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Meet Purchase College’s First Hispanic Woman President

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Photo by James Gallagher

As the first Hispanic woman to lead Purchase College in its 53-year history, Dr. Milagros Peña promotes equality and diversity.

In May, Milagros Peña, PhD, was appointed to be not only the first Hispanic woman to serve as president of Purchase College but also the first Hispanic woman ever to lead a SUNY institution. Especially impressive considering she was also the first in her family to receive even a high school diploma. With a distinguished 20-year career as a sociologist, researcher, and professor before serving as dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UC Riverside, Peña’s recent ascension is both the culmination of her own hard work and an affirmation of the values of the institution she now leads.

Please tell us a little about your childhood.

My father did not graduate from elementary school, and my mother was a high school dropout. They both worked — my father in a factory, making televisions, and my mother eventually got a license to be a hairdresser. But both of them clearly used New York City as a place where their children could go as far as they wanted to go, and they placed me in the kind of school setting that would allow me to thrive.

Tell us about your time at Iona College.

At Iona, I started to meet people from other areas of New York that are not inner-city environments, and I think that became a kind of eye-opener for me with regard to just how diverse New York State actually is. That was my first opportunity to see that. So, I hope Purchase exemplifies the way a liberal-arts education can help students think differently about themselves and their areas of specialty.

How did your education and academic career inform your work at Purchase?

All my research projects, and the research questions that led me to them, are all questions about justice, social movements, and the way we talk about the challenges that we face with disenfranchised communities. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about food insecurities and homelessness for students. These are all tied to larger societal problems and access to education. Even accessing the internet is different for different people. If you don’t have high-speed internet, or if you don’t have a computer that actually allows you to access that speed, that impacts the quality of the online experience, in addition to the face-to-face that students experience. So, as an administrator, I think about what we can do as an institution to make resources available, particularly for the students who are going to struggle the most in accessing the truly exceptional educational experience that Purchase has to offer.

What does your recent appointment mean to you personally?

That this occurred is still surreal to me. To have someone go through the SUNY system and emerge full circle to be offered this opportunity I think really exemplifies what the SUNY system is supposed to be about. I think it affirms what public education has to offer and what the SUNY system itself has to offer. And then, on top of that, there is what I represent to the students as a Latinx person — and particularly my background as a first-generation college-goer and a Pell Grant recipient — I see my roll as really empowering the next generation, who are going to be leaders in our society in whatever positions they take. To have the privilege of being in a position to do that is truly humbling and is why I became an educator.

How do you intend to steer the college into the future?

The vision I have is one in which I see myself working with colleagues at Purchase to really leverage our strengths, so we can aspire to be bold educators, learners, and researchers, and to really have Purchase become embedded and recognized for its engagement in the community and supporting the development of future leaders.

How do you plan to deal with the ongoing threat of the coronavirus?

Our first responsibility is obviously to the safety of everybody: the students, the staff, and the faculty. The leadership at Purchase have just been phenomenal in what they’ve been able to do, turning on a dime, moving from face-to-face teaching to online and having the resources to do it well. So, part of the ongoing conversation will be: How are we going to leverage what we’ve learned from [the pandemic] to also work on an engaging learning experience in a myriad of ways? As a campus, we are working on finishing a strategic plan, and hopefully we will have it done by the spring. That’s my goal, and I think that this moment will be a key part of the conversation about what we are going to look like in the future.