Meet This Year’s Distinguished Alumni
A national minority health advocate and an Olympian are among the 2017 honorees
Each year, Cal State East Bay nominates and selects one special alumni from each of our four colleges to accept the university ’s highest honor: the Distinguished Alumni Award. This year, we are proud to introduce the 2017 recipients, who exemplify the service to others, commitment to excellence in their professions, care for community, and dedication to giving back to Cal State East Bay that are at the root of the awards.
Meet our 2017 Distinguished Alumni:
COLLEGE OF BUSINESS AND ECONOMICS
Tessie Guillermo (B.S. ’80, Economics): National leader and advocate for the health and economic development of minority communities
one of seven girls growing up in a low-income, immigrant family in the Bay
Area, alumna Tessie Guillermo’s parents taught her there were more important
symbols of wealth than money.
“We didn’t grow up with a lot of resources,” Guillermo says, “but my parents were very civically engaged, and so I learned from them that you have to take care of your community. They felt very, very fortunate to be able to be here in the United States and raise a family here.”
It’s a lesson that has defined her career, and in a circuitous way, brought her to Cal State East Bay. Guillermo started off as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, but transferred to then-Cal State Hayward at the urging of her sister, also an alumna.
“The biggest difference I realized was that when I was at [Berkeley], you were a student without a name,” she recalls. “When I came to Cal State East Bay, you were in the classroom with the guy or the woman who wrote the book. You got to interact on a very personal level with the educational process.”
Guillermo also says the immediacy of having access to her professors meant that she could quickly apply the lessons from her business courses to the work she had begun doing on behalf of low-income families seeking healthcare.
“I realized that rather than be a clinician, I could be an advocate for those who needed health care, and that that was just as important as being somebody who was in the exam room,” she says. “Working in that clinic led me to realize the importance of policy.”
Since then, over a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, Guillermo has been a voice for Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities at the local, regional and national levels, including serving as the founding CEO of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, the oldest and largest advocacy organization to influence policy and enhance access to healthcare within those communities. She also spent 13 years as president and CEO of ZeroDivide, which similarly advocates for Asian-Americans by improving access to technology and enhancing opportunities for economic development. And, she was appointed an inaugural member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by former President Bill Clinton in recognition of her national leadership.
Today, Guillermo, whose daughter is a Cal State East Bay alumna as well, is board chairwoman for Dignity Health, the fifth largest health system in the United States, continuing her advocacy for underserved populations.
“I think about that as I drive home — I think about what I’ve been fortunate in my life to achieve,” she says. “And I hope now, that as I begin to retire, that others understand that we all have a contribution to make. The generations that come after me, the generations that came before me, they’re opportunities for learning. They’re opportunities for humility, because obviously the problems that I worked on 20 years ago in many ways remain and are more complex. We don’t ever finish. And so that’s why it’s important for us to always try to achieve, and to always think about who do we care about, why do we care about them and what are we going to do about it.”
College of LETTERS, ARTS, and SOCIAL SCIENCES
Keith Carson (MPA ’78): Civic and government leader and public servant
If you ask alumnus and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson how he got into politics, he’ll tell you it wasn’t so much a choice as a birthright.
“I was born in [Berkeley], which has been politically active for a long time,” Carson says. “But I was also born at the time of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam movement, and so I got consumed in terms of wanting to make a difference and wanting to make a change in my community. That’s really what got me.”
Carson, who completed his Master of Public Administration at the university when it was called Cal State Hayward, has been serving 1.6 million constituents in Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont and portions of Oakland for nearly 25 years. His advice for a life in politics?
“You have to realize you’re actually a public servant, Carson says. “I think it was JFK who said, ‘To whom much is given much is required.’ I feel I’ve been blessed and I need to pay it forward and give back. I need to remember that I’m a servant of the people and I have to keep that in perspective. That’s fundamental to me and hopefully it’s fundamental to anyone who goes into public service.”
In addition to several committees and organizations, Carson is president of the California State Association of Counties and chair of the East Bay Economic Development Committee, whose mission is to establish the East Bay as a world-class destination for economic opportunity. But there’s one project that stands out for the supervisor that has been more personally transformative than any other in his career: No More Tears at San Quentin prison, which empowers inmates with a self-assessment tool that identifies their areas of strength and weakness, and creates a path to reintegration with society.
“The takeaway is that I feel like I could have been one step removed from being in their place,” Carson says. “Most of the people [in San Quentin] have not said ‘I’m innocent,’ they’ve said, ‘I committed a crime’ … It’s been surprising, the level of awareness. It’s emotional for everyone who enters.”
Despite almost four decades having passed since his time at the university, Carson shares that the lessons he learned in Hayward still inform his decisions today.
