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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

PROFILE–Omero Suarez

Leading the Way His Life Changed By a Farm Accident, Omero Suarez Has Blazed A Trail Through Higher Education

When Omero Suarez first became chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in October 1998, the district was in trouble.

The environment was beset with internecine strife. Funding was tight, and the two colleges fought over every penny. In the middle of all the bad words on both sides, the previous chancellor was asked to retire early, Suarez said.

Today, the two-campus district is united in its struggle for more funding. New buildings are going up, the administrative work has been streamlined and local business is working with the colleges to create new curriculums to meet the needs of tomorrow’s work force.

Jim Austin, vice chancellor of business services, said everyone appreciates the work Suarez has done.

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“It’s been a huge difference since he came into this district,” Austin said. “He has a very open-door policy; he’ll go anywhere to meet with anybody with a question. People are willing and comfortable to talk with him directly.”

This is a long way for a man who came from a family of migrant workers. The fourth of 10 children, Suarez was born into a household where no English was spoken.

But his parents were determined their children would get the best possible opportunities in life. They settled in western Nebraska when Suarez was 4 years old, and he got a solid education in the public school system.

He quickly learned English and did well in school. But he gave little thought to continuing his education beyond high school.

“I fully anticipated that I would go off and be a farmhand, and I’d work at a farm somewhere,” he said.

Life Changed By Accident

All that changed when Suarez was 16, during the summer before his senior year.

“I worked in a cattle feed lot that fed 50,000 head of cattle for the market,” he said. “I volunteered to run a machine that I did not know how to handle properly one Sunday when the person responsible didn’t show up.”

The machine was a barley and corn roller, which used two rollers to crush the grain. In his haste to operate the machine, he got the three middle fingers of his right hand caught between the rollers. The tips of the fingers were severed at the joint, he said.

Lying in the hospital bed, Suarez quickly rethought his priorities.

“I felt that I could not be a fully participating male in that kind of environment, working hard,” he said. “I decided to develop my mind instead of my back.”

In his senior year, Suarez began reading voraciously and started taking the most challenging courses available. He also looked into applying for college.

Suarez was the first person in his family to continue his education. He then turned around and motivated his five younger brothers and sisters into going to college too.

Encouraged To Go Farther

Suarez got his bachelor’s degree at Chadron, a small college in northwestern Nebraska. He then spent the next four years as a teacher.

He went on to earn his master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling from the University of Nebraska, and from that went on to become an associate dean at Adams State College in Colorado.

He liked it so much that people encouraged him to get his doctorate. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in education administration and a minor in bilingual education.

In 1981, he became the administrator for a college in New Mexico that was in the process of being built. The Valencia campus of the University of New Mexico opened in 1986, and Suarez stayed until 1989.

He spent the next nine years at colleges in East Los Angeles and then Chicago , which he enjoyed, but felt the winters were “too harsh.” In 1998, he came to Grossmont College.

Suarez said he was glad to come back to California.

“California is very dynamic, changing rapidly. The needs are so great for education, and I’ve always been a firm believer that education is the key to not only personal advancement, but also interacting to each other as people. In the absence of education, you have chaos.”

Turning Chaos Around

Once he realized the chaos the East County college district was in, Suarez immediately pushed for radical reform. He got the two campuses to unite in the pursuit of additional money from the state, rather than continue fighting with each other.

Suarez saw that funding for community colleges relies on a pre-Proposition 13 formula, which means some districts were shortchanged. West Kern Community College District gets $7,500 per full-time student, while Grossmont-Cuyamaca, 65th out of 71 districts statewide, gets $3,200.

Suarez lobbied the state Legislature last year, and they agreed to study the issue, forming the California Community College Funding Task Force, of which Suarez is a member.

Suarez also streamlined paperwork and procedures, making sure that both campuses use the same enrollment forms and that the basic courses have the same standards.

Suarez also pushed aggressively to create a roundtable discussion between his college, local high schools, and local businesses. As co-chair of the Partnership for Education and Economic Development for the East County Economic Development Council, he is reviewing local “career clusters” to refine the curriculum so it meets business and industry needs.

And now, the district is leaping into the future.

New construction on campus is outfitting older buildings with new roofs and retrofitted them to fit modern codes. Fiber-optic lines are also being installed in anticipation of new technology, and seven new buildings are going up at the two campuses.

This will help the district absorb the expected growth as more people move into the area. Grossmont will grow from 16,000 students to 20,000 in the next few years, while Cuyamaca will grow from 7,000 students to 15,000.

“That’s an awful lot of students, and they’re going to swell our institutions,” Suarez said.

Like Suarez, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District has come a long way , and Omero Suarez led it there.


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