the Office of Student Success and colleague of Santiago-Gonzalez. “She made sure that the decisions being made would benefit students and not create more barriers to their success.”

Both Lance and DeRosa noted that the work Santiago-Gonzalez has led on campus reflects her dedication to students and their success.

DeRosa mentioned, “She is never afraid to get her hands dirty. She can be in the high-level meetings talking about policies that are going to impact the campus, but she can also be at the front-desk helping students late at night or talking to scared parents. It’s so unique, I think, to find leaders that can strike that balance so well.”

The way Santiago-Gonzalez’s colleagues talk about her goes to show the universality she encompasses in her work and values.

Lance added, “She really wants to know our students as individuals not just numbers. Some students have the perception that the university just thinks that they’re all numbers. She truly gets to know students and is trying to help figure out their own definition of success.”

Santiago-Gonzalez also draws inspiration in part from her personal experiences as a first-generation student from a single-parent household.

She said, “College was never really part of my dreams, but I always loved school. (It) opened my eyes to a lot of different things including that there were inequities in terms of access to higher education.”

She added, “So, I started as an admission counselor from the college I graduated from and tried to go to areas where the college-going culture wasn’t promoted. I did workshops for families who had no idea what college really was or how to pay for college.”

Today, alongside her team, Santiago-Gonzalez is currently working toward hiring more academic advisors in the colleges with the goal of assigning each student their own advisor.

Terri Gomez, associate provost for student success, equity and innovation, and Santiago-Gonzalez are also responsible for the outcomes of the 2025 Graduation Initiative and for acquiring a grant that has led to Project Caminos.

“It’s a Title 5 grant given to Hispanic-serving institutions to build the capacity to serve students and their endeavors,” Santiago-Gonzales said eagerly.

Aside from her own passion, Santiago-Gonzalez noted the importance of her team and their dedication to students to bring change to the campus.

“I know wholeheartedly I work with very committed people who really care and are willing to help,” she expressed.

The appreciation between Santiago-Gonzalez and her colleagues is mutual.

“She just has amazing vision. She is always reaching for the stars. As an office, we never settle for something just going OK. She is sort of known for these late-night midnight thoughts that are always brilliant,” said Lance.

Santiago-Gonzalez is constantly inspired by the diversity and different perspectives students bring to the Cal Poly Pomona campus. She strives to help them reach their dreams and feels fulfilled by the little part she plays in students’ journeys.

“I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I believe in the transformational experience for minds and perspectives,” Santiago-Gonzalez added.  “I love fixing problems and I love seeing multiple people come together to solve an issue for a common thing.”

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