Ang kwento ko (My story)


Did you always want to be a college president? What is your leadership approach and philosophy? How has it felt to be the first Filipina American president of both Berkeley City College and San José City College?

These are only a few of the questions I have been asked since serving as president of Berkeley City College (BCC) from 2016 to 2020 and at San José City College (SJCC) since 2020. In the last six years, I have been invited to share my kwento and leadership journey in a variety of venues, from higher education-focused news media, conferences and convenings, leadership institutes, and ethnic-based staff associations. Inclusive of my presidencies, I have been a multicultural educator in the California Community Colleges system for more than 27 years. Prior to SJCC and BCC, I served in multiple roles at De Anza College, as faculty, dean and associate vice president.

This article concludes a series this month focusing on women who lead community colleges as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month.

Social and cultural focus

When asked about my identity as an educator and leader, I talk about myself as a Pinay and Asian American president because these descriptors speak to my political engagement with the social justice issues Filipina/o/x and Asian Americans continue to face.

I am a first-generation immigrant born in the Philippines. My parents came to the United States in 1972 in pursuit of the American Dream, which included access to a quality public education for their four children. I am drawn to Pinayist pedagogy/praxis as a leadership framework due to its focus on the empowerment of Filipina American women and its application of Paulo Freire’s idea of transformative agency through theory (co-created and derived from everyday lives), practice and personal reflection.

In valuing the cultures, lived experiences and voices of all in the institution, I practice humanizing education, which I consider an outgrowth of global humanities study and an ethical obligation to uphold human rights. I encourage my students and my employees to share kwentos with one another as a way to connect, foster understanding and mutual respect. Having led two institutions (BCC and SJCC are both Asian American, Native American Pacific Islander and Hispanic-serving institutions) that serve predominantly students of color, my leadership priorities centered on humanizing education, creating spaces and opportunities for people to engage with one another through facilitated panel discussions, listening sessions, dialogues, and healing circles for students and employees.

Developing and implementing a plan

When I was president of Berkeley City College, I was mission-driven and clear in my articulation of a social justice, student equity and community engagement agenda. I aligned campus programs with the college’s mission, vision and values. BCC had a deep commitment to “academic excellence and quality learning,” “multiculturalism and diversity,” and “preparing students for citizenship in a diverse and complex changing global society.”

In this context, I worked with instruction and student services to prioritize the growth of student equity-based programs that provide wraparound student services and support to African American/Black, Latinx, and AAPI students who are first-generation to college, low-income, undocumented, foster youth and/or formerly incarcerated. These programs included First Year Experience (FYE), Personal Initiative and Social Transformation (PERSIST), UMOJA and the Undocumented Community Resource Center (UCRC).

Over my more than three years as president of San José City College, I continue to be mission-driven, focused on institutional effectiveness and data-driven decision-making, and advancing the district’s vision of providing students and the community “equity, opportunity, and social justice.” Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic and the racial reckoning resulting from the Killing of George Floyd, I believe that under my collaborative leadership, the college continues to progress in meeting our mission.

I took leadership in re-organizing the college’s learning resources division that enabled the campus to create and hire a dean of academic success and student equity. Since hiring this position in 2021, the college has embraced a student equity framework, a revitalized diversity advisory committee, a diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility and anti-racism plan, and an LGBTQ community plan.

A caring learning environment

In the times that I feel the weight and fatigue of being a leader in the middle of multiple crises, I step back from, reflect upon and reframe my conditions. I also reach out to other higher education leaders of color to help me focus on the strengths, courage and resilience of our students and communities as they continue to face a multitude of challenges.

As a first-generation Filipina immigrant and community college transfer student, I have experienced first-hand the failures in our education system: absence of culturally responsive curriculum, pedagogy and student services, deficit-thinking and practices as applied to students of color, girls/women, low-income, etc. Those of us from minoritized and marginalized communities learn at an early age that we are rarely invited to the room, and if we do arrive there, feel the pressure to perform as to not be looked upon as an imposter.

However, institutions that have taken a transformative approach to education instill in minoritized students’ confidence, power and agency. Students of color see themselves as welcomed, valued and co-creators of knowledge. Humanizing education and a caring learning environment are goals I strive to achieve in any community college that I lead.

About the Author

Rowena M. Tomaneng
Dr. Rowena M. Tomaneng is president of San Jose City College and also serves as president of the National Asian Pacific Islander Council, an affiliate council of the American Association of Community Colleges. She also is vice president of the Northern Region of the California Community College Chief Executive Officers Board.