Retired leader of the CSUSM, a successful immigrant who paid for her gift of graduate studies

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Thirty years ago, Lorena Checa landed a temporary office job enrolling transfer students for the brand new Cal State San Marcos, which began in a mall in 1990.

Checa loved the experience of working with students, so after her 60 day assignment ended, she decided to apply for another growing job at the university. But after working for a while as an administrative assistant, she ran into a hurdle when she found out that she could not access a professional position at CSUSM because she did not have a university degree. At the time, a university education was not something Checa had never dreamed of.

Checa was 8 years old in 1975 when she immigrated from Mexico to California with her parents, who never made it past the third grade stage. Their modest wish for their daughters was to finish high school, get married, relocate and have a family of their own, which Lorena accomplished, starting with marriage at the age of 16.

She said cultural expectations, financial and language barriers, and family challenges can make university attendance difficult for students who are immigrants or from marginalized communities. But sometimes all of those students need to start moving up the educational ladder, it’s a helping hand. Checa obtained one early in his college career through an Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) for low-income first-generation students. She went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree, and has devoted much of her adult life to giving this gift by helping other students succeed.

For the past eight years, Checa has served as Vice President of Student Affairs at Cal State San Marcos, a leadership position that spans over 30 departments. Some of the programs she helped create during her many years at CSUSM include ACE Scholars Services for Former Youth in Foster Care, the Latin @ Center, the Black Student Center, the current Veterans Center and the DREAMer Resource Office.

After 27 years of working at the CSUSM, Checa will retire on December 15 to focus on caring for his 80-year-old father and spending more time with his three granddaughters. A resident of Escondido, Checa said she will miss students, colleagues and faculty, some of whom were her own professors years ago. But she’s proud of the work she’s done to help pave the way for students like her, who have persevered to become their family’s first college graduate.

Today, 48% of CSUSM students are Latinx and at least 52% of graduates are first generation students.

“Every graduation is my favorite time of the year,” she said. “When I was an advisor, I could see their struggles. So watching them go through this stage is very rewarding. When I hear people say not to invest in these students, I get upset because I was one of those kids. If (the university) hadn’t put their arms around me, I don’t think I would be here. It gave me the tools to be successful.

CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt said Checa has played an important role in the university’s role in expanding opportunities for students with unique needs.

“Lorena has been a key figure in the evolution of CSUSM – from its founding to the university it is today,” said Checa. “She truly understands the unique journey and needs of our first generation non-traditional students; translating that into her concern for each student and their success. We were very fortunate to have her transformational leadership, guidance and friendship. Her impact at CSUSM over the past 30 years cannot be overstated.

Portrait of Lorena Checa at Cal Stat State San Marcos standing with the statue of the school of Cesar Chavez which was unveiled there in 1997. She will soon be retiring from her position as vice president of student affairs.

(Charlie Neuman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Do better than me’

Checa was born in Urapah, a large city in the state of Michoacán, in southern Mexico. In search of a better life for their six daughters, Checa’s parents moved in 1975 to the city of Pomona, in the Los Angeles area, where two more children, two sons, were born. While her parents worked in an embroidery factory, young Lorena and her siblings attended school in Ontario.

“My dad always said ‘do better than me’ and you expected, especially as a woman, as soon as you were of age you would get married and start your life,” she said. “When I got married to someone I had a crush on at 16 and we had two children, I felt I had fulfilled my destiny because I had finished high school.”

In 1985, Checa moved to Vista with her first husband and their baby boy. After taking classes at Palomar College to become a phlebotomist, she got a blood job at a local hospital, where she was exposed to a virus. Because Checa was pregnant at the time, she decided to find a safer job until the birth of her second child, a daughter. With the help of a friend, she found a job as a receptionist and buyer for a high tech company in Murrieta. Shortly after, the same friend told him about the temporary job at CSUSM. When she dropped out of college for lack of a college degree, she decided it was time to rethink her future.

“I took that turn in my life where I realized I could learn. I decided to go back to Palomar College and start from scratch in the lowest math and English classes and do my best, and that’s what changed my life, ”she said. declared.

After obtaining her associate degree at Palomar, she transferred to CSUSM and obtained her BA in Literature and Writing. Then she applied for the student services job that had been turned down years earlier and got hired.

In the years that followed, Checa continued to apply for jobs at CSUSM and, when a new degree was needed, she returned to school. She got her master’s in consulting to work in the adviser’s office, and when she wanted to move into management, she got a master’s in business administration.

“I have learned that the tools you can get by continuing your education allow you to better understand life,” she said. “It’s not just about social mobility, but lifelong learning and understanding and contributing to society.

Checa, who divorced while studying for her masters, said juggling motherhood, a full-time job and her studies was difficult, but her children understood the sacrifices she was making to give them better lives. . Whenever she had an assignment to write for school, she would post a note to her children on her closet / office door and they knew not to disturb her.

Around this time, Checa said some of her aunts and cousins ​​looked down on her career, saying she should be home to take care of her husband. But in the years that followed, she became a role model for the younger generation of her family, many of whom attended college, earned a master’s degree, and worked in professional fields, including her son, who now works for a company. for cancer research.

“I can’t take all the credit for it, but I know living this modeling can be an amazing thing and it can transform your immediate family,” she said.

Lorena Checa at Cal Stat State San Marcos

Lorena Checa at Cal Stat State San Marcos near Craven Hall, where she works as the university’s vice president of student affairs. She is retiring on December 15.

(Charlie Neuman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rise to the top

In 2001, Checa saw an opportunity to work at a senior administrative level at the University of San Diego, where she was hired to serve as the Assistant Dean at the College of Education. But she missed her friends and colleagues at the CSUSM, so in 2004 she returned to take on the post of Director of EOP and Student Services. After earning her PhD in Leadership Studies, she again reached one of the senior levels of management as Vice President of Student Affairs.

Checa said his greatest pride has been in helping to create centers of learning and support at CSUSM that have contributed to student success, especially for first generation students.

“The people I work with here have been great in supporting this mission,” she said. “They know it’s about the students, never us. We provide them with that support and guide them. Developing these programs has been a joy.

Seven years ago, Checa remarried and now has two stepchildren, aged 19 and 20, in addition to her son, 39, and daughter, 36, who has three daughters, Analiyah, 15 years old, Gabriella, 12 years old, and Amerie, 10 years old. The decision to retire was bittersweet, she said she looked forward to spending more time with her family and having the opportunity to donate her time and expertise to local organizations as a member. from the administration board.

Before Checa retires next month, the university will host a celebration in his honor on December 8. But Checa already has a legacy established in his name at CSUSM. In 2016, the campus EOP department created the Lorena Checa Prize, which rewards students whose academic background mirrors that of Checa in terms of perseverance, academic excellence and inspiration.

Checa donates $ 1,000 annually to the Awards Program scholarship fund and has had the opportunity to read the winning student essays. One of the most moving essays was written by 2018 award winner Francisco Fernandez, who is now a biology and biomedical graduate student at Harvard University. Although born in the United States, Fernandez moved to Mexico with his parents as a baby, then returned at the age of 18 to study. While living in his uncle’s Escondido garage and working in a car wash to support himself, Fernandez learned English, earned his AA degree at Palomar, and transferred to CSUSM, where he excelled. in the sciences.

Fernandez told Checa that reading about his life story inspired him to shoot for the stars.

“I have had the opportunity to read these essays and I just cry,” she said. “I think about how they said they designed my story to say that if somebody else can do it, they can do it too. It is very humbling and I am very grateful.


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