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The Bridge Builder

George Sánchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, was appointed USC College’s diversity director in 2008.

George Sánchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, stands in front of a statue of Governor of Las Californias Felip de Neve at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Sánchez had met with scholars and community members at L.A.'s birthplace. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.
George Sánchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, stands in front of a statue of Governor of Las Californias Felip de Neve at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Sánchez had met with scholars and community members at L.A.'s birthplace. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

On a fall Saturday morning, parents pushed strollers along the Mexican marketplace on Olvera Street, cheerful despite an incessant drizzle.

Near the birthplace of Los Angeles, a small group of scholars and community members huddled inside a brick landmark in El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

A surviving structure from Old Chinatown, it is where prominent Chinese businessman Quon How Shing taught new immigrants English and how to integrate into American society.

Nine decades later, the historic building is still a place where people gather to build bridges across cultures.

“This is a very familiar room to me,” USC College professor George Sánchez said inside the Hellman-Quon Building, speaking over a loud whirring noise. “Including the annoying air conditioning unit.”

The gathering place is one of many throughout L.A. where Sánchez, his colleagues, students and local residents engage in a dialogue to unite the historic divide between universities and diverse communities.

A professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity (ASE) and history, Sánchez has spent his life championing civic engagement and scholarship with societal impact.

When USC College Dean Howard Gillman sought a director to oversee diversity enhancement at the College in 2008, he knew Sánchez was the ideal candidate.

“George’s work as a scholar, program-builder and his own personal experience make him a perfect choice for this position,” Gillman said.

“Our basic goals — the enrichment of the human spirit, the creation of fundamental knowledge — are best achieved with a faculty and a student body who reflect the range of experiences and perspectives in society at large. This appointment is another step in our commitment to cultivating that kind of community.”

Director of the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy (CDD) housed in the College, Sánchez is former chair of American studies and ethnicity, and oversaw the department’s undergraduate studies and Ph.D. placement.

A scholar of Chicano history and immigration who joined the College in 1997, Sánchez himself is a product of affirmative action programs.

Harvard University recruited Sánchez, a standout pupil and student body president at St. Paul High School, a Catholic school in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.

Once in Cambridge, he helped bring in minority students. A history student working for Harvard’s dean of admission, Sánchez watched as the university defended and won the nation’s first case challenging practices intended to give minorities access to education.

He became a history professor at the University of Michigan, where he directed an American culture Ph.D. program.

Sánchez gave the 2004 John Dewey Lecture at Michigan, a year after the university garnered national attention in the Gratz vs. Bollinger and Grutter vs. Bollinger cases in which the United States Supreme Court upheld its affirmative action admission policy.

In his talk, “Crossing Figueroa: The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy,” Sánchez warned that in the year following the ruling, support for minority student access programs was rapidly eroding.

He urged universities to be vigilant.

“How can our colleges and universities become symbols of civic democracy when our own faculty and students question our commitment to true democracy and civic commitment embodied in concepts of diversity?” he asked.

The effort becomes even more significant for universities endorsing many service-learning programs for its surrounding multi-ethnic communities.

“Engagement must begin by making our own universities more open, more diverse and more flexible,” Sánchez said. “If institutions of higher education cannot change toward these goals, it is highly unlikely that efforts in surrounding communities will be taken seriously as movements for community empowerment and transformation.”

Two years after Sánchez’s compelling address at Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was overturned by an electoral initiative similar to California’s Proposition 209.

Sánchez's book, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1995) is the first indepth study of the relationship between ethnicity and identity among L.A.'s Latinos.

A fighter for the cause in a post-affirmative action world, he credits such admission policies and minority scholarships for his own academic career.

In his book, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (Oxford University Press, 1993), Sánchez wrote in the acknowledgments:

“To all the skeptics regarding the efficacy of affirmative action admissions policies, I hope that this book will offer evidence that such programs do work.”

Sánchez dedicated the book to his parents, Jorge and Ninfa Sánchez, who immigrated to California in the 1950s during the U.S. government-sponsored Bracero Program.

Spawning a New Era

In the College, Sánchez is blazing a new trail. Among other actions, he is widening the definition of diversity to include groups such as first-generation college students.

He aims to create a stronger pipeline for minority students from undergraduate to Ph.D. candidate to faculty to retention.

“If we can find an African American president, I think we can find an African American mathematician,” Sánchez said. “If we can find a Latino mayor, I think we can find a Latino physicist.”

At ASE, he has helped to create the most diverse faculty in a department at USC. Its faculty of 33 core members ties as the nation’s most diverse department in a private university.

Sánchez is working to enhance diversity in the College’s 33 academic departments and programs.

During the past decade, diversity growth among new faculty in the College has significantly outpaced the 31 percent rise in the number of tenure-track faculty, which has gone from 376 to the current 490 members.

As with the faculty, the undergraduate population in the College is becoming more diverse.

Although Sánchez is studying the stats, he is quick to add, “It’s not a question of having numbers, it’s a question of having intellectual differences.”

And there is another reason for diversity in a university, said Janelle Wong, associate professor of political science and ASE, and director of ASE’s doctoral program.

“It’s basic social justice,” Wong said. “When underrepresented minorities and women are excluded in full participation in any aspect of community life — including higher education — that is a kind of injustice that doesn’t bode well for a democratic society.”

