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Vision for the Future

Author: Judith M. Wilson
June, 2018 Issue

A store in urban Oakland and the president’s office at rural Sonoma State University are worlds apart, and yet they have something in common. Both appear on the career trajectory of Judy Sakaki, Ph.D., president of Sonoma State (SSU) in Rohnert Park, who has a passion for education and helping young people succeed. Sakaki grew up in Oakland, the daughter of Nisei—second-generation Japanese Americans—and got her first experience in the working world at age 16. Her high school counselor told her that she’d be good at retail sales. “My first job was at Newberry’s in downtown Oakland,” says Sakaki. It was not, however, a path she considered pursuing further. “When you’re young, you’re not sure what you want to do or what the options are,” she observes.


When the time came to make a decision about life after high school, she felt she had only two options—becoming a preschool teacher or a nurse. She chose the former, believing it would be meaningful to work with children and their parents. She enrolled at California State University, Hayward, now CSU, East Bay, and earned a bachelor’s degree in human development and later a master’s degree in educational psychology. She had teachers and mentors who encouraged her, and she kept going, eventually adding a Ph.D. in human development from the University of California, Berkeley, to her curriculum vitae. Her accomplishments make her a role model for many young people.

“I’m a first-generation college student,” she says, explaining that her parents never had the opportunity to go to college. After completing a counseling internship at a Bay Area high school, she discovered she enjoyed working with young adults. She then set her sights on becoming a high school counselor. Unable to find a high school job, she began working at an emergency shelter for abused women. She found it challenging and rewarding but still wanted to work with young people. A mentor suggested she try working at a university, pointing out that college students are only a little bit older than high school students. It was then that she began her university career.

Years later, in July of 2016, she accepted the top position at SSU. Prior to her arrival at the college, she was vice president of student affairs for the University of California system. “My first full-time university position was as an outreach counselor at Cal State, East Bay,” Sakaki explains. “I went to high schools to talk to young people about college opportunities and loved it. One thing led to another, and I advanced from being a counselor, to a dean, to a vice chancellor—at three different universities. Then, I landed my dream job here at Sonoma State.”


After completing her doctoral degree, Sakaki, who was a single mother and working full time, decided to concentrate on being a good parent and administrator and didn’t intend to seek other opportunities. President Norma Rees of CSU, East Bay, however, had other ideas. She took a special interest in Sakaki and summoned her to her office to ask what she was going to do next. She helped her secure a fellowship, eventually nominating her for several other positions, and became her mentor. ”I think that role models and mentors are so critical. Everyone has the ability to lift as you climb,” says Sakaki, who believes that one person can make a difference in another person’s life.

“To this day, I mentor young students and young professionals,” she adds, explaining that each one of us has the responsibility to nurture and assist those who come behind us. “I often jokingly say that I’ve been ‘leadershipped,’” she says. “I’m grateful that I’ve had many mentors and opportunities to learn from many wise and compassionate educators and leaders. One person can make a difference.”

In addition to Rees, Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University and Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system, are among her mentors. For Sakaki’s investiture at SSU in April of 2017, the anthropology department created an exhibit on her, devoting an entire wall to the people who had supported and encouraged her. She selected several mentors who were particularly significant to her as a higher education leader and administrator.

Another wall honored her family and included her grandparents’ immigration to the U.S. from Japan as well as her parents’ internment during World War II. “Many individuals who were students were not able to complete their degrees,” she explains, and she joined a task force that worked to award honorary degrees to UC students who had been forced out of school and sent to internment camps. The UC had a moratorium on honorary degrees for 29 years. “It was a big lift,” she says. However, the task force researched the proposal, and took it to the Board of Regents, which gave its unanimous approval. “It was a learning experience for students who saw the ceremony and meaningful for recipients who were still alive and their families,” she recalls.


Since her arrival at SSU, Sakaki has made students and their achievement a priority. She points out that SSU is one of 23 California state universities, and she wants young people to know about the many educational opportunities it offers. She observes that some high school graduates may be “place-bound,” perhaps because they have to work in a family business or have other obligations, and they can’t go away to attend college. “I want all students to know that there’s a great university right here in the North Bay,” she says. “We would love to have more Seawolves.”

