Photo of Judy A. Sakaki, Ph.D.

Judy K. Sakaki, Ph.D.

President | SONOMA state

“Our students are determined, persistent and have a lot of grit. They inspire me.”

Judy K. Sakaki, Ph.D., president of Sonoma State University, didn’t expect to attend college. Her high school counselor even discouraged her from enrolling in physics or chemistry. “You would be really great in retail sales,” she told her.

Thankfully, the 17-year-old bumped into an outreach counselor on campus who encouraged her to think about applying to the CSU. She did. 

After receiving a bachelor’s in human development and a master’s in educational psychology from CSU East Bay, Dr. Sakaki went on to earn a doctorate in education at UC Berkeley. “That’s why I’m so committed to issues of access and affordability,” she says. “One person can make a difference in a student’s life.”  

Like so many students, Sakaki is the first in her family to go to college. During World War II, her parents, both U.S.-born citizens, were sent to internment camps right after graduating from high school. This injustice left a powerful impression on her; Sakaki knew she wanted to always reach back to help others.

“When I speak to students, I talk about the responsibility to lift as you climb,” she says. “I’ve been so impacted by people who believed in me—probably even before I believed in myself.”

One of those believers was former CSU East Bay President Norma Rees, whom Sakaki calls one of her most influential mentors. “She nominated me for a professional development leadership program and the person facilitating it said, ‘We’re working with you to prepare you to be a president.’ I thought I was sitting in the wrong room. I’d never seen a college president who looked like me.”

Before coming to Sonoma State in 2016, Sakaki served as vice president for student affairs for the University of California system, vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Davis and vice president and dean of student affairs at Fresno State. She is the first Japanese American woman in the country to lead a four-year university.

“I used to think I needed to be more like other successful leaders,” Sakaki says. “A leadership epiphany for me was that there's not one way to lead.”

 

"You can certainly learn by observing effective leaders, but you have to incorporate your own style into how you lead."

Those years of leading would help prepare Sakaki for what happened on October​ 9, 2017. That’s when she and her husband, Patrick McCallum, lost their home in the North Bay fires that ravaged Sonoma County. “At 4:03 a.m., our smoke detector went off,” Sakaki recalls. “I looked at the front door and there were already flames.”

Their Santa Rosa neighborhood was on fire and they appeared to be the only residents left, without a fire truck in sight. Barefoot and in pajamas, the couple ran uphill in the dark for a mile, shielding themselves from flames and burning embers. After what seemed like an eternity, they spotted a vehicle in the distance; it was two off-duty firemen who saved their lives.

In the midst of personal tragedy, Sakaki had to quickly turn her attention to ensuring the safety of the campus and the 80 students, seven faculty and 19 staff members who had also lost their homes. “I knew I had to lead with courage and compassion, and I couldn’t fall apart.”

The fire brought the community even closer; donations enabled students to repurchase books, iPads and computers. “Sonoma State was always a caring community,” she says, “but the fires brought us even closer.”

As the campus and community continue to rebuild, Sakaki can’t help but stay positive.  

“When I think about what it takes for our students to be successful—what it took for me to deal with losing everything I owned—it takes a certain amount of passion, gratitude and perseverance,” she says. “Never stopping, never letting go. Holding onto your dreams, no matter what.”


Passion, Perseverance and Resilience

BY Judy K. Sakaki, Ph.D.

Listen to President Sakaki's essay

My passion to help students succeed has shaped my entire career. At Sonoma State University, I have dedicated myself to fostering a campus community of care—one that engages, advances and supports students. The success of our students informs my university leadership. It’s my top priority.

As president of Sonoma State, I share a commitment with our faculty and staff to provide our students with transformative learning experiences and to help them make the connections between those experiences and what awaits them after commencement. I take tremendous pride in the fact that Sonoma State students are not just well-educated but also well-grounded in the values of our caring community. They are strong, compassionate and determined. 

Our students also possess the perseverance and grit that I believe has played a significant role in my own leadership development. Like many Sonoma State students, I was a first-generation college student. My parents did not have the opportunity to earn a college degree. None of my close friends from high school went on to college. My enrollment as a freshman at Cal State East Bay (formerly CSU Hayward) marked the beginning of a long and rewarding journey. Along the way, my eyes were opened to possibilities I didn’t know existed. I discovered mentors and role models, figured out how to balance my professional dreams with my responsibilities as a single mother, and identified and nurtured the support networks I needed to advance.

I believe I have a responsibility to help others, especially young girls, first-generation college students, and women and people of color, to believe in themselves, to push themselves out of their comfort zones, to hang on to their dreams and to persevere no matter what. There are far too few women and people of color in senior leadership positions. I believe this needs to change. Our students deserve broader, more inclusive examples of what successful leaders look, sound and act like.

As with perseverance, resilience has defined my leadership as president of Sonoma State. In the fall of 2017, the North Bay fires destroyed my home and claimed all of my possessions. But I was not alone. In fact, 80 Sonoma State students, seven faculty members and 19 staff members also lost their homes. The path to recovery for our campus and community has been long and arduous. However, we have drawn strength from one another, and I believe we are a more resilient and an even more caring and compassionate community because of what we experienced together.

For years I have talked about how the metaphor of bamboo has served as an important leadership allegory for me. In storms or gales, bamboo will bend or sway but never break. It has an enduring strength—its roots dig down into the soil, while the shoots bend in the wind and then center themselves when the storms cease.

The lessons of bamboo, its strength, resilience and its grit, ring even more true to me now and teach us what is needed for successful leadership and success in life.

PHOTOGRAPHY: PATRICK RECORD; COURTESY 
OF SONOMA state

VIDEOGRAPHY: Patrick record; COURTESY OF SONOMA state

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