During a visit to Caltech in 2005, France A. Cordova was amazed to learn that many of the female students at the science-and-engineering campus she had attended several decades earlier faced the same problems she had experienced.
"I couldn't believe that in 40 years nothing had changed," says Ms. Cordova, 59. "They still didn't have supportive teachers that really recognized their talents and fostered and mentored them; they still had people who were discouraging them from going into these kinds of careers."
For Ms. Cordova, an astrophysicist, that discovery underscored the importance of continuing her efforts to increase the number of women and minorities graduating from college and in teaching positions where they can serve as role models.
"I wasn't sure when I was going through school that role models mattered because I didn't have any, but now I've seen what a difference it can make in a classroom or learning environment to have women and minorities as teachers," Ms. Cordova says.
She is now in a position to make a difference for all students, both as the president of a major U.S. university with an internationally renowned aeronautical engineering program, and as a pioneering Hispanic woman. She has become a role model herself in the sciences, in education, and even in corporate governance [she's on the boards of both the Belo Corp. and Edison International].
In May, Ms. Cordova was named the 11th president of Purdue University, becoming the first Hispanic woman to lead the West Lafayette, Indiana, campus. As she settles into her new position, she says she intends to "embrace diversity," which was among her primary focuses at the University of California at Riverside, where she became the first Hispanic woman to ever lead a UC campus in 2002.
"As it is now, [diversity] is very much a part of Purdue's plan," she says. "There's been a lot of significant gains and I'll want to study those in more detail."
Proven Track Record
Ms. Cordova was instrumental in establishing numerous diversity programs at UC Riverside.
The campus east of Los Angeles is one of the fastest growing and most diverse in the 191,000-student UC system, and Ms. Cordova has learned that having a student body and faculty with a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences is critical in providing a top-quality education. Achieving diversity not only benefits the underrepresented, but their teachers as well, she says.
In 2005, Ms. Cordova created the position of associate vice-provost for faculty equity and diversity at UC Riverside. The primary focus of the vice-provost is to bring more women and minorities onto the faculty. During her tenure, at least 34 percent of new hires were female and 11 percent underrepresented minorities.
"Faculty [members] tell me in a diverse classroom that they too are affected, it's not just transmitting information but they learn from the questions and the background and experiences that the students bring into the classroom," Ms. Cordova says. "So I believe it benefits everyone around."
Undergraduate Hispanic enrollment at UC Riverside exceeded 25 percent last fall, compared with less than 15 percent systemwide. School officials credit the high numbers to programs such as community outreach, summer seminars for high schoolers, and remedial math and English courses for freshmen.
Her efforts were both noticed and appreciated at Riverside, where Academic Senate Chair Thomas Cogswell complimented her for making Riverside the UC campus that reflects the "face of California," and for encouraging diversity without sacrificing student success.
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