Among the accomplishments since she took the helm, SSU has been named a Hispanic-serving institution—or HSI—a federal designation for universities that have a minimum 25 percent Hispanic enrollment. SSU is also seeing an increased number of students as the first in their families to attend college and are from low-income households. After applying for and receiving the HSI designation, SSU has also received a $2.75 million federal grant, which will help prepare more Latino teachers for this region. SSU will be reaching out and working with students in kindergarten through 12th grade, to help place them on a path to college. “It helps the entire community, not just SSU or the Latino community,” explains Sakaki, adding that it’s part of SSU’s larger goal to help students gain access to the university, to be successful, to graduate, and to become engaged leaders in the community.

She also created “I am the future,” a day in the summer when elementary, middle and high school students spend a day on campus and get a taste of university life. Last year, more than 400 students from the Roberts Family Development Center, which is in a low-income area of Sacramento, visited Sonoma State. Students had the opportunity for hands-on experiences. They worked in a lab, created art and ate where college students have lunch. “If a student in third grade visits a university and feels comfortable there, they’re more likely to go to college,” she says, saying that it’s important to start early. She wanted the young visitors to have a day on campus that they would never forget. Many wrote what Sakaki refers to as Valentine’s cards to her, telling her about their experiences and expressing their appreciation.

In addition, Sakaki is concerned about students who don’t have enough to eat or are food insecure. When budgets are tight, after the rent is paid, some students run out of money for food and end up skipping meals. To help address this problem, Lobo’s Pantry was recently opened—a food distribution service for Sonoma State students in need. Students can use it as much as once a week at no cost. “Lobo’s Pantry was created and is staffed by Sonoma State students, who wanted to help other students,” she says. 

Education at SSU is also taking new directions, with innovative programs to meet the needs of a 21st century world. A Sonoma Executive Wine MBA in wine business is popular and offers the opportunity for future leaders in the wine industry to learn all aspects of running a wine business operation and includes a two-week international consulting tour. Classrooms in the new Wine Spectator Learning Center are small, reflecting a trend that allows greater interaction between students and faculty and they contain large-screen monitors for students to communicate with people in other locations and discuss new ideas. In addition, geography, environment, and planning is a new interdisciplinary major, focused on sustainability that leads to a Bachelor of Science degree.

“We have to keep up with changing employer and workforce needs while at the same time, paying attention to the interests and characteristics of this generation,” she says, but she adds that soft skills are important too. “So much of one’s professional and personal success is who you are, what skills you’ve developed, one’s ability to work on a team and all that one brings to the table. It’s that whole package that helps to make the student successful in the workplace and everywhere.”

SSU is in the midst of a strategic-planning process. Finding out what business and community leaders in the area need is another priority. “I see us as a partner with the business community and the region,” says Sakaki, recognizing that a majority of the university’s students stay in the area, and so preparing them to enter the workplace and fill the needs of employers is essential.


More students than ever are interested in attending college, but funding support for public higher education is low. The California State University system is facing a $171 million funding gap, and receiving full financial support from the State of California is a struggle. And yet, it’s essential if the university is to provide the kind of education students deserve and need. The tight housing market in the North Bay is also a concern for the community and the campus. “We need to make sure that students, staff and faculty have affordable places to live near campus and in Sonoma County,” she says. “We want to make sure our students’ basic needs are met, so they can thrive.”

In addition, the wildfires of October 2017, which closed the campus for nine days, created unique challenges. About 80 students, staff and faculty lost their homes, including Sakaki and her husband.
SSU doesn’t have a president’s house, so when Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, moved to Sonoma County in 2016, they bought a house in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove area where they could entertain people at events such as donor receptions and faculty dinners. When the Tubbs fire struck in October, they lost their home and escaped with little more than their lives. One of the firefighters who rescued them as they tried to outrun the flames later told them they were only one minute from becoming victims 45 and 46. Sometimes, she feels a sadness deep inside, as she deals with losing family keepsakes, such as a drawing her son did when he was in third grade and everything that reminded her of her parents and grandparents.

“I am healing from the most terrifying experience of my life,” she says, and she still finds it difficult to deal with losing every article of clothing, photographs and valued souvenirs from vacations.  There are so many who were directly affected by the North Bay fires and lost their homes and possessions. “It’s hard to believe that all the treasured pieces and places that make up a life now, live on only in our memories,” she wrote in her New Year’s letter.

