Profiles of Excellence
Engine of California's Growth
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Shortly after becoming president of San Diego State University in 1996, Stephen L. Weber issued a challenge to the campus.
“The university is capable of great things,” he said. “Strive for excellence, which has its root in the Latin excellere, meaning to climb higher.”
Aztecs rose to Weber’s challenge. During his presidency—which will end in July—SDSU experienced an era of excellence unlike any other in its previous 99-year history. By all measures, San Diego State’s academic, research and community service credentials are stronger than ever.
• Sixty-six percent of students and 65 percent of ethnically diverse students now graduate in six years, well above the national standard. A decade ago, the rates were 38 percent and 33 percent respectively.
• Faculty and staff have been awarded more than $1.1 billion in external funding since 2000, ranking SDSU among the top 150 colleges and universities in research and development expenditures.
• The nationally recognized Compact for Success between SDSU and the Sweetwater Union High School District has increased Sweetwater’s college-going population by 120 percent.
The things Steve Weber has done in this community and at this university are going to last for generations.
Weber's tenure also witnessed the construction of new campus facilities such as the BioScience Center, the Arts and Letters Building and the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center. Of the $733 million in new construction since 1996, only 23 percent has been funded by state dollars.
It is another mark of Weber’s leadership that SDSU found ways to physically reshape the campus during a time of serious, often severe, budget cuts.
Weber, the philosopher-president, is quick to minimize his own role in SDSU’s rise to excellence, while crediting faculty, staff, students and alumni. But others have a different view.
“He has a unique combination of objectivity, leadership and vision,” said Ret. Major General Michael R. Lehnert, who has worked with Weber to make SDSU one of the nation’s most veteran-friendly campuses. “The things Steve Weber has done in this community and at this university are going to last for generations.”
In this story, 360 profiles Aztecs who represent the extraordinary achievements of San Diego State during Stephen Weber’s 15-year tenure. Each one has answered the president’s call to excel.
Engine of California’s Growth
Who better than the CEO of an industry leader to represent San Diego State University’s billion-dollar economic impact on California?
“I’m a big believer that the education of our workforce is a huge contributor to a thriving economy,” said Susan Salka, ’89, president and CEO of San Diego-based AMN Healthcare, the nation’s leading healthcare staffing and clinical workforce solutions firm.
An independent report commissioned by the California State University system found that SDSU’s statewide economic impact of $6.5 billion is due in large part to its legion of nearly 300,000 alumni, about 60 percent of whom live in San Diego.
“San Diego State’s done a great job of creatng programs to help develop the workforce of the future,” Salka said. “Stephen Weber understands the importance of partering with and listening to the needs of local businesses and professionals.”
The benefits of a capable workforce ripple throughout the economy, Salka explained. As workers spend more in their communities, their dollars boost the profits and hiring capacity of regional businesses.
That economic activity in turn generates greater tax revenues, both personal and corporate, which contribute to public benefits and infrastructure improvements. Higher employment and salary levels also support the housing market and related industries.
“It’s all quite interdependent,” Salka said, “and San Diego State plays a critical role.”Linda GalloA Research Powerhouse
More than $1.1 billion in research funding. That’s the total awarded to SDSU faculty and staff in the last decade. During President Stephen Weber’s tenure, research has come to define SDSU’s mission in equal parts to teaching and community service.
San Diego State faculty received more than $150 million in grants and contracts in 2010 alone, ranking the university among the top 150 colleges and universities in research and development expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation.
In 2009, associate professor of psychology Linda Gallo was one of a select group of researchers nationwide to win a “grand opportunities” grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Her three-year, $2.48 million study will assess cardiovascular risk in Hispanic populations living in four U.S. major cities, including San Diego.
Working with peers at Northwestern University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, UNC/Chapel Hill and the University of Miami, Gallo will assess health disparities to determine how socio-cultural and psycho-social factors may guide future prevention efforts for Hispanic communities.
The breadth of Gallo’s work and its focus on a growing but underserved population are representative of the research taking place every day at SDSU—research that makes a difference in the lives of all Americans.Kit SickelsGrowing a Culture of Philanthropy
Colleges and universities have always shared three common denominators: education, research and community service. But 21st century economics dictate a fourth essential factor: philanthropy.
“It is no understatement to say that philanthropy has transformed SDSU under Stephen Weber’s leadership,” explained Kit Sickels, chair of SDSU’s philanthropic auxiliary, the Campanile Foundation. “Private giving is an increasingly critical source of revenue for the university as state support for higher education dwindles.”
