President Luster takes time to reflect on her first year
Dr. Pamela T. Luster has been president of San Diego Mesa College since July 2011. Luster earned a B.A. and M.A. in speech pathology and audiology at San Jose State University, and an Ed.D. at Fielding Graduate University. On April 27, Luster talked to The Mesa Press about her influences, what it’s like to be in a position of power, and Mesa’s future.
Q. Anything the students should know before we officially get started?
LUSTER: Umm…oh yeah, follow me on Twitter! I’d like it if more students would tell me what they want to know. That helps me help them more than they realize. My twitter is @SDMesaPrez by the way.
- Q. Ok. Well since you haven’t been in San Diego that long, not that many people know you personally. So, what are some things you like to do for fun?
LUSTER: “Uh…I’m pretty boring actually ha-ha, only because this job is more than a job. It’s really a big part of my life. Since moving to San Diego nine months ago, I’ve kind of just been settling in. But I love to go to the beach, I like to walk on the beach and swim in the ocean when it’s warm enough and all those kinds of things. I have a dog so I like to walk my dog in the canyon over at Balboa Park. I’m an avid reader so I’ll read just about anything they somebody will put in front of me.
- Q. Speaking of literature, what is your favorite book?
LUSTER: Oh, my God, I’ve read thousands! But probably the Kite Runner because I think it shifted my thinking so dramatically on the world and where we sit as a nation in the world. It tackled all of these preconceived notions people have about other people who aren’t Western. It really changed my thinking and interestingly enough, a student of mine actually gave me the book because he grew up in Iran. So a lot of the things in the book he actually went through as well so we had a chance to dialogue.
- Q. So what would be your favorite subject or category of books?
LUSTER: Umm…probably a good political thriller. Strangely enough I didn’t take a lot of policy classes in school. My area of expertise happens to be in teaching students with disabilities and in speech pathology and audiology. If I weren’t the President of Mesa, I probably would still be teaching. I miss the one on one interactions and the environment.
- Q. If the educational field wasn’t an option, what would you be doing?
LUSTER: I would be an exotic plant gardener on Kauai…or a Sports-caster.
- Q. Oh really? What’s your favorite sport?
LUSTER: It depends on whether it’s pro or college. For professional sports its football and my favorite team is…the Raiders ha-ha. As you can imagine, that answer doesn’t always go over so well with Charger fans. But I like a lot of different sports. Boxing is probably the only sport I don’t watch and probably because I can’t stand to watch people cream each other.
- Q. Favorite athlete?
LUSTER: Well that’s a tough question because when I think of athletes I think of them because of their athletic skills and then I think of athletes that changed their individual sport like Jackie Robinson or women like Billy Jean King. I prefer the more influential athletes that did more or offered more to humanity. But my favorite all time is Marcus Allen (RB-Raiders). I could watch him run all day, but I could probably name 15 other Raiders too ha-ha.
- Q. Since its Women’s History Month, I’d like to know who is the most influential woman in your life?
LUSTER: You know she is no longer with me, but my grandmother is the most influential person in my life. She actually earned her degree in social work from the University of Oregon in the 1920’s. She practically raised me after my mom passed away in an accident when I was an infant. She was a really really big part of my life. Her and my grandfather really instilled in me the value of education, the importance of giving back to your community, and really just being a person of character. So in the back of my mind I always think “What would Grandma do?” She wasn’t a perfect person but she was a person far ahead of her time in terms of modern thinking about things. Even in her 90s she would go to community forums about political things and really keep up with what’s going on in the world. She was a very steady and continual part of my life and really pushed me beyond who I thought I could be.
- Q. What’s one memory from your life with her that you can recall? Or something that she taught you?
LUSTER: She really taught me how to deal with disappointment. It’s not a subject that many people talk about a whole lot. But we certainly all have disappointments in our lives. Just the whole idea that life isn’t perfect and the way you deal with disappointment says more about you then how you handle things when everything is great.
