EastBay Today

Posted June 6, 2017

Life Lessons From a University President

Leroy Morishita returns home to share how he went from 
first-generation college student to leading Cal State East Bay

In a portable classroom in Sanger, California, where he attended high school, Cal State East Bay President Leroy M. Morishita recently shared a secret with approximately 40 sixth-graders at Lone Star Elementary:

“University presidents are not the smartest people in the world — there are a lot of people that work under them that are a lot smarter in different subjects,” Morishita said. “But the key is that if you know how to work with all different types of people, and if you know how to talk to all different types of people, and if you are willing to ask questions, those people will help you.”

Today, the population of Sanger (25,000) is more than double what it was when Morishita was a young student, yet the city’s demographics continue to reflect large segments of immigrants and first and second-generation families who are carving out their piece of the American dream, many of them through California farming. Sanger, a part of Fresno County, is an important contributor to the highest-producing agricultural region in the United States. However, according to data from the 2015 U.S. Census Bureau, just 13 percent of adults age 25 and over hold a bachelor’s degree.   

President Leroy Morishita and Del Rey Elementary Principal Pete Munoz and a fifth-grade class.

Which is why Morishita wanted to share his story with the students — to show them they can become anything they work hard for, beginning with attending college.

The Morishita family got their start on a 40-acre farm on Adams Avenue on the southern border of Sanger in an area called Del Rey. It was there that President Morishita’s grandfather settled after immigrating to the United States from Japan, and where his father and two uncles would eventually take over the grape vines and plum trees, and raise their three families together.  

“My father was pulled out of school in the ninth grade,” Morishita shared with the students. “My grandfather told him ‘It’s time for you to come help in the fields.’ So when I was growing up, my father said, ‘Don’t be a farmer because the work is too hard. You can’t control the weather, the market is unpredictable — go be whatever you want to be. So I grew up thinking, ‘OK, I am going to college, whatever college is.’”

But Morishita always remembered that not everyone at his alma mater of Del Rey Elementary School, where he also spoke to students from third through sixth grades, was getting the same message at home. Although he originally planned to be a lawyer, after completing his undergraduate degree in psychology at UC Berkeley, he found a passion for helping and counseling students. First he worked with elementary and middle school students, and then progressed to college students.  

“College is not cheap, but it’s worth it. And money should be the last reason not to go — there is always a way and there is always help.”

“About half of my classmates [in Sanger] were Chicano and Mexican-American,” Morishita said. “And I felt they were not being encouraged to go to college, and I didn’t think that was very fair. So every job I took, it was because I thought I could do more things for the students at the university, and eventually that’s how I decided I wanted to become a president.”

Morishita went on to obtain advanced degrees at San Francisco State and Harvard, but as he shared with the students, who shouted out dream careers such as pilot, artist, chef, engineer, lawyer, architect and of course, professional athlete, “College is not cheap, but it’s worth it. And money should be the last reason not to go — there is always a way and there is always help. I did not grow up with much money, and my parents did not go to college. I did not grow up wanting to be a president, but life takes you on a journey.”

And his advice for starting down that road?

First, broaden your talents.

“What you need to do is work hard at the things you love doing, but you also need to spend time on the things you don’t like as much,” Morishita said. “If you are good at science but not good at reading, try to find books on subjects you like and work at it. If you are not good at math, try to spend more time on that. The biggest part of your life is learning — your whole life, never stop learning. And be willing to take challenges, that is how you are going to make life fun for yourself.”

Second, strive for balance.

“When you get to college, try to find balance. Sometimes in my life, I’m very busy, so I don’t have the best balance all of the time, but you should work hard, study hard and make sure you get some sleep.”

Third, learn to work with other people.

“That’s one of the most important things that helped me get to where I am. You can never be successful all by yourself. Think about your community, your church, your teachers — people have helped me all along my career. Be appreciative of your teachers and open to mentors, colleagues and all the other people who can advise you and support you on your path.”  

Fourth, have fun.

“When my friends ask me how work is going, they don’t say ‘How is your job?’ They ask me, ‘Are you still having fun?’ because they all know how important that is to me. I have had fun in every job I’ve ever had, and I have been very fortunate in my life that I have always felt that I made a difference.”

And finally: 

“Be a good person. Dream big — never settle, whether it’s your job, your education or the person you marry. Reach to the stars.”

 How Well Do you know president morishita? 

President Morishita answered dozens of questions from third through sixth-graders at elementary schools in the Central Valley, including at his alma mater Del Rey Elementary School.

On a recent trip to speak with elementary school students in his hometown of Del Rey and also in Sanger, California, Cal State East Bay President Leroy Morishita was plied with dozens of questions from third through sixth-graders. The students wanted to know everything about President Morishita from his favorite type of shark (“I try to stay away from sharks, so I guess I don’t have one? Maybe a San Jose Shark.”) to the best thing he’s ever done in his life (“Marry my wife, Barbara.”). That got us thinking — how well do you know your president? Questions courtesy of Lone Star and Del Rey Elementary students.

Favorite sport: Basketball

Favorite basketball team: Golden State Warriors

Favorite football team: San Francisco Forty-Niners 

Favorite baseball team: Oakland A’s. “It used to be the Giants, but I raised my two sons in Oakland and we always went to A’s games while they were growing up, so that became their team and now it’s my favorite too.”

Dream car: Tesla Model S

Favorite ice cream: Dark chocolate

Favorite elementary teacher: Mrs. Booth, third grade. “I think I was one of her favorites too — she never exactly said so, but I know she really liked me. She believed in me, and that is why I loved her more than any other teacher.” 

Hobbies: Sudoku. “My best hobby was playing basketball. I collected stamps for a while, I tried coins. I play golf sometimes, but I’m not very good. I’m not sure if you can call Sudoku a hobby, but I’m very busy so I don’t have too many hobbies. Fortunately, my wife, Barbara, makes sure we spend time with friends or go to the theater once in a while.”

Do you miss living in Sanger: “I miss the people very much.”

Favorite colors: “Red, black and white? Those are Cal State East Bay’s colors, so I’ll go with that.”

What’s the hardest part of your job: “The hardest part is that everybody doesn’t succeed — that not all of our students graduate. I would love to see every single one of them graduate, or just to know that if they do not graduate, that they’re successful in what they want to do.”

What do you love the most about your job: “Two things — the first is commencement. I get to shake hands with every graduate. This year, I’ll shake more than 4,000 hands. And all the students’ families come and they are so excited to see their family member graduate. The second best day is when we have welcome day and the new freshman and transfer students come to the university and I get to welcome them.”

What was your worst day at work: “It hasn’t happened yet because I’m still there. I’m at an age where I could retire, but I’m too busy and we’re doing too many great things and I’m having too much fun.”

Advice for applying to college: “I’d love to have all of you at Cal State East Bay, but visit as many colleges as you can. It’s important to look at a lot of options and go on tours and visit campuses. But hopefully someday we’ll see you at my university.

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