​​Growing up in California’s San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, Robert Garcia never guessed that he’d become mayor of one of California’s largest cities—Long Beach—much less the youngest, the first Latino, and the first openly gay mayor in the history of this city of nearly half a million residents.

When Garcia was five years old, he moved to the U.S. with his parents and other relatives from Lima, Peru; all came looking for a better life than they’d had in a country ravaged by poverty and terrorism. But the transition to life in Southern California wasn’t easy.

Garcia’s parents divorced and he went to live with his mother, who worked as a medical assistant and cleaned houses on weekends to help support the family.

“We wanted to be just like everybody else. We never asked for much, but with faith and hard work, we always got by,” he said at his 2014 mayoral inauguration.

A shy, studious teenager, Garcia excelled at high school in Covina. But in spite of top grades and AP courses, he says no one encouraged him to go to college. Still, he found his way to Cal State Long Beach—choosing the campus in part because of its proximity to the beach. The school ended up changing his life profoundly, says Garcia.

The first in his family to graduate from college, it was at Cal State Long Beach that Garcia not only had access to an outstanding education, but life on campus also “exposed me to so much diversity—both diversity of ideas as well as people; it was eye-opening and inspiring,” he remembers.

Transforming Into a Leader

The CSU Long Beach community was crucial in helping the young immigrant find his place in the world—and a start to the professional work he’d end up doing.

As a freshman, Garcia joined a fraternity, Delta Chi, and wound up its president. Then, encouraged by fraternity brothers who knew his gift for leadership, he ran for student body president of Cal State Long Beach.

Once elected to the post, Garcia’s interest in public service was ignited for good. “When I started at Cal State Long Beach, I wasn’t an American citizen yet; I didn’t become one until the time I was graduating,” he notes. “That meant that I didn’t have access to everything that other students did, but I had enough. And the school, the people, the city embraced me in ways that made all of this possible.”

After completing his master's in communication at USC, Garcia taught at Cal State Long Beach and began exploring local politics, first becoming a legislative aide. From aide to city councilman to vice mayor and then mayor, Garcia continues to teach even today. “I always wanted to be a teacher and I will always be a teacher,” he says. “Truthfully, I’m an educator who just so happens to be an elected official.”

In fact, Garcia firmly believes that it’s his teaching and doctoral work that have positioned him to meet the complexities of running a city.

“The Long Beach mayors before me were the president of Southern California Edison and the president of a college,” he notes. “People thought maybe I wasn’t qualified for the job, but being an educator really prepared me better than anything else could have; it’s taught me to listen, gather consensus, motivate people, do my research, and encourage people to seek out the science behind everything.”​

Impacting 460,000 Citizens

In his role as mayor, Garcia’s goals for Long Beach—a city he has described as one of the most welcoming, progressive, thoughtful places anywhere—are ambitious.

“I want to see Long Beach live up to its potential,” he says. “I want to see a thriving downtown, a more sustainable city, the expansion of educational opportunities, new innovative businesses, and the recognition that Long Beach is a great place to live, work and visit.”

The devoted educator is especially passionate about his plans for the city’s schools. Shortly after taking office, Garcia became one of the signers to expand the Long Beach College Promise, which offers Cal State Long Beach admission to local students who complete minimum college preparatory requirements, and a free year of tuition at Long Beach City College for Long Beach Unified School District graduates in good standing. He has also implemented plans for universal preschool and wants to double internship opportunities to prepare students for the workforce.

“I got to where I am because of my family, my education, and treating everyone with respect,” he says. “Coming from Peru with no money, very little education, not knowing anyone here, and to be able to work hard, graduate college, and then to become an elected official who has the chance to give back—that’s everything.”