Q&A with Alumna Laura Alamillo

Laura Alamillo, PhD '04, Dean of the School of Education at Sonoma State University since 2020. 

Laura Alamillo began her education career teaching migrant education in a San Francisco East Bay elementary school district. After earning her PhD, Alamillo began teaching at Fresno State University, where she was instrumental in building the residency-teacher preparation and graduate programs within the Department of Literacy, Early, Bilingual and Special Education. In 2018, she was named interim dean of the Kremen School of Education and Human Development at Fresno State. Her latest book, which she co-edited, “Voices of Resistance, Interdisciplinary Approaches to Chican@ Children’s Literature,” focuses on the study of children’s and young adult literature by and about Chicanos, seeking to address social transformation of Chicano Studies programs.

By way of introduction ...

I am extremely proud to work under the leadership of President Judy Sakaki, PhD '91. She is one of the 12 women Presidents in the CSU system. Her leadership in diversity, equity and inclusion is one of the main reasons I decided to come to Sonoma State. I wanted to work with a leader who valued and placed these efforts at the forefront of their work. CSU Chancellor, Dr. Joseph Castro, who is a Cal graduate, also leads with this vision.

I love Northern California, I grew up in the East Bay so I am learning more about the uniqueness of Sonoma County. I am a two-time Cal graduate. I received my BA in Political Science in 1995 then returned for my PhD in Language, Literacy and Culture. I worked with renowned scholars such as Dr. Eugene Garcia, Dr. Anne Dyson and began my early work in Chicano Discourse when Dr. Patricia Baquedano-López initiated a class focused on this topic. There were about four of us in this course and I am so proud to have learned from her. Many years later I co-edited the first collection of essays focused on Chican@ Children's Literature. My own dissertation focused on this topic. Anne Dyson was so supportive of my ideas on this area and now this field has grown so wide.

What is it about a Deanship that attracted you to the position? 

I have been able to continue my research however my focus has shifted to looking more closely at grow-your-own programs in teacher education. I think some of the best educators come from within our own communities. Teachers who are raised in the communities they serve seem to reflect the families, they seem to better understand the circumstances and approach children with an asset based lens. Their investment in the schools comes from their own experiences growing up in the very same schools they teach in. I really enjoy working with our partnership schools in meeting their needs by having critical conversations about teacher diversity and together preparing justice oriented teachers.

My previous work in teacher education at Fresno State focused on teacher residencies. This really allowed me to spend more time learning about the importance of recruiting teachers from their own community.

I am currently helping grow the North Bay Teacher Residency (NBTRP) program at Sonoma State. I work with a group of invested faculty who share a similar vision for growing teachers who go back into their community and serve families they know well. I also work with a strong group of faculty in Early Childhood Studies. The one major in my school produces early childhood professionals who have a strong commitment to justice and equity in early childhood settings. As a school, we all share a vision to prepare leaders who work in early childhood settings and implement developmentally appropriate practices.

I am committed to sharing our story at Sonoma State. We are leaders in justice oriented teacher preparation and I see my role as critical in helping facilitate conversation with potential supporters. I enjoy meeting community partners. Many are interested in hearing about our programs because many can relate to wanting quality educators for either their own children or their grandchildren. The connection is easy to make.

Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki PhD '91 is also a GSE alumna. The GSE is certainly proud of you both. How special that is for Sonoma State?

Dr. Sakaki is a big supporter of teacher education and she and I co-lead the President's Commission on Teacher Education at SSU. I think we both understand the impact we can have in this region. I see us both as role models and mentors for our students and women of color who aspire to be administrative leaders in higher education. Dr. Sakaki has fostered a welcoming environment at Sonoma State. President Sakaki made a personal connection with me when I started my deanship. She asked to meet my children. Anyone who really knows me, knows that my children are the forefront of my work. Improving education affects me also. It means a lot when someone shows an interest in my children and my family.

I describe my GSE experience as preparing me well in educational research. I left GSE with the knowledge base and most importantly the faculty helped me better understand how to lead with heart and how to better understand the complexities of classrooms. I will never forget working with Dr. Eugene Garcia in the first study looking at the implementation of Prop. 227 in California schools. I interviewed many principals and teachers who expressed a lot of frustration that they would not be able to use bilingual education in their classrooms.

Now, years later, we see that bilingual education is back in California and fortunately we have schools once again using the primary language of emergent bilingual children in classrooms. I've now seen education come full circle. Dr. Garcia's advocacy for bilingual education taught me how to use my doctoral degree for justice and action. I thank him for that. It's pretty special that GSE produced two advocates for education.

What is your vision for your College of Education? 

I am fortunate to lead a school with faculty and staff who share a similar vision. Our vision is to prepare leaders who can advance justice in schools and communities by means of education. We believe working closely with our partnership schools allows for open communication, critical discussions and provides us a sense that what we are doing meets the needs of their community. We can't do this work without the support from our community. In the past year, I have met with our partnership districts. 

Obviously the pandemic has produced more challenges in higher education and for a school of education we are also having to figure out how to prepare teachers for this upcoming year. The teachers will not be the same kind of teachers produced two years ago. This re-envisioning can only happen with constant conversations with our area schools.

What does it mean to lead in this era of a worldwide pandemic, and racial reckoning in the United States?

The racial crisis and layered on with a pandemic has only brought out a more complex level of inequities in schools. 

I am reminded of the situation in the Central Valley when the pandemic started. There were many children who did not have stable internet and I remember seeing a story of two young, Latinx sisters sitting outside of a local fast food place trying to connect to class every morning. Everyone gave accolades to these young girls for their resilience however, looking more closely, the opportunity gaps became much more apparent. The schools made great strides in looking more closely at expectations and these apparent gaps that became very clear last year. 

To lead in this current context means that we have to lead with a lens of equity and inclusivity. We can't assume that all children or families have the same access. My role as Dean means I'm an advocate for children, especially now. The SSU students have younger siblings who want to attend college as well. My role is to ensure these pathways are accessible and free of obstacles, especially now. Our curriculum should also reflect the students we serve. There is so much work to be done in this area. I am hopeful for our future though, I have to be.

How did your experience at the GSE prepared you for your current role, and what theories and practices do you still use today? 

Many of our students at SSU are First Generation college-going students. The GSE prepared me to better understand their experiences in schools by looking at their own assets, what children and families bring to schools. I will never forget when Dr. Eugene Garcia introduced us to Luis Moll's Funds of Knowledge. Moll's framework helped me better understand not only my experiences in my own community but it provided me with a tool to share with future teachers.

I was tired of hearing about dismal statistics about underserved communities. I knew it was much more complex. Moll gave me a sense of hope. I still use Moll's theory to better explain what teachers observe in homes and communities.

Is there anything else that you would like to share?

I was recently asked why I am an education school Dean. I know I can make a difference in education. I am a mentor for many students, faculty in the CSU and current education leaders in the CSU system.

I enjoy sharing my story. I am a daughter of immigrants. Both my parents came from Mexico in their elementary years. They always taught us to serve and give back. Education was key in our family and yet we never really talked about the various pathways in education. Having experienced these pathways and now establishing them, I see the importance of sharing and mentoring.