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Sunday, September 19, 2021

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Gregorio Ponce, SDSU Imperial Valley dean
 


Consensus Builder: SDSU Imperial Valley Dean Gregorio Ponce

After six years, the valley native and first-gen success story will complete his tenure in the role.
By Padma Nagappan
 

Walking home from school, 8-year-old Gregorio Ponce would pass the university campus in Calexico. His path took him close to the grounds’ irrigation canals, where mounds of dirt trapped and redirected water channels. 

He would jump on the dirt pile and tear it down, believing that he was “freeing the captive water from its prison.” This happened for a couple weeks before a staff member caught on to him and stood guard after school.
 
The boy grew up to become first a professor and then dean of the very campus where he once played mischief-maker: San Diego State University Imperial Valley, where he began teaching in 2001. 

This August, Ponce will end his tenure after six years as dean and return to the faculty as a math educator. 

Building bridges
 
From its base in the rural low desert, SDSU Imperial Valley has seen considerable growth during Ponce’s tenure, notably with the addition of several new four-year, two-year, and graduate degree programs with record enrollment numbers.
 
Ponce is widely praised as an effective consensus builder among faculty, staff and students. It’s also what Ponce is most proud of as he looks back on his time as dean.
 
“I work to build bridges,” Ponce said. “In every position of authority I’ve had, it has always been about building, rebuilding or repairing bridges.”
 
“When I stepped in as dean, my focus was to begin the healing process from previous conflict, and open up lines of communication and get our people to work together,” he said.
 
Colleagues say he has certainly done that, and positioned SDSU Imperial Valley not only to grow and expand, but to also play a central role in the valley as a driver of economic growth and workforce development, as the only four-year degree granting public university in Imperial County.
 
“Dean Ponce has always understood that the university plays an essential role in serving as an economic engine for the valley,” said SDSU President Adela de la Torre. “Not only because of our academic programs, but because most of our SDSU Imperial Valley graduates — nurses, teachers, officers and others — remain in the community.”

 

“Through our strategic plan and additional work being conducted this summer, we now have a clearly defined plan to expand educational access in Imperial Valley,” de la Torre said. “Thanks to Ponce’s leadership, the campus is far better positioned to deliver on our shared vision. We are growing our capacity for education and innovation and working closely with partners in the valley.” 
 
Enrollment has reached an all-time high of 1,075 students for spring 2021, following the addition of four-year degree programs in criminal justice and psychology in fall 2020. SDSU Imperial Valley has always been a gateway for local transfer students but is shifting focus to encourage high school graduates to pursue a range of four-year courses.
 
“I think we can really change the face of Imperial Valley as we grow,” Ponce said. An innovation district long envisioned for the Brawley campus, which Ponce brought back into discussion for the future, “will help spark growth in public health, agriculture and entrepreneurship in the county,” he said.
 
Gifted math educator
 
Ponce joined SDSU Imperial Valley as a research methods lecturer and math education researcher focused on improving ways to teach an often difficult subject. 
 
A gift for making complex math concepts understandable led him to a career as a math educator who has had deep, lasting impacts on his students. 
 
“Having Dean Ponce as my professor was a life-changing experience,” former student Deborah Bejarano said. “His approach in first establishing positive relationships with his students by using humor and transparency immediately lowered my anxiety. I was never before supported by anyone who made me feel like I was capable of understanding math until I met him.”
 
Bejarano eventually became a math educator herself and now teaches the same course she took with Ponce years ago, having learned important pointers on how to engage students and support mathematical thinking skills — and never provide an answer to a question they could figure out for themselves. 
 
Ponce also organized 5K fundraisers for scholarships at the university, challenging students to beat him and win prizes. 
 
English professor Jeanette Shumaker has known Ponce since he joined SDSU Imperial Valley and concurs with Bejarano’s assessment.
 
“Students often told me how much they enjoyed his classes because he actually made math fun,” Shumaker said. “Gregorio is friendly, calm and humble in his interactions with students, faculty and staff.”
 
Like many faculty members at the college, Shumaker has a deep appreciation for the integrity and tact Ponce displayed as dean in dealing with challenging issues and crises. 
 
“He has had a stabilizing influence on SDSU Imperial Valley,” Shumaker said.
 
Immigrant son
 
Ponce was raised in Calexico by parents who were born in Mexico, neither of whom advanced past the sixth grade.
 
“My parents didn’t understand the U.S. educational system, so I adopted a lot of moms and dads from first grade through my doctorate to help me figure out the system,” Ponce said. 
 
Counselors helped him navigate the higher education system — through Imperial Valley College, the University of California San Diego for his bachelor’s and master’s in applied math, and the University of San Diego for an Ed.D. in educational leadership. 
 
His ties to the valley were strong, so he headed back home to begin teaching, first at Imperial Valley College and then at SDSU Imperial Valley when a serendipitous and life-changing opportunity that aligned with his math skills opened up. 
 
Ponce began volunteering as a math tutor at Imperial Valley College because a woman he was interested in, Laura, needed help. The two later married. Soon recognizing his gift for teaching math, Ponce embarked upon it as a career. 
 
Ponce has spent his entire career in the valley and is now looking forward to returning to teaching. 
 
“Helping others teach math differently really speaks to me,” Ponce said. “And that’s where my energy will go once I return to faculty.”