Acclaimed college president found acceptance, validation at CSULB

Published February 28, 2024

Dr. Angelica Loera Suarez, the president of Orange Coast College, will soon receive a prestigious national award for her work supporting student success — work inspired by her experience as a first-generation, immigrant Cal State Long Beach student.

In March, Suarez will be the first community college president to accept the National 

President’s Award by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. It is the highest honor NASPA awards to a college or university president and goes to leaders who have advanced the quality of student life on campus over a sustained period.

NASPA highlighted Suarez’s work emphasizing a “Culture of Care” at Orange Coast, a 22,000-student campus in Costa Mesa. That culture then served as the foundation for the college’s updated Educational Master Plan and first-ever Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Plan.

Suarez is a double alumna of CSULB. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1993 and a master’s degree in counseling psychology, which is in the College of Education, in 1996.

She says her student experience at Cal State Long Beach, especially in the Student Development in Higher Education master’s program, taught her the power of a caring culture and in many ways, she’s been trying to pay it forward ever since.

“They created the kind of environment where you felt you belonged, you felt included and you felt visible,” she said of program founders Cynthia Johnson and Kay Goddard. “And with the cohort of students accepted into the master’s program, they made it a point to create a cohesive and strong sense of community.”

“…As someone with a family background that did not include higher education, my educational path was not by design. Yet, at CSULB, I was empowered and inspired to pursue a master’s degree through persistence, support and validation.”  

Angelica Suarez poses at her graduation from CSULB in 1993.
Suarez earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from Cal State Long Beach in 1993 and then her master's in counseling psychology, part of the College of Education, three years later.

NASPA is the leading student affairs association in the United States. Recipients of its President’s Award must have a record of enhancing student life on campus, supporting student affairs staff and initiatives, and producing publications and speeches that emphasize the value of those efforts.

Past recipients include Janet Napolitano, former president of the University of California.

Suarez is the 11th president, second woman and first Latina to lead Orange Coast College. Before her arrival in mid-2019, she was vice president for student affairs at the Southwestern Community College District in South San Diego County. 

She’s also served Southwestern College as acting superintendent/president; acting vice president for academic affairs; and academic dean for the higher education centers in Otay Mesa and San Ysidro. 

Suarez’s philosophy borrows from the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” And it’s been a focus of her tenure at Orange Coast from the very beginning.

When she first arrived, it was clear from conversations and observations that faculty, staff and students enjoyed a strong culture of caring for one another, Suarez said. She then set out to embed it into the fabric of everything the college did through an update of its Educational Master Plan. 

That included creating a welcoming environment for new students, prioritizing faculty-student relationships and promoting collaboration across departments.

“There were so many goals that we had, but every conversation came back to, ‘How do we create a campus or how do we continue to foster an environment that is welcoming, that is inclusive and that creates a sense of belonging for our students, recognizing that Orange Coast College is very diverse?’” she said.

The campus also developed its first Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Plan by, for example, disaggregating data and ensuring curriculum, counseling and other services were culturally relevant. But she didn’t just focus on students.

“I’ve also said to the campus — I say this every chance I get — that it’s also creating a place where employees, staff, faculty and administrators also feel they belong, that they also matter, so that they in turn can provide that to students,” Suarez said.

A CSULB billboard features a picture of and information about alumna Angelica Suarez
An electronic billboard on the edge of the CSULB campus celebrates Suarez’s success since earning two degrees from the university.

To a great extent, Suarez said, her life’s work has been paying forward the support and nurturing she received at Cal State Long Beach, not only in the SDHE program but from the first time she met with a counselor as a transfer student from East Los Angeles College.

Suarez still remembers arriving with a CSULB course catalog she’d marked up with all the courses she thought she needed to complete for her degree.

“They made me feel so welcome and also validated my experience as a transfer student, as an immigrant, as a first-generation college student and English-language learner,” she said. “And as importantly, they indicated I was on the right path, that all my research was correct, and I had identified all the right requirements.”

Suarez also remembers performing poorly on the GRE and seeing it as confirmation she wasn’t grad school material. But then a faculty member saw things differently.

“I remember Dr. Dobson saying, ‘No, we want to understand the student’s holistic experiences. So, I’m looking at your grades. I’m looking at your determination. I’m looking at your family background,’” Suarez recalled.

“And so, once again, I was reenergized. And, of course, I was accepted into the program.”