- Q. Outside of family, who has been influential in your life?
LUSTER: Well I have had so many mentors and influential people in my life and I try to derive something from each of them. I’m not trying to suck up in any way but one person I draw a lot of inspiration from our Chancellor, Dr. Constance M Carroll. One of the reasons I considered Mesa is because of her and her reputation for being an entrepreneur, an innovator and someone who is highly regarded. Also, I’ve been influenced a lot by the students I’ve had over time, especially students with disabilities just because of their absolute persistence and never-giving-up attitude. Just the things they grow through everyday makes me put my own life in perspective. I leaned from them is that they just want equity. They want to be treated just like everyone else.
- Q. Who is someone that you look up to that you don’t have a personal relationship with?
LUSTER: You know, I don’t know how to describe it but I have a real affinity to Sojourner Truth. I don’t know how to describe it other than we’re both tall. To be as inspirational as she was in the time she was in is just so compelling. Her story is so compelling and she was so inspirational to many women. It’s hard as president because you’re supposed to be respectful of all politics, but I’m definitely a fan of Obama. I think that there are many things that he has faced in his presidency. I’m sure we all could all do things a little better. I think Michelle Obama is an amazing individual. There are some days that I think she could just easily be president ha-ha. But I think the things she is doing with nutrition and childhood obesity are cool. Those are the primary individuals that I look up to.
- Q. Speaking of the President, how does it feel to be in a position of power?
LUSTER: The feeling changes from time to time.
- Q. Does it change you?
LUSTER: I hope it never changes me. It affects me from time to time because I don’t want people to treat me any differently. But it’s really scary sometimes to be in a position of power because when you look at the enormity or the physicality of the campus here where there are 24 thousand students and hundreds of faculty members, you sometimes are a little scared because you don’t want to let people down. So I prefer for people to not put me on a pedestal.
- Q. Is your biggest fear letting every down?
LUSTER: I wouldn’t say it’s my biggest fear but it is something I think about. There are times when I wake up and I think to myself, “How is it that they are letting me be the president of a college?” I put my pants on just like everyone else does.
- Q. Does it matter to you being a woman in a position such as yours?
LUSTER: It does matter to me and not because of gender per se. I think it is important in higher education or in just leadership roles that there are people who look like other people. When there are representatives of different groups in these roles, and they see people that look like them, people feel like they can be a president of a college or president of the U.S., or a teacher, or a fireman. I think it is important that all groups are represented in terms of leadership roles so that we are examples and mentors to those that come behind us.
- Q. Being a person in a leadership role, you must observe things that you don’t like or would like to see changed. What are some things you’d like to see changed at Mesa?
LUSTER: Well parking is one thing. I understand the issue completely and it’s hard for me to go back and look at how we got here but when you think of Mesa and its geographical location (surrounded by canyons), it’s hard to figure out more places for people to park. Having said that, it’s something we need to pay attention to. I would give my parking spot up if I could but it kind of comes with the gig. The parking issue is not acceptable in its current format. I can tell you that it is going to get better very quickly. We are working on some things right now but based on the number of current and incoming students, it’s tough but we are desperately trying to make the parking situation much better. I saw somewhere that San Diego has the 7th worst air quality in the U.S. so I’m really glad that people are using the transit system which helps the ecology of our area. I would also like to give the students more access electronically like putting the syllabi online and things like that, but parking is an issue I really want to tackle.
- Q. The budget crisis is an issue I’m sure a lot of people want tackled. What’s your take on California’s financial crisis and how does it directly affect Mesa?
