Cathy A. Sandeen​

President, California State University, East Bay
B.A. Speech Pathology and Audiology, Cal Poly Humboldt​ 
M.A. Broadcast Communication, ​San Francisco State​ University
M.A. Business Administration 
Ph.D. Communication

What did it mean to become the first in your family to earn a degree?
I knew having a college degree would change my life trajectory. I did not realize how much more I would learn just through the process of earning my degree regardless of major—skills like research and communication, organization, problem solving and teamwork—abilities employers still seek and that I use to this day, every day.

At the same time, earning my degree was somewhat uncomfortable on a personal level. Even though my family was proud of me, my degree set me apart from them. I spoke differently and became interested in different things. My sister once teased me saying, ‘Cathy will read anything—even cereal boxes.’ I downplayed my achievements. This dynamic is now called ‘family achievement guilt’—and it’s definitely part of being a first-gen grad.

Why was earning a degree important to you?
I grew up during the post-WII era, when most women did not work outside the home. Even as a child, I picked up on unhappiness and frustration among women in my family and my friends' mothers. They spoke wistfully about the careers they had ‘before kids.’ A few went back to school. My aunt went back to work as a nurse. I felt these working women were more engaged in a broader world and, on reflection, I wanted that for myself. Fortunately, the Cal State system was booming at the time, it was very affordable and my high school counsellors really encouraged and helped students apply to college.

What was the most challenging aspect?
By far, the most challenging aspect is what we now call ‘imposter syndrome.’ Although my professors were very student-centered, as CSU faculty continue to be, I felt that I was on my own, navigating a new world. ‘First-generation student’ emerged as a concept less than 20 years ago. There were no programs specific to this group when I was in college. Most of my classmates had parents who were doctors, lawyers, engineers. I felt a bit like an outsider. I liked school and learning, so I focused there. Although I experienced periods of financial stress, because of the affordability of college at the time, my financial challenges were far more manageable than what our students confront today.

How did you use your degrees to become a leader in the community?
My degrees gave me confidence to step up and serve and showed me how an individual can have a positive impact. When my eldest daughter was just a baby, I volunteered to lead a big fundraiser for a local community organization. I was elected chair of an employee group at UCSF back in the ’90s. The ability to organize, prioritize, innovate and communicate contributed to this work. My career has focused on high-access public higher education institutions. I have held increasingly responsible leadership positions that, I hope, allowed me to have greater and greater positive impact on individuals, families and whole communities.

How have you used ​your experience to assist first-gen students?
At Cal State East Bay, more than 60 percent of our students are first-gen. I use my direct experience to help our first-gen students on a daily basis through the programs and support services we provide. It’s a team effort. So many of our faculty and staff are first-gen graduates as well. Collectively, we have a high level of understanding and empathy allowing us to go the extra mile to serve our first-gen students. I could not have anticipated this, but I have come full circle from where I started as a first-gen undergrad in the CSU. What I initially considered a disadvantage has turned into a tremendous advantage for me in serving others.