Meet Rebecca Torres Valdovinos

Institution: George Fox University 

Position: English Language Institute Director and Assistant Professor

“Tia? That means aunt, right?” the Sacred Heart of Mary nun asked in her New England Accent.  Dressed in her full habit, she looked down at the small seven-year-old Mexican-American child.  I looked up at her with amazement. She didn’t know that the women I was describing in the conversation about our family party celebrating my First Communion were my mother’s sisters!  At 7 years old, I had no comprehension of the word “aunt”; I only knew “tia”.  This was my first awareness of being from another culture.  Thus, my journey has its roots in the barrio of East Los Angeles, the place of my birth and childhood. 

After twelve years of parochial school with the Sacred Heart of Mary religious order, I proceeded to enter higher education. My SAT’s were far from the required normative scores, though, so I was advised by Sister R (name deleted for privacy) not to pursue college because I didn’t have the aptitude for such a venture. She advised that I take the domestic route of marriage and child rearing. And I believed her words as truth. The “mentors” that existed for my low socio-economic environment were my “tías” who were a cadre of service help workers. They worked long hours for very little take home pay. The idea of attending a four-year institution was out of the question, since my parents had just finished paying twelve years of parochial school tuition. But, I was in the perfect generation at the end of the Civil Rights era when politicians were throwing money at the disenfranchised minority kids from the slums of the urban areas. I attended the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles because I didn’t think I could afford my dream school, the Art Institute of Pasadena. Then I entered the local community college and realized Sister R was wrong in her assessment of my academic skills. I graduated Cum Laude and transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara with full tuition paid. Life happened, I got married, had four children, and found myself divorced. 

I wish I could say that along my undergraduate path I had mentors, but I can’t say that. As Sheryl Sandberg describes in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, I was a young woman who was afraid to be outspoken or even, dare I say, career-minded. My culture taught me well that I was not to be “over-educated” for fear of not being marriage material within my culture. So I held back any desire to achieve because to do otherwise would depict me as an aggressive woman no man would consider marrying. Now, necessity being the mother of invention, I needed to re-invent myself in order to feed my children, and this is where my first mentor came into my life. At California State University Los Angeles, I obtained my secondary teaching certificate along with specializing in academic language for English Language Learners. In the course of my graduate work for my Masters in Education, a professor took an interest in me. She had the power and influence described in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize the importance of this relationship, and I moved sixty miles away and lost contact. 

I had another professor as the chair of my graduate research committee who looked at my thesis and stated, “That’s the problem with bilingual education, they don’t teach you how to write.” This chairperson was the antithesis of a sponsor; she halted my graduate degree. I believed that professor’s opinion of me, and, dejected, left my program for five years. I was not a product of the public school bilingual education system, nor was I bilingual, but a monolingual English speaker! Her perception of my academic writing was harsh and untrue, but it led me to another path of my expertise. I used this experience in my future rise to leadership. It was the encouragement and influence of my mentor that brought me back six years later to complete my Masters. As Hewlett (pg.12) states, a sponsor is someone who will catapult you in the right direction. The influence of this professor opened the door for the completion of my degree, but that is where the relationship stopped. With no vision, I settled back into my cultural norms for a Mexican-American woman; I taught classes, went to school events, made meals, and took care of the day-to-day domestic needs of growing children. With no career direction, except to earn a higher income, I ended up in San Bernardino Unified School District as a secondary Social Studies instructor. I worked and worked at my position until I was promoted to the district office. With growing children I realized southern California was a challenging environment for raising teens, so I landed a job in the Pacific Northwest as full-time faculty at a small community college in rural Lewis County. I settled in again, and continued to grow in my expertise of TESOL and teacher education. 

Ten years later with experience in other higher institutions under my belt, I was hired by George Fox University, and my strength of “Context” from Strength Finders was activated. A Context person in Strength Finders is one who uses experiences from the past and learns from them. That has been my forte in my rise to leadership, but it’s taken a lifetime of learning. There is one aspect of my academic cultural experience that has become an area of distinction for me and has assisted me in developing my “currency” or expertise. Specifically, I view my position in leadership with my team of staff and faculty as being one of collective collaboration. Being a first generation Latina woman has given me a perspective that is different from the traditional white male view predominant in higher education. 

From this appointment, I recognized the importance of my position as an established leader at the institution. Knowing I needed more “coaching” in this role I sought out the former director and founder of the program. She had emeritus standing at the university so when I informed my superiors that I had employed her tutelage I believe this added to other partnerships. In the second year of my new appointment I participated in the Multi-Ethnic Leadership Development Institute (MELDI). It has made me more purposeful in my position. I’ve learned to identify my responsibility of nurturing the important “sponsor” relationships. The first item was listening to the needs of leadership; the next was implementation of solutions. I’ve learned to listen to my sponsors and produce results that are on their radar. Just being at the right place at the right time, is not enough. This is where some take a misstep on their path; I may have done the same. My ethnicity has been a challenge because my culture and generation typically doesn’t produce strong female leaders. Now there is a new generation, one that is looking at the global market and I’m purposefully going down this path to lead the way for another generation of Latina leaders to fill the top ranks. I do this with purpose, vision, and the freedom to be my authentic self.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Take full view of the situation, problem or predicament, and rather than complain about it, find a solution with collaboration. 
  • Not everything is about your comfort, but rather, there are others who are affected by your decisions, actions or words.  
  • In professional settings, sleep on your reaction or contribution to changes that will have a negative impact. 

For future contact: 
You may reach me at I would be happy to discuss or offer any application of diversity issues for your institution or department.

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