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Dancing With Change: Alumna Judy Sakaki ’91

Sweeping up popcorn off the floor and restocking shelves seemed like a good first job for GSE alumna Judy Sakaki ’91 when she was in high school. It was an entry-level position and her high school counselor suggested she might even have a career in retail sales. Plus, it allowed her to leave school early. 

“So I actually thought she was doing me a favor because I didn’t have to take an extra science class,” Sakaki says. “What I really noticed one night at that J.J. Newberry’s was that the women who were trying to get me oriented there were all women of color in their 40s, 50s and 60s and it made me pause for a moment to think whether I could do this all my life.”

Before graduating high school, Sakaki happened upon a college outreach counselor who encouraged her to pursue a post-secondary education. It changed her trajectory forever. 

Today, sitting in the Office of the President at Sonoma State University, Sakaki reflects on three principles she held during her winding educational and professional journey that have guided her to her current position: be open, lift as you climb, and dance with change.

“It’s interesting to think about how things unfold. And that’s why I tell people to be open – just be open because you don’t know where your path ends,” says Sakaki, who earned her PhD in education from the GSE.

“I certainly didn’t have in my head, even when I was in college, that I wanted to be a university president,” Sakaki says with an easy laugh.

Being Open

At every turn of her educational pursuits, remaining open to possibilities and opportunities proved to be fruitful. 

She entered California State University, Hayward (now CSU East Bay) planning to major in human development on her way to becoming a preschool teacher. Later, after deciding she wanted to work with adolescents and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in hand, she couldn’t find a job as high school counselor. 

A friend mentioned that college freshmen aren’t so different from high school seniors and suggested that Sakaki consider becoming an outreach counselor. Heading back to CSU East Bay, this time as a staff member in the Student Academic Services office, Sakaki found her place.

She visited high schools throughout the San Francisco East Bay and found herself drawn to schools with concentrations of ethnic minority students, many of whom were first generation college students – just like herself. 

“That outreach job was the perfect start for me because I credited so much of who I was becoming with the opportunity to go to college,” Sakaki says. “I’ve been focused all of my career on issues of access, affordability, and support for public education because I am a product of it.”

Lifting as She Climbs

Her professional career has spanned both the CSU system (Hayward, Fresno, and the Office of the Chancellor) and the UC system (Davis, Berkeley, and the Office of the President), and always focused on student services. 

“This is such a gift – public education. And it’s so life-changing,” Sakaki says. “All of the public education I had, in each segment, there was one person who took a special interest in me. I keep saying it: one person can make a difference in another person’s life.”

She received mentorship from each college president and chancellor for whom she worked, and from many colleagues, each of them supporting her professional development and leadership. Even as her administrative career was on the rise, she remained committed to working with and lifting students.

Aristide J. Collins, Jr. was one such student. Sakaki was executive director of student services at CSU East Bay, and Collins was ready to start his career, feeling as if college was slowing him down.

“She was the person who was most responsible for me getting into and through college,” says Collins, now the vice president and secretary of The George Washington University where he is also a lecturer in Higher Education Administration.

“Judy had it before there was a name for it: emotional intelligence. She cares deeply about people. You can tell that when you meet her. She never meets a stranger,” Collins says. 

Sakaki and Collins together developed a plan for balancing his work and studying; and she opened his eyes to different careers in higher education while constantly reminding him that challenges are also opportunities. 

“She’s always talked about working hard, honoring your family, and things will come and you may not be ready for it but she always said, `don’t be afraid,’” Collins says. “I’m just one of hundreds of students she helped. She didn’t have to because she was the director and could’ve had staff do it. But she did it. She’s phenomenal people.”

Dancing with Change

What made Sakaki’s message so powerful and motivating for Collins and others is that it is also authentically hers.

A native of Oakland, Calif., Sakaki has long roots in public education. Her grandmother, who was a picture bride, and her grandfather immigrated to California from Japan. Sakaki’s mother had recently graduated from Oakland Technical High School, and her father from a high school in San Francisco, when the United States entered World War II. 

“My parents didn’t have the chance to go to college. Right out of high school they went to internment camps,” she says, referring to Executive Order 9066, which required the evacuation of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Sakaki's family was placed in Topaz, Utah, one of 11 internment camps, for the duration of the war. 

Sakaki attended public schools in Oakland, and public colleges in California. In her years working at CSU East Bay, Sakaki was simultaneously earning her PhD at Berkeley, and was a single mom raising two sons. 

She fondly recalls the GSE’s Professor Emerita K. Patricia Cross, and the late Professor Paul Heist, both of whom were “extremely supportive and pushed us so hard.”

“Expectations were high, and it was transformative,” Sakaki says. Her professors encouraged her to read a policy report from the Pew Higher Education Roundtable titled “To Dance with Change.” 

The theme of change – and how to move with it – is something she has carried with her in the decades since reading the policy report. It also permeates her leadership at Sonoma State, where the previous president held the post for 24 years.

At her investiture ceremony in 2016, Sakaki told the audience: “Together if we open our hearts and minds, if we reach across the table, the aisle, the department, the division, the campus or system, if we walk across the bridge, remove any walls real or imagined, and engage in this dance of change, knowing that together is better, that collaboration and teamwork win, believing that together we can, then our students, our campus, and our community, our state and our world are beneficiaries.”

In reflecting on her first year, Sakaki, who is also the first Japanese-American woman to lead a four-year university in the United States, clearly understands the challenging financial climate of public education, and fully embraces the CSU’s system-wide effort to improve graduation rates. 

For her, it starts with the students. Sakaki holds regular walk-and-talks with students as well as periodic meetings with student government leaders. There are also impromptu meetings as she traverses campus and is stopped by students. Often times, those chats end with students pulling out their mobile phones and taking what has affectionately become known on campus as a “Selfie with Sakaki.” 

“I absolutely love it,” she says. “The student voice is so important. Even as an administrator, you don’t want to be so removed from the experience of students.” 

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. The Cal State Student Association (CSSA) awarded her the Robert C. Maxson President of the Year. The honor commends one of the 23 CSU campus presidents who reflects a commitment to the values and mission of CSSA, which includes an emphasis on student participation in shared governance.

“Although other campus presidents were recognized by their students for their stellar leadership, it was Dr. Sakaki’s compassion and human touch that set her apart this year,” CSSA President David M. Lopez said in presenting the award to Sakaki at the May 2017 CSU Board of Trustees meeting.

With just a year under her belt at Sonoma State, and as she continues to build her administrative cabinet, Sakaki envisions her legacy to be student-centric. 

“There’s been some disinvestment in public education, and I hope that we can think about how we can double down on education because it makes such a difference,” she says. “Everything that we can put into young people today will certainly pay off dividends down the road.”


Top photo: President Judy Sakaki stands in front of a display of her grandmother’s kimono (left) and her own doctorate regalia from UC Berkeley (right). The display is part of an exhibit of her life, “I Am Because…” at the Sonoma State Library. Photo by Nikki Anderson.

Middle photo: President Judy Sakaki walking through Sonoma State University. Photo courtesy of the Sonoma State Star.

Bottom photo: President Judy Sakaki chats with students. Photo courtesy of the Sonoma State Star.

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