“The foundation that started me in the body of politics was really laid at Cal State East Bay,” he says. “And now I have the opportunity to play out those fundamentals as an elected member of the Board of Supervisors of Alameda County. I’d like to say thank you to Cal State East Bay for the honor, but also for opportunity and the learning I received. Thank you for what I learned through the process of going to that institution. I hope that many more people come through the door there that leave and make positive contributions to our community, in whatever field they choose.”
COLLEGE OF EDUCATION AND ALLIED STUDIES
Marilyn King (B.S. ’73, Physical Education), Olympic athlete, educator, thought leader and global peace advocate
For world-class athlete and alumna Marilyn King, a two-time Olympic competitor and holder of five national titles and a world record, the most critical component of sport performance has little to do with the body. It’s a matter of thinking — Olympic thinking to be exact.
“As I entered my winter training (for the 1980 Moscow games) my car was hit from behind by a truck,” King recalls. “It was a small accident … and I thought I’d be fine next week, next week, next week — and I kept not getting better.”
Faced with a limited timeframe and unable to practice, she began watching hundreds of hours of competition footage and standing on the track, visualizing herself performing pentathlon events. Seven months and a novocaine injection later, King placed second at the Olympic trials, beating out athletes she says were younger, faster and more talented. Of course, America famously boycotted the Russian games so King did not make a third Olympic appearance, but the experience convinced her to take her life in a new direction.
“I quit my coaching position at Berkeley and started to explore how do ordinary people like me do something that’s impossible? So that’s where Olympian thinking came from,” she says.
The exploration and sharing of Olympic thinking has since become King’s life work. She has been featured in numerous articles and books, appeared on television, and taught children, teachers and businesses how to reach their goals by harnessing the power of a three-step thought process.
But it’s the application of Olympic thinking to the goal of peace that has given King a global audience, including two speaking engagements at the United Nations.
“Being in the Olympic Village with sumo wrestlers, seven-foot basketball players, gymnasts — we were everyone, and we lived in peace," she says. “And we were more alike than we were different. These [are people from] countries that are at war, and these two guys are at the breakfast table figuring out how to say peanut butter. My vision really is about a global Olympic village where people walk around with respect and curiosity.”
As for her time at the university, it may well be the progressive education King remembers at then-Cal State Hayward, including discussions of racism and social justice in the late 60s and early 70s, that has helped develop her own forward-thinking platform.
“It was a wonderful place for me to be,” she says. “Cal State Hayward was so far ahead of the curve. There were professors there who were talking about things and engaging in conversations … I don’t know how many places those [types of] conversations were being had. They made a lot of impact on the students, a lot of impact on me.”
COLLEGE OF SCIENCE
Ruth Bley (B.S. ’82, Geology, M.S. ’88, Geology), owner of Bleyco Construction, advocate for women in business
For students, specifically women, who want to know how they can follow in the footsteps of alumna Ruth Bley, owner of the construction company responsible for the electrical and lighting on the iconic Bay Bridge, there’s no magic answer.
“It started with baby steps,” Bley says. “So as you go along, you never realize where you’re going, it’s just [that] you’re plugging away. We started with small bridges … and then the Bay Bridge is the most recognizable of all those projects, but to us it’s the same work over and over again. And as you get more experienced, you get more comfortable.”
Bley has now been at the helm of her own company, Bleyco, since 1987, and has worked on nearly every bridge in the Bay Area as well as several BART stations. She could have spent her career at her father’s construction company, where she worked while finishing her master’s degree, but instead fatefully chose to strike out on her own.
“I think I was trying to figure out what I could do on my own so that I could be in control,” Bley says.
And she’s passionate about helping more women achieve that same type of opportunity. Bley serves on the board of the Women Construction Owners & Executives, USA, and on small business councils for Caltrans, California High Speed Rail Authority and California’s Department of General Services, where she lobbies for representation of female and small-business owners in a world dominated by corporate conglomerates.
“I think women would be surprised at what they can accomplish if they actually go out and try to do it,” Bley says. “I think there’s a style of doing business that women bring to the table, and it needs to be there. And I’m hoping that we’ll see more of it.”
As for how she mounted the self-assurance to forge her own path, and how much her geology degrees are of use out on a construction site, Bley has a definitive answer.
“All of it,” she says. “Our geology department was very oriented to going out in the field … that kind of experience creates fortitude. It makes you feel that you can do something, and you can accomplish something. I think being a geology student is what created me. Taking the problem and figuring it out and going forward — even if you don’t have all of the answers, you can still gather the answers as you go forward. And [my geology studies] gave me the confidence that I could do that.”
She’s also humbly proud of that well-known bridge and the incredible impact it has made on the East Bay skyline.
“You take a little bit of possession over it, like ‘that’s my bridge!’” she says. “But I didn’t realize how spectacular it was going to be until it was finished.”