Since the inception of the Campanile Foundation in 1999, San Diego State has raised nearly $600 million in private support—250 percent more than the total raised during the university’s previous 102-year history. Sickels and his wife, Karen, both SDSU alumni, have themselves pledged $1 million to the university library.
SDSU’s increased emphasis on philanthropy means today’s students benefit from scholarships and learning opportunities well beyond what state funding could provide. Private giving also financed the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center. And partnerships with local industry have generated funding to create new academic initiatives such as construction engineering management.
The transformative effects of philanthropy in higher education underscore the importance of the Campanile Foundation’s next step under Sickels’ chairmanship—the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in SDSU’s history.Jose Hector Cadena and Belgica CrespoEnsuring College Readiness
San Diego State University has created a strong college-going culture among students in San Diego’s local area high schools. The award-winning Compact for Success and City Heights Educational Collaborative—both established through Stephen Weber’s leadership—partner SDSU with school districts and the diverse families of San Diego to improve college readiness.
As a direct result of these two programs, the number of students admitted to SDSU from participating high schools has increased 120 percent over the last decade; they arrive on campus prepared and ready to succeed.
Belgica Crespo and Jose Hector Cadena embody the success-oriented mindset of SDSU’s Compact and City Heights students. She is a psychology major, bound for a career in counseling; he has published short stories and poems in several journals while completing his degree in English with a minor in Chicana/o studies.
Both students work at local high schools up to 20 ours weekly, prepping aspiring Aztecs for the college application process. Cadena also helps students raft personal statements for their pplications.
“I love going back and helping others, especially at Hoover,” Crespo said. “My work in the high schools has convinced me that this is what I want to do with the rest f my life.”Trimaine DavisEmbracing Diversity and Social Justice
If you want to know about SDSU’s commitment to diversity and social justice, you can look at the numbers, reflecting a campus community as multicultural as San Diego itself. Or you can talk to Trimaine Davis, officer of outreach, recruitment and admissions for SDSU’s Educational Opportunity Program. Diversity isn’t tolerance, he says, but respect for individual differences.
Recruited to the Mesa by Aztec basketball coach Steve Fisher, Davis escaped a Northern California neighborhood plagued by drugs and gangs to earn the first college diploma in his family, graduating in 2006 with majors in education and Africana studies.
“I learned what I wanted to be by seeing what I didn’t want to be,” he said. “Education was definitely the way to go.”
Davis now spends his days convincing eighth-graders to follow his lead. “We change by example. I’m fortunate to be able to go out there and not only be the example, but also give them the tools to do it.”
He travels weekly to participating San Diego City middle schools in low-income communities to teach students the value of higher education, career options, necessary high school coursework, the college application and admissions process, and financial aid.
It’s a job he relishes. “I have yet to feel like I’ve had a day’s work,” Davis said.”Sid SalazarA Pioneer in Doctoral Education
SDSU’s May 2010 Commencement included a first—the inaugural cohort of California State University students to graduate with Ed.D. degrees in educational leadership. Among them was Sid Salazar, assistant superintendent for instructional support services for the San Diego Unified School District.
Previously, if Salazar had wanted a doctoral degree in education, he would have had to enroll in one of the CSU programs offered jointly with a private university or in partnership with the University of California.
But in 2005, President Stephen Weber and other CSU presidents successfully advocated for Senate Bill 724, which authorized the CSU to offer independent graduate level instruction leading to an Ed.D. degree. Of the 100-plus CSU students who received Ed.D. degrees in 2010, about a quarter studied at SDSU.
“The degree is a perfect vehicle to put theory into practice,” said Salazar, who was a vice principal and principal in the Sweetwater Union High School District before moving to San Diego Unified. “We studied the whole gamut of education; not only curriculum and instruction, but also leadership and the kind of effective leadership needed in education.”
Now, school district administrators throughout the country regularly consult Salazar on how to bring about collaborative change. “In these challenging budget times, leadership truly does matter,” he said.Gail RobertsSeeding the Arts in San Diego
With the 2010 opening of the SDSU Downtown Art Gallery in the Electra Building at Broadway and Kettner Blvd., SDSU is even more firmly anchored at the nexus of San Diego’s lively art community. The gallery is a changeable canvas for the work of SDSU’s alumni, students and faculty.
Faculty like Gail Roberts, emeritus professor of art and recipient of the 2010 San Diego Art Prize. Roberts’ work has been praised for depicting the “beauty, fragility and transitory nature of our environment.” She has completed public art commissions at the Chicago Public Library, Lux Art Institute and the San Diego International Airport, and has been selected to paint President Stephen Weber’s official portrait.
