National Head Start Association Annual Plenary Event
Opening Remarks (as prepared)
Chancellor Joseph I. Castro
April 21, 2021
Thank you, Malkia, for the kind introduction. And thank you all for the opportunity to speak with you today. It’s a great honor and a true privilege. And, frankly, it’s more than a little humbling as I reflect back upon my childhood and the profound impact my Head Start experience has had on my life.
I had hoped this morning to regale you with all sorts of stories and anecdotes from my time at Head Start: Significant instructive moments with extraordinary teachers, favorite books that I would go on to read countless times to my own children, years-long friendships formed. You would have loved those stories!
But as I sat down to prepare my remarks, nothing came. Not a single teacher name. No book titles. No breakthrough lessons, favorite games or activities. No lifelong friendships. Not even a favorite snack.
The intervening five decades have stolen those details.
But don’t get me wrong, while my Head Start memories are admittedly a little vague, they are powerful! More feelings than memories: I have a strong and undeniable recollection of an exciting place, a fun place, a safe place. And I remember that I couldn’t wait to go there each day with a sense of anticipation and a budding intellectual curiosity.
So, in a superficial sense, I suppose I don’t remember much at all about my Head Start experience. But on another level, a deeper place where some of life’s most important but unnamable influences reside, I remember everything that matters.
I remember the early stirrings of what would become a lifelong love of learning and the courage and confidence to pursue it.
Thank you, Head Start, for that remarkable gift. That passion for learning helped set me on course for a career that has exceeded my wildest expectations.
I grew up in a small, agricultural town called Hanford, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I was raised by my grandparents, who were farmworkers, and my mother, who was a beautician. Each of them had the intelligence and drive to go to college, but they never had the opportunity. But, with their support, driven by my love of learning, and thanks to a program that provided educational opportunities to students from the valley, I did get that opportunity and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley – the first in my family to go to college.
It was at Berkeley that I started to become aware that education was beginning to change my life. And as I began to see my own life transformed through my college experience, I discovered my passion for educational leadership.
Throughout my career – and especially the seven years I had the honor of serving as president of Fresno State – I’ve seen higher education transform the lives of so many talented and diverse students who grew up in circumstances similar to my own.
This January, I became chancellor of the California State University, the nation’s largest and most economically and ethnically diverse public university, educating almost half a million students across 23 campuses that span the length and breadth of California, from Humboldt State in the north to San Diego State, about 800 miles to the south. The CSU awards approximately half of California’s bachelor’s degrees each year. In fact, about one in 20 bachelor’s degree holders in America is a Cal State graduate.
I am so grateful to have the opportunity to positively impact lives at a scale that only the CSU can provide. I consider it my life’s greatest professional responsibility and my highest honor…and I am humbled and inspired by the work.
I bet you know the feeling. Because we are partners in that work, just serving our students at different ages with a shared mission of advancing access to opportunity, eliminating equity gaps and supporting student success through academic and personal development.
We share a mission and we also share some of the same challenges. And I want to take a moment to commend all of you for the way you have stepped up to continue to advance our shared mission despite the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges presented by the past 13 months, transitioning curriculum and support services to virtual delivery while helping your students and their families bridge the digital divide and helping to support their basic needs.
As we are all too aware, our most vulnerable communities have borne the brunt of the pandemic, enduring economic hardship and disparate health outcomes. Exacerbating these impacts are heartbreaking incidents of racial injustice, hatred and ignorance. In many respects, we are a nation deeply and bitterly divided.
And yet, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, I sense hope: a growing feeling of optimism that our nation is nearing an inflection point, one that will mark a turn toward healing, reconciliation and recovery. And together – as the nation’s leader in early childhood development and education and its largest and most diverse public university – it is our great privilege and responsibility that we don’t have to hope for an inflection point; we can be the inflection point, narrowing opportunity gaps, and correcting longstanding and intolerable disparities as we elevate lives, families and communities.
A few moments ago, I spoke of my own educational journey. When I was completing my doctoral work at Stanford, it was my incredibly good fortune to have a mentor named John Gardner, a name that might be familiar to some of you. Dr. Gardner was so generous with his time and happy to meet with me on a weekly basis. He would give me readings, I’d come back a week later and we would discuss the topic of the day and he would answer my questions. It was an invaluable experience for me, one that has profoundly influenced my approach to leadership and one that I will never forget.
Earlier in his career, Dr. Gardner had served as the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson. He helped form so many social programs that we are all familiar with today: Medicare and PBS, Common Cause and the Senior Corps, which empowers older Americans to engage in community service, including mentoring at-risk youth with life-transforming benefits for the kids and the seniors alike.
I mentioned earlier that some of you might know John Gardner’s name. That’s because he was also one of the architects of Head Start. He was so passionate about your organization – I remember during our time together at Stanford he got a big kick out of learning that I was a Head Start kid.
He was a steadfast believer that the way to make our nation stronger – better – to enable it to live up to its ideals and fulfill its promise was to invest in human capital. He believed in identifying innovations and best practices that worked, and then bringing them to scale to positively impact as many people as possible. He knew that America could reach its potential only when its people were empowered to reach their potential.
We lost Dr. Gardner almost 20 years ago, but it’s rare that a day goes by that I don’t reflect upon his brilliance, wisdom and kind, compassionate guidance. I like to think my former mentor would be thrilled that this old Head Start kid had the opportunity to thank this great organization for positioning me for success and for setting me on a path that has given me the privilege of helping to transform so many lives through higher education. And I know he would be deeply gratified to see the depth and breadth of Head Start’s positive influence on this country and those most in need and at risk. And I am certain he would be grateful for and so proud of each and every one of you, for what you’ve done and continue to do to advance his vision.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today, and – on behalf of the entire California State University community – thank you for your skilled, dedicated and vitally important work.