By Lisa Fung
Coming to California
Fresno State University President and UCI Humanities alumnus Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval (’93, ’95 and ’01) always knew he would return to California’s Central Valley after his education. But before returning home, he would take a path of learning and discovery that led him through UCI and other parts of the world.
“My parents very early on realized the value of higher education,” he says. “Back in Mexico, they knew that a degree from a university meant a better life and meant that the person would contribute on a much higher level, or in a leadership position, to society. They could see that very clearly.”
The youngest of eight children, Jiménez-Sandoval arrived in California when he was nine. His father had come to the U.S. in the 1950s, farming his tomato ranch near the small town of Fowler, a stone’s throw from Fresno. After years of traveling back and forth to Mexico, his father finally moved the family to the region in 1980.
Though he spoke little English, Jiménez-Sandoval was determined to master the language of his new country. As a fourth grader, he was one of two students who did not speak English. He vividly remembers his first English teacher, Mrs. Valdez, putting a paragraph in front of him and asking, “What words do you know? What words do you want to find out about?” He selected the word “the” and was awed by its multiple translations in Spanish. He recalls how his fifth-grade instructor, Mrs. Quintana, would play the Carpenters’ songs, such as “Sing a Song,” then have him transcribe them.
“Then we would sing the song,” he reminisces, smiling at the memory. “In having us do so, she was building up our accents; she was building up our listening skills, our writing skills and everything within the concept of a song.”
For a young immigrant boy growing up in the 1980s, there was so much to explore: the language, the culture, the food (“I had never had spaghetti. And I didn’t know baked beans could be sweet.”). In his new, diverse community, Jiménez-Sandoval befriended kids of many different ethnicities. He began participating in clubs and sports. By high school, he was taking honors classes and focusing on getting straight As.
“It was really beginning a journey of self-exploration, of self-meaning: Why am I in this new land? What do my roots represent in this new land? How do I contribute to it?” he says. “It took me quite some time to develop a sense of belonging and a sense of self within the region and then within myself.”
While Jiménez-Sandoval viewed California as a world of endless opportunities and a place to fulfill dreams, it wasn’t always easy. He recalls suffering discrimination, including lateral discrimination from second- and third-generation Mexican Americans who had been in the region for a long time.
“But during each stage of my life,” he says, “I had someone who was there and who just believed in me every step of the way.”
From the Central Valley to Orange County
Today Jiménez-Sandoval displays the poise and quiet confidence befitting the president of a university. But his ready laugh, easygoing personality and deep passion for learning give him an accessibility that has made him a beloved figure on campus. After years of teaching, he strives to maintain a close connection to the students.
“A lot of administrators at other universities take a golf cart around. For me, it’s fun to get on a scooter – I don’t have an electric one; I pedal it,” he says, laughing. “If I have a meeting across campus, I can make it in 2 to 3 minutes because it’s pretty fast. The students know who I am, and they say, ‘Hey, President Jiménez-Sandoval! Hey, how’s it going?’ I have fun with it; it clears my mind, but at the same time, it also makes students see me as one of their own.”
These days, it’s hard to imagine Jiménez-Sandoval anywhere but the Central Valley. But as a youth, he knew that truly finding himself would mean leaving the security of his hometown Fowler, his friends and his family.
“I just felt like I needed to leave,” he says. “My brother Alfonso was attending Fresno State at that time. But, as the youngest of eight, I felt like I needed to grow my wings and be strong enough on my own to just fly and really discover who I was. It goes back to my exploration of who I am and what I am doing and what this land means to me.”
He considered attending college at USC, but the tuition was prohibitive. He thought about UC Davis, where many of his friends were, as well as UCLA and Berkeley. “Then I met people from UCI – recruiters from UCI – and they communicated to me what UCI was, what the university had to offer, the community around it, the great resources and the great accolades that the disciplines had,” he recalls.
Jiménez-Sandoval considered Irvine, but the acceptance letter just sat on his desk. Then the UCI recruiters reached out to him again.
“I said, ‘I’m just a kid from a small high school in the middle of California, and just honestly speaking, I feel like a really small fish.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry about it; Irvine is this incredible community.’ Then they simply started to talk about the university and the students and student life and clubs and organizations.”
They persuaded him to pay a visit, and when he did, he immediately felt a connection to the campus. “They had described it to me for so long and with such detail that when I stepped onto campus, I felt a sense of identity and a sense of belonging in a place that had been entirely foreign to me,” he says.
Jiménez-Sandoval’s decision to attend school far from home came as a shock to his parents. “I think being immigrants in the States, they really wanted all of their kids to be close to them,” he says. Still, they supported his decision.
The summer before school started, he decided to get a jump on his studies by taking Summer Bridge courses on campus. “It really gave me the opportunity to get to know the university, so by the time I went to Irvine in the fall of ’89, I already had friends who knew me and whom I knew, and I didn’t feel completely lost.”
That summer, his father and brother dropped him off on campus, which gave them a chance to see where he would be living. When it came time to return to the university in the fall, his father bought him a plane ticket and sent him off on his own. “For me it was a big deal – it was not easy, and I was forging my own destiny,” he says, laughing.
