On Thanksgiving, Dr. Gregorio A. Ponce, Dean of San Diego State University, Imperial Valley, ran an advertisement in the local newspaper thanking his Calexico elementary, middle school and high school teachers, the staff and administrators for their guidance.
He thanked all 60 of them—all by name.
He included a picture of himself in the ad as he graduated from Calexico High School in 1981—beginning a journey that would lead him to the top post of the local branch of San Diego State University.
Just as his parents, Gregorio and Margarita, made a difference in his life by emphasizing education, Ponce said each one of the people named in the ad influenced him positively.
“In many regards, they were my school parents,” he said during an interview at the SDSU IV in Calexico, located just four blocks from the home where he was raised. “Because of their help and guidance, they gave me the strong educational foundation that I have. I remember all of them very vividly. They touched my life in so many ways.”
Today, Ponce is using the foundations from his past to help him serve as Dean of SDSU, Imperial Valley, a position he has held since an interim appointment in 2015. He was officially named Dean in 2017 after a long career as a professor of mathematics education.
He views his role as facilitating a sense of community within the institution and in ensuring the local arm of SDSU continues to play a critical role for all of Imperial County.
“We are part of a community and all the members of this community matter” Ponce said, adding that everyone at SDSU IV (faculty, staff, and administrators) work together to ensure students have an “amazing” learning experience.
One sign of his community philosophy has come in the form of a name change for the institution.
There are two local SDSU sites—the original Calexico campus, founded in 1959, and the much more recent North County campus in Brawley. Rather than have each identified by its geographic location, SDSU has removed Campus from their titles. Though it will take some time for the new title to be fully implemented, SDSU Imperial Valley “encapsulates our true mission”, Ponce said.
While the name change is subtle, Ponce is hopeful the message is clear.
“We are here for all of Imperial Valley,” he said.
As a native of the Imperial Valley who lives in El Centro with his wife, Laura, with whom he has raised three children, Ponce wants to see the Valley prosper, and he will do whatever he can through the university to help make that happen.
“My guiding beacon is—‘how can I help?’” he said.
His life’s story also serves as a beacon to others of how hard work can lead to success, and how the local colleges in the Imperial Valley can play a role in that journey.
After graduating from Calexico High School, Ponce attended the local community college, Imperial Valley College, where he studied computer science.
While attending IVC, Ponce met the woman who would become his wife. He remembers telling his friends, after seeing Laura at the college library, that one day they would be married. When he learned she was attending the tutoring center for help with math, he volunteered to become a tutor. That’s how they met and got to know each other.
After completing his studies at IVC, Ponce attended the University of California, San Diego to continue his major in computer science, but after struggling with his grades, he faced a decision that would shape the course of his life. Either transfer to another university to try again in computer science or stay at UCSD and change his major to mathematics. He changed to math.
“The reason I changed to that major was that when I reflected on the past, I recalled how my family, friends and peers would tell me the way I would help them with math made it make more sense to them,” he said.
From there, his march toward his future began. He graduated in 1986 with a degree in applied mathematics, and then returned to the Imperial Valley to work—both to help his parents financially and to raise money for a wedding (he and Laura married in 1987).
He taught math part-time at IVC and worked as a teacher’s aide at Kennedy Middle School in El Centro. He liked teaching at the college level but knew he needed a master’s degree. With the help of a fellowship, he again attended UCSD from which he earned his master’s in applied mathematics in 1989.
In 1989, he began a 12-year career as a math professor at Imperial Valley College. During his time there, he became involved in the Academic Senate, which sparked an interest in administration.
That interest led him to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of San Diego. His doctoral program allowed him to take classes at other institutions, and for Ponce that meant taking four classes toward his degree at SDSU Imperial Valley, which means both Imperial Valley College and SDSU played an important role in his higher education. He earned his doctorate in 2001.
In that same year, he transitioned to the SDSU branch to teach math.
His goal as a professor has always been to reach those students who might not be able to understand math concepts through more traditional teaching methods.
“For me, I have to see it, I have to feel it, I have to do it, so I can understand the abstractions that come from it,“ he said. “When I teach mathematics, I try to follow that model. My goal is to help the 80 percent of students who don’t get mathematics the way we learned it in a traditional manner.”
He created a mathematics card game to help students understand integers, and he would use an actual rope to make tangible where numbers physically fall on a number line to help students better grasp fractions.
Ponce would eventually become chairman of the Education Division, which again placed him in an administration role. Then, in 2015, when the Dean position opened, Ponce was appointed on an interim basis, and in March of 2017 was officially named Dean.
In that role, he is a voice for the institution, and that role is going to become increasingly critical in the months and years to come, as Ponce strives to ensure the local university grows with the Valley.
“This institution is key to support the growth and economic development of Imperial County with the degrees that we offer, but we have not been keeping up with that growth,” he said, adding that SDSU, Imperial Valley should be three times its current size to meet the local needs.
With an eye toward growth, Ponce recently unveiled a new initiative to generate local interest in the expansion of the university. The initiative is titled, “SDSU IV: Growing and Transforming for Our Community.”
The initiative calls for adding new pathways into a freshman program at the university for eligible high school students, strengthening current programs and degrees, reopening viable inactive programs, like the master’s in public administration, and adding new undergraduate degree programs. Additionally, the initiative would add new faculty and staff and new buildings.
Success will require the support of the community, Ponce said, and in the months ahead he will be spreading that message to Imperial County leaders, public agencies, corporations and philanthropists.
“This institution was founded by people who had a vision of this university,” he said. “Fifty-eight years later, SDSU IV is again looking to the community for support.”
The announcement of the initiative follows two years of listening to the “ideas, visions, and aspirations” from the community, faculty, staff, students, alumni and SDSU leaders in San Diego about the future direction the local institution should take, Ponce said.
He recognizes a long and difficult road lies ahead to achieve such goals, but Ponce is not one to shy away from challenges. With the help of his team at the university and the Imperial Valley community, the challenges ahead can be overcome, he added.
Just as he has worked hard throughout his life, Ponce said he is devoted toward working diligently to ensure the university continues and expands its services to the Valley. He finished by saying simply: “I will give my best.”