During 35 years teaching at SDSU, Roberts has worked to connect student artists to the larger art community. She organizes field trips to artists’ studios; encourages students to attend museums and galleries; and urges them to show their work in regional exhibitions. She frequently invites artists, critics, curators and other arts professionals to lecture on campus.
“In my role as a professor, I emphasize the importance of being actively involved in the arts community. The SDSU Downtown Art Gallery established during Dr. Weber’s tenure s another natural segue between campus and community.”Jack and Dee Dee KlunderA Top-choice University
San Diego State has always been a popular choice for college-bound students, but recent demand for undergraduate admission has soared, pushing SDSU into the ranks of the nation’s most selective universities.
A reputation for academic excellence and top-notch professors, plus rich opportunities in research, international study and community service, helped draw more than 61,000 undergraduate applications for fall 2010.
Probably no family better represents Aztec admissions fever than Jack and Dee Dee Klunder’s homegrown booster club.
Jennifer and Kristin Klunder, both recruited to play soccer for SDSU, graduated in 2007 and 2008, respectively. While visiting her sisters, Kerry Klunder fell in love with San Diego State. She’s now majoring in liberal studies.
Students like Kerry choose SDSU for its academic distinction, internship programs and rich student life opportunities.
Meanwhile, her parents’ attachment to the university has grown out of their positive experiences as advisory board members of Aztec Parents, a group that supports university programs benefiting students.
“Most colleges want parents to be hands off,” said Jack Klunder, “but not SDSU.” And Dee Dee adds, “The more time we’ve spent n campus, the more we have appreciated the warmth of all the staff. We are not alumni, but we feel like we are.”Nathaniel DonnellyA National Model for Veterans
Former U.S. Marine Sgt. Nathaniel Donnelly is one of the 1,041 veterans and active-duty military currently enrolled at San Diego State University, and his story more than justifies SDSU’s reputation as one of our nation’s most veteran-friendly campuses.
Donnelly spent eight years in the Marines, culminating with a tour of duty in Iraq. When he came home, he decided to start college. After transferring to SDSU in 2006 to pursue a major in international security and conflict resolution, Donnelly plunged headfirst into veterans’ issues, working at the campus Veterans Center, founding the SDSU Student Veterans Organization (SVO) and co-founding the Student Veterans of America.
Since graduating, he’s been pursuing an MBA in international business while also working fulltime as SDSU’s veterans coordinator. “SDSU definitely changed my life,” Donnelly said.
San Diego State has drawn widespread recognition, even White House kudos, for its services for veterans, which include help in obtaining federal educational benefits, as well as psychological counseling, disabled students assistance, a Troops to College scholarship fund and the first student veterans residence in the country. SDSU is also one of three pilot campuses to host a Veterans Administration representative on site.
“We have a very robust and diversified veterans’ support system,” Donnelly said. “We pretty much do all we can to facilitate veterans’ lives.”Nancy MarlinGateway to the World
San Diego State is a leader in international education, ranking third in California and 22nd nationally in the number of students—1,835 at last count—studying abroad. An equal number of international students
currently attend SDSU.
It wasn’t always that way. SDSU’s transformation into a global university began as one of five goals identified in the campus-wide Shared Vision process initiated by President Stephen Weber shortly after his arrival.
Weber entrusted the globalization of San Diego State to his new provost, Nancy Marlin, who had always seen study-abroad opportunities as fundamental.
“For the world in which our students will be living and working, we cannot provide a quality education without an international experience,” she said.
Marlin took a faculty-first approach, establishing the Office of International Programs, directed by Alan Sweedler, and enlisting faculty to help develop a wide variety of study-abroad opportunities. To date, 26 degree programs require an international component.
“We’ve deeply embedded international experience within the academic fabric of the university,” Marlin emphasized. “It’s not just an added outside activity.”
Students return from study-abroad experiences transformed, Marlin said, having gained understanding of another culture and new perspective on their own way of life. “They learn there’s no one way.”
Paris JohnsonA Destination for Talented Student-Athletes
Paris Johnson could have played basketball almost anywhere. A two-time San Diego County Prep Player of the Year, she was recruited by dozens of colleges. But Johnson wanted to stay at home and play for the Aztecs. Now a senior, she is among the top five scorers in program history.
For Johnson and many other SDSU student-athletes, 2010 was a very good year. After an 8-4 season, the football team competed in a bowl game for the first time since 1998.
The men’s basketball team broke into the AP top 25—and then the top four—for the first time ever. The women became Mountain West Champions and Sweet Sixteen contenders at the end of the 2009-2010 season.