On a visit to the site where her house once stood, she noticed that some plants that were severely burned were still alive. In a letter Sakaki wrote after the holidays, she urged friends, colleagues and community members to keep their eyes and hearts open to “the new green shoots, the little bits of new life, the new ideas, collaborations and relationships that will bring hope and joy to all of us this year.”
Rather than dwell on the destruction, Sakaki prefers to focus on Sonoma State and her leadership of the campus. The university helped those students who were victims of the fires to replace their books and laptops. “I’m so proud of the way our campus community came together during the fire and afterwards. People in our Emergency Operations Center worked hard and well as a team,” she says. The college had NOMA CARES, a one-stop shop to help victims in the immediate aftermath of the fires, as well as NOMA GIVES, a way for people to make contributions to help others. “We kept to our academic calendar,” she says, explaining that making sure students could complete the semester and graduate on time were priorities.

Two weeks after the fire, SSU was scheduled to have a visit from WASC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which is responsible for the accreditation of public schools and universities. Sakaki was advised to postpone it, but she made the decision to move forward as planned. “It was the right decision. … It’s important to always look forward,” she says, and proudly she added, “SSU received many commendations and received a great review.”

Looking forward

Sakaki is on the board of directors for Rebuild North Bay and is currently helping to find ways for the region to bounce back after the fires. “When we reopened, we had a gratitude ceremony,” she says, and SSU recently honored the two firefighters who rescued Sakaki and her husband. She gave them Sonoma State Valor Awards, which are hand-blown, blue glass hearts. One of the firefighters gave her a medal, saying that it took great courage to escape. She’d been in the community for just a year and a half and had a life-changing experience, but says, “People have been so generous and caring. This is our home,” she says. “To be sustained and supported and be able to continue to lead this university is an honor.”

Sakaki sees a bright future for Sonoma State University, and wants students in the area and from throughout California to study at SSU. She urges employers to create internships and to hire Sonoma State graduates. “I want Sonoma State to be seen as the resource it is to our region,” she says. “Our students are unique, and they are talented, and they are excellent,” she says, adding that SSU has fabulous facilities, people and programs. She also commends the wonderful faculty and staff, who are active community members.

“It’s a gift to work with so many wonderful people on campus and in the community. There are many ways for us to work together for the benefit of students, the campus and the community,” she says. “I love every moment. My heart is filled with gratitude.”

WASC Accreditation

WASC—the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—is an official academic body that visits public elementary and high schools, colleges and universities and is responsible for their accreditation. The process for receiving accreditation includes an initial visit that allows WASC representatives to understand a school’s purpose, programs and operations. A second visit engages all stakeholders in a study process, clarifies a school’s purpose and learner outcomes and develops action plans for areas that need improvement. A visiting committee validates findings based on certain criteria and recommends accreditation.

Off campus

In September 2018, SSU will go off campus, when it begins offering a pathway to a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration in a collaboration that includes the School of Business and Economics, the School of Extended & International Education and the College of Marin. Classes will be at the College of Marin’s campus in Kentfield and will take place in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate students who have work, family or other responsibilities that prevent them from attending weekday classes. Graduates will receive their diplomas in a commencement ceremony at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

Green Music Center

The Green Music Center at Sonoma State University is noted for the high quality of its performers, and many of them are world-famous. Soprano Renée Fleming, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet and Dianne Reeves have made appearances this year, and singer Joan Baez, whose paintings are on permanent exhibit at the university, will perform in the fall. Dr. Judy Sakaki considers it a community resource and an inspiration for hosting more artists-in-residence.

Sonoma State Seawolves

The sea wolf is Sonoma State University’s mascot, and Seawolves commit themselves to the highest ethical standards: conducting themselves with integrity, striving for excellence, respecting the rights and dignity of others and accepting the responsibility that comes with being an ethical member of the community.

In the natural world, most sea wolves live on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, with some populations in southern Alaska as well. They’re nomadic animals though and once roamed the Northern California coast. They can swim for miles and are mostly pescatarians, with salmon accounting for 25 percent of their diet. They have a distinct DNA that distinguishes them from interior wolves, and they are also smaller, about the size of a German shepherd.



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