A university shapes the future leaders of the world, she added.

“Students have to learn how to — not just interact with — but have real, genuine social relationships with a diverse group of people, including people who are experts who are not white.”

Often hired to teach about racial issues, professors of color should be better represented in all fields of study, she said. 

“It’s important for students to see and interact with many different kinds of leaders in the classroom — including professors who might not be talking about race,” Wong said, “but who just happen to be physicists, engineers or biologists who didn’t grow up under the exact same circumstances as them.”

First-Generation Twofold

Everett Salas, whose parents migrated from Mexico, understands the importance of having role models and mentors who share a similar background.

Excelling in science as a boy, he had already earned a master’s in pathology when he realized he could be a scientist.

While an undergrad at Cal Poly Pomona, he switched his major five times, bouncing from business, to engineering and eventually to biology with plans to become a doctor.

“In the Mexican culture, you are expected to go to college,” he said. “But you’re expected to major in something that has practical value. If you’re going to go into science it’s because you’re going to go to medical school. You’re supposed to do something that pays, so you can help support your family.”

Once Salas finally followed his dream and became a student in the College’s earth sciences doctoral program, he had to convince his parents he wouldn’t starve.

“I kept having to explain to my parents,” he said. “‘Science? What do you do with that?’ I didn’t have anyone to tell me that this is OK. This route is OK. That you can actually make a living being a scientist.”

To support and recruit Latino students interested in the sciences, Salas worked with Sánchez to start a campus chapter of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).

“I feel that I have a responsibility to tell students, ‘Look it’s OK. You can make a living doing this,’ ” Salas said of a career in science. “I want them to know that no one gets there in a straight line. You get there mostly by a series of accidents.”

Working with Sánchez, another first-generation Mexican American and college graduate, was a joy, he said.

Sánchez calls his role at USC “bridge work.”

“What’s exciting for me at USC is trying to connect with students from all backgrounds,” he said. “But at the very same time validate all the experiences of students — including the ones from the neighborhoods around campus.”

A Bus Driver’s Son

Sánchez knows those neighborhoods well. Born in Boyle Heights — the gateway for new immigrants during most of the 20th century — his family soon moved to South L.A., near USC.

“Growing up, I didn’t know USC,” he said. “I passed by it, but connections to universities were not part of my upbringing. The university was a foreign land. Not L.A., not these neighborhoods, but the university. Neither of my parents went to college.”

Jorge Sánchez grew up in Guadalajara, where he was a bus driver from age 13. Born and raised in Ciudad Juárez, Sánchez’ mother Ninfa, the eldest of eight children, became a secretary in Guadalajara and met her future husband when he kept giving her free bus rides.

When George was 11, his family moved to Whittier, where his father worked in a Long Beach factory, and George and his siblings attended Catholic school in nearby Santa Fe Springs.

He was 17 when Harvard came calling.

“My mom was impressed because she knew John Kennedy went there,” Sánchez recounted. “That’s all she knew about Harvard.”

The day he left home, his parents took him to a local church to be blessed by a priest. He boarded a plane for the first time, then in Boston took his first taxi ride to Cambridge.

At Harvard, he for the first time fully realized the meaning of being a Latino from a working-class background. Seeing the need, he lobbied for Chicano studies and a minority cultural center.

Back inside the Hellman-Quon Building in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, Sánchez, a 49-year-old bespectacled professor with ample hair a light gray, sat in the audience in his urban uniform — short-sleeved shirt, black jeans and black tennis shoes. He raised his hand.

On the panel were officials from California State University, Los Angeles. The discussion centered on how to better support public art and preserve barrio murals as a way for multi-ethnic communities to chronicle their history and express their social viewpoints.

Sánchez had invited them to discuss how service-learning programs can support public art because many of Cal State L.A.’s students are from the school’s surrounding community.

“How does service learning and civic engagement change when students are actually from the communities they’re interacting with?” Sánchez asked.

It is a subject frequently on his mind. As diversity director, he wants to focus on drawing students from USC’s surrounding communities. He says including parents and families in events strengthens the connection.

“We want more and more families in Los Angeles to feel like the university is actually part of the community and not separate from it,” he said. “That’s a key part of the transition for USC to become a full neighborhood partner for improvement.”

Some of his students and their relatives consider him an extended family member. That day, the bone-colored polo shirt he wore was a gift from a student’s parents.

“The first Christmas present we buy is his,” said USC College alumna Ana Elizabeth Rosas, referring to her family gift-giving ritual. “At family weddings, Dr. Sánchez is always there.”

Rosas, who grew up a mile from USC and as a child thought it was a convent, earned her doctorate in history and is now an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine. As an undergraduate, she took a course with Sánchez who encouraged her to pursue a doctorate.

At a College event, Sánchez met Rosas’ parents and developed a friendship. Although initially reluctant to support their daughter’s plan to become a professor, their fears were soon quelled.

Rosas introduced Sánchez to her younger sister, Abigail, who also decided to attend USC to pursue her Ph.D. in ASE and will begin her sixth year in the fall.

“He makes you feel that you can do anything,” Ana said. “I’ve yet to meet anybody in academia who matches that kind of dedication.”