Months later, his brother told him, “‘You know, Saúl, on that Sunday that you left, both mom and dad did not go to church, which was a big deal. They did not go to church, and they stayed in bed all day crying.’”
Jiménez-Sandoval thrived at UCI. He immersed himself in his studies, but he also took advantage of the various clubs and organizations UCI had to offer, including Ballet Folklórico de UCI, where he danced with Professor Victor Torres, who is now a professor of Chicano and Latin American studies and director of Los Danzantes de Aztlán at Fresno State.
Like many incoming freshmen, Jiménez-Sandoval had not yet decided on a specific area of study, torn between the STEM fields – and a career in medicine – or the humanities, with an eye toward becoming a high school history teacher. By his sophomore year, he made up his mind.
“I called my parents that night and I told them, ‘I’ve decided what I want to do with my career: I’m going to double major in history and Spanish, and I want to become a high school teacher after that, possibly in both fields,’” he recalls. “My mom said to me ‘That’s great – you’ll finish in four years.’”
Tracing connections around the world
Little did she know that her son’s graduation, cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history and Spanish, would not be the end of his academic studies. At the urging of his professors, Jiménez-Sandoval decided to pursue a master’s degree in Spanish literature at UCI. He stayed at UCI because the Department of Spanish and Portuguese was one of the highest ranked, and because he knew he could count on them to direct strong graduate work.
“The whole impetus for my B.A. was to make my parents proud. I really wanted to tell them, ‘Look, it was worth it: Here is my degree, and I dedicate it to you. Without you, I would not have done this,’” he says.
“I told my parents, and I told my siblings, ‘I’m going to get a master’s for myself. I just want to know more. I want to know how everything is connecting from Europe and Spanish America and Asia and Africa. I want to learn the historical and literary processes of the world. I just want to know the connections.’”
He was able to make those connections during travels abroad to Spain and Portugal, where he immersed himself in art history classes that helped illuminate how literature was intertwined with art, music, architecture and philosophy throughout history. Two professors in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese encouraged him to travel, and through their connections, facilitated the study abroad programs: the late Juan Bruce-Novoa for Spain and then-UCI Professor Ana Paula Ferreira for Portugal. Years later, when he began teaching literature, he would incorporate music and art of the period into his lessons, to better illustrate the interconnected nature of literature and the arts.
Even as he continued his studies at UCI and traveled the world, the Central Valley town of Fowler where he grew up was always in his heart. “When I was pursuing the doctorate degree, I was really thinking about all of the teachers in the Fowler schools who believed in me; they saw my potential and encouraged my sense of self-confidence.”
Several years later, armed with a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese literatures, which he also earned at UCI, he was ready to begin teaching full time. But now instead of high school, he was looking at university positions. With guidance from UCI Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Jacobo Sefamí and Ferreira, he was able to land interviews at the University of Texas, Arlington and the University of Iowa.
But Fresno beckoned.
“I was just very, very fortunate that there was always an angel looking over me, and that Fresno State, first of all, even had a position, and then, second, that I landed the position here,” he says. “Again, it really goes back to that commitment I felt to Fowler and the Fresno region. That’s why I dedicated my doctorate to the Fowler school system. I felt a real commitment to Fresno State. I really wanted to give back to the community and our students at Fresno State.”
Two years after arriving at Fresno State, he married Mariana Anagnostopoulos – a fellow T.A. for Humanities Core at UCI, who secured a lecturer position at Fresno State. “This made Fresno complete for me.”
Giving back to the community that gave so much to him continues to drive Jiménez-Sandoval. About 70% of Fresno State’s students are the first in their families to attend college, he says, and about 85% are underrepresented minorities. He also says that since 80% of the students remain in the region once they graduate, the impact of Fresno State on the immediate community is palpable and direct.
“All of my experiences – growing up on the farm, growing up in the region, knowing and connecting to people throughout – are now coming to the foreground,” he says. “My experience as a provost, as dean, as a critical thinker – because I took a lot of critical theory at UCI – it all comes together to shape how I can strengthen the promise that Fresno State represents to so many of our students. UCI and its lessons are foundational to who I am today.”
Jiménez-Sandoval and Mariana, who is a professor of philosophy at Fresno State, have two teenage sons, Arion and Leo, who share their parents’ passion for reading, languages, the arts and music. The family also enjoys cooking together.
“I love food. I love to try different types of food. I’m a pretty good cook,” he says, modestly couching his statement with a laugh. “I cook Spanish food pretty well, and French food. I cook Greek food because my mother-in-law Myrtali taught me her recipes. And, of course, I cook Mexican food quite well. For me, food is an opportunity to recreate memories – of when I was a child and my mother would cook for me, as well as new ones that will define our bonds of love and support for one another.”
Today, that young boy from Mexico who marveled at the many cuisines offered in his new country refers to himself as a “total foodie.”
His sons, he says, “are very reflective of California. They fuse within themselves the Mexican and Greek worlds beautifully, along with the California spirit. They go in and out of these worlds flawlessly. That is what I see as the future of California – this multicultural state that isn’t like any other in the country. We speak over 120 languages in the Fresno region. It’s a very diverse region.”
He hopes his sons will discover and pursue their own passions, living their lives not only for themselves, “but giving back to the community that saw them grow up and become strong individuals.”
Just like their father.