New facilities have helped tennis, softball, water polo, swimming and diving coaches to attract and recruit better athletes for their teams.
Ten years ago, no one would have predicted this turn of events. Some had called for SDSU to abandon Division I sports altogether. But President Stephen Weber stayed the course. He knew that given time and the right coaching staff, the Aztecs could become champions again, and that aspiring young athletes would vie for the chance to wear red and black.
Paris Johnson is living proof of his conviction. “It’s an honor to play for my hometown fans, and an honor seeing President Weber at so many of our games,” Johnson said. “He is a big supporter.”Ignatius Nip and Stephanie OpdyckeIncubator for Student Research
Senior Stefanie Opdycke can tell you exactly what motivated her to join a university research team as an undergraduate student at SDSU.
It was assistant professor Ignatius Nip’s analysis of the interaction between facial movements and speech/language development using the same “motion capture” technology that transfers actors’ expressions to computer-generated film characters.
Opdycke, a speech, language and hearing sciences major taking Nip’s anatomy class, was fascinated by the fusion of Hollywood high-tech with her chosen field of study. Now she is working as Nip’s lab manager and looking forward to graduate school.
“I have to credit Dr. Nip’s research lab,” she said. “It’s given me a taste of being a grad student and helped me see what options grad school can give me.”
That early glimpse of career possibilities is a prime reason San Diego State emphasizes research experiences as fundamental to undergraduate education.Nip believes first-hand involvement in the research process also gives students the understanding they’ll need to evaluate and apply future studyresults on the job.
“I can’t think of a singlelab in our department that doesn’t involve undergrads in research,” he said. “That culture is here. We encourage it.”Alex ArenaRecord Graduation Rates
While hundreds of four-year institutions watched their graduation rates decline in recent years, San Diego State has seen its rate take off in an upward direction. A recent survey of nearly 1,400 four-year institutions by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows SDSU leading all other public research universities in graduation rate increases from 2002 to 2008 with a rise of 17 percentage points. Four universities tied for second with 12-point increases.
This achievement is no accident. In his first year as SDSU president, Stephen Weber initiated campus-wide discussions about student retention that resulted in new programs to support undergraduate success. Now standouts like Alexander Arena are helping to push graduation rates even higher.
A sophomore in the Honors Program with a 3.68 GPA, Arena is on track to graduate in four years with a degree in biochemistry. And he’s taking advantage of the many opportunities SDSU has to offer—such as study abroad at Oxford University and participation in undergraduate laboratory research.
How does the young Arena manage to do it all? With meticulous time management and the knowledge that his rigorous SDSU education is laying the groundwork for a future in medicine.Ben ErpeldingPutting Knowledge to Work
There’s a reason San Diego State is so proud of its alumni. They are changing the world. Consider just one example. San Diego native Ben Erpelding is director of engineering for Optimum Energy, LLC, a start-up firm with a novel approach to energy efficiency. The company’s software streamlines air conditioning operations in commercial buildings, yielding energy savings up to 60 percent.
Since 2007, Erpelding has helped grow Optimum Energy’s staff by more than 300 percent. His innovative efficiency solutions have drawn industry kudos. Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine named him among 40 top engineers under 40 for 2010.
Erpelding has also worked as engineering manager for the nonprofit San Diego Regional Energy Office, where he effected a 16 percent decrease in energy consumption in San Diego County-owned buildings—that’s nearly $2 million in annual savings.
Erpelding earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from SDSU, completing his studies in 2003. By that time, he’d conducted more than 100 energy audits of local companies as a student intern.
SDSU alumni like Erpelding aren’t household names, but they are skilled at applying the practical and the theoretical knowledge they’ve gained on campus to improve the world we share.Amanda PascoeSupporting the Community
Community service is fundamental at San Diego State, a part of the university’s mission since its inception in 1897, and never more evident than in the past decade and a half.
So it’s not surprising that SDSU won the fall 2010 “Colleges Rock Hunger” food drive, a competition among the region’s campuses designed to fill the San Diego Food Bank, which now serves 340,000 residents.
Led by Amanda Pascoe, Associated Students vice president of finance, SDSU contributed 18,841 pounds of food, easily eclipsing other universities. “I think it really says something about San Diego State that the campus rallied together as a whole to support the cause,” said Pascoe, who added that President Stephen Weber’s endorsement boosted the drive’s success.
A 2010 SDSU engineering graduate and first-year graduate student in bioengineering, Pascoe herself embodies Aztec community service ideals. She hopes to save lives by improving medical equipment. “For me it’s really about what can I give back.”
Sandra Millers Younger contributed to this story.