LUSTER: My take on that is that California is sort of deadlocked in this ideological battle over what’s important. Social services think they’re important, Higher Ed thinks it’s important, and prisons think their important. When I think of it from a global perspective, we have “ideology lock” at this point, and people are either on the right or the left. That happens in a community college too where we’re saying we’re turning away students that we could educate and get into the workforce which would help the economy but instead we are being cut. I don’t think it is a Republican, Democratic, Independent, or Libertarian issue. It is an issue of equitable access for students to be able to get into college. I don’t think the increase of fees is fair and I don’t think that the current budget conflict is fair to students. It is hard to be accountable for our outcome when we don’t know what our intake is going to be. This gets translated to students as there aren’t enough services and other helpful resources will continue to decrease, and I don’t think that’s fair.
- Q. When you became the President of Mesa, what was on the top of your agenda?
LUSTER: Most people will tell that you really have to understand the culture of a place before you go in and start changing things, so I would say my number one thing was not come in and change anything right away. I chose to do this because it’s not fair to you or the people that have come here and built this wonderful institution. So I didn’t come here and immediately want to change things, other than parking, before I was aware of what was going on at Mesa. But after being here for some time, I found that getting your message out there is not an easy task when you consider the enormity of the campus. One thing that I wanted to do after I got here was to bolster our college foundation so that we could start raising private funds to augment those things we could no longer do with the state funds. So I’ve spent a lot of time with our college foundation trying to get them situated so that we could start doing more fund raising.
- Q. I have watched many movies where teachers use unorthodox methods or erratic methods in order to better help their individual students. This usually leads to them connecting with their students. In your opinion, what makes a good teacher?
LUSTER: Well first they have to be well versed in their field and stay up to date. They also have to engage their students on a number of different levels and you also have to respect the experience the student brings to the classroom and not just assume that they are an empty vessel waiting for you to fill them with your knowledge. On the other hand they also need to hold their students responsible and not just make the assumption that the students will just soak up whatever you throw at them. I think there is a mutual opportunity in a classroom for students to feel empowered and take responsibility for their learning and then a faculty member taking them on that pathway. I think that is when good teaching really happens.
- Q. So how do you feel you’ve done so far as the president of Mesa?
LUSTER: That’s a good question. Now that it’s almost May, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There are some days that I feel like I’m still just walking through the door and I’m just beginning to learn. I won’t be so silly as to give myself a grade, because I’m a much harder grader on myself than other people would be. You know…I think I’m doing ok. When I first came in and laid out my goals, I had a very ambitious list of things that I thought I could do. But I later realized that I just needed to hang on for the ride and really just experience everything as Mesa is and not just change everything right away. So I would say that I’ve been a good observer and listener. I’m also more of a questioner than a critic. I’m not the kind of person that will just hit you over the head for something, metaphorically speaking, but if you ask me a question or ask for my advice for something, I will gladly give it to you.
- Q. What are you some of your best qualities or character traits that make you qualified for the presidency of Mesa?
LUSTER: I think in terms of a character trait, I feel like I have tremendous integrity. When I say that I don’t mean that I’m perfect in any way, but I’m very careful to be authentic about the way that I interact with people. And when people come away from an interaction with me, I always reflect on how that went. So I would say that I don’t self-obsess a lot but I do self-assess. Like after this interview I’ll think of things I could’ve said or did differently that would’ve made my interaction with you better. I just think that kind of assessing will make my next interaction better with the next person. So I would say self-reflection is not something that everybody does and I think that as long as you’re not obsessive about it then it’s a good trait to have. But I would say my integrity is something very important to me and it’s important that people at Mesa interact with each other with integrity. My leadership is based on building trust and being truthful without being hurtful.
- Q. I have to let you go soon but I wanted to ask you about Mesa’s future. What do you envision and what do us Mesa students have to look forward to?
LUSTER: I think the future for Mesa is incredibly bright and the students who come here and take full advantage of the “Mesa experience” are destined to be successful. Students will be able to use the student service building in the fall. Students will be able to use the four-story building where everything is, so no more bungalows! Just imagine a building where everything you need is right there. Financial aid, counseling, admissions, even a café shop will all be in the same place. When we find more opportunities for our students to be successful, students are going to feel it.