A provost's first day: Thoughts for kicking off a new school year

Nancy Gonzales is used to tackling challenges.

She was the first in her family to earn a college degree.

She recently summited Mount Kilimanjaro in blizzard conditions.

And she learned the ropes of being executive vice president and university provost during an unprecedented pandemic.

So when she looks to the new school year, it's with eagerness for all that can be accomplished.

"It’s so exciting to see our campuses buzzing with new energy as we prepare for the start of the fall semester," Gonzales said. "Students, we cannot wait for your return in August."

Gonzales, who served as provost pro tem and worked with outgoing Executive Vice President and University Provost Mark Searle over the past school year, begins her official term July 1. She is the first ASU alum to hold the position.

She will be responsible for the Academic Enterprise — one of the three pillars that will guide ASU's efforts going forward — and will engage in all aspects of the day-to-day operations of the university as well as developing and supporting long-term strategic initiatives to drive student and faculty success. Her duties also will include advancing academic excellence through the faculty recruitment, retention and renewal processes, and growing the quality, scope and scale of both campus immersion and online programs.

Gonzales has had a 25-year award-winning career in psychology with a focus on research and outreach to communities often underrepresented in higher education in the United States. She is also a Foundation Professor of psychology and co-director of the REACH Institute at ASU, and most recently served as dean of natural sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Here, she shares her memories as an ASU student, her goals as the head of the Academic Enterprise, key takeaways from how ASU handled the pandemic, and more.

Question: What's something about yourself that will inform the way you plan to do the job of university provost?

Answer: I am inspired by the ASU Charter and the unique opportunities we have at ASU to be changemakers in higher education. We are facing unprecedented opportunities at this pivotal moment in time to impact the future through new models of learning at scale, through research and discovery on topics of vital importance for society and the planet, and through service that leverages our knowledge and resources for direct public benefit. I am excited to further build and support the Academic Enterprise at ASU to meet the many challenges we face that require new solutions.

I loved my faculty role at ASU. The privilege to architect one’s own teaching and research agenda while working alongside inspiring students and colleagues is the best job on the planet. What I always found most satisfying, and what ultimately led me to administrative roles as associate dean of faculty and then dean of natural sciences, were the opportunities to facilitate the success of others and to build effective teams to tackle challenging problems.

I’ve also had numerous opportunities to influence science and education policy through my service on boards, leadership positions and committees in my discipline, in philanthropy and for organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

I am most proud of the contributions I have made to policies that have broadened access and opportunities for populations that have been underrepresented in academia.

Q: You are the first university provost who is an ASU graduate — and you’re also the first person in your family to earn a college degree. What do these “firsts” mean to you and to ASU?

A: Earning my degree from ASU opened up a world of opportunities for my life. Just last week, I was in Kyiv, Ukraine, on behalf of ASU as we continue to open access to higher education throughout the world through the build-out of the Cintana Alliance. I can still see my younger self sitting in high school in Miami, Arizona. While I knew I wanted to go on to college then, I never could have imagined that I would someday be traveling the world on behalf of the largest research university in the United States. This is what an ASU education can do for someone who is the first in their family to earn a college degree.

At the heart of the ASU Charter is a fundamental belief that talent is not unequally distributed in the United States — it’s a lack of access to opportunities that can limit an individual's potential. While I was fortunate to grow up in a family that instilled in me the importance of an education, I was the first in my family to graduate from college. When a university measures itself on whom it includes and how they succeed, it’s outcomes like mine that you see.

I hope my role as university provost sends the following messages: To our students, I hope it inspires them to achieve their goals and continue on their path, no matter their background. To the talented faculty leading our academic mission and to the staff who support it, I hope my story serves as a point of pride in ASU. Our university truly makes an impact in the lives of our students.

Q: What priorities do you have for the university, and how do you plan on advancing them during your tenure?

A: As provost, my role is to lead the Academic Enterprise and influence the academic programs and initiatives that the university designs in the support of degree-seeking students and our faculty.

Our goal as an Academic Enterprise is to offer a portfolio of academic credentials that are designed to prepare students for success in a rapidly changing world. I will be focused on working with the colleges and schools to ensure that the academic experience for our students and faculty is of the highest quality, while remaining accessible to learners with diverse needs.

It’s my goal that we do this important work in a way that leads the university toward equity and inclusion through the new faculty we hire and the students we enroll and graduate. Having a rich and diverse academic community of scholars and students is critical to the educational experience at ASU.

While improving the reputation of our academic programs is always a priority, the success of our students is our top focus. I will be working with leaders across the Academic Enterprise on strategies to improve retention and graduation rates so that learners who embark on the ASU journey have the tools, support and network they need to accomplish their goals.

Q: We are coming off one of our most unexpected academic years in recent memory. What are some lessons from ASU’s handling of COVID-19 that you take away from the experience?

A: The past 15 months have taught us important lessons about who we are as a university community. One is a lesson of gratitude. I am grateful for and proud of my colleagues in the faculty who adapted in real time to ensure that their research could continue and that students could take their classes, regardless of their location. This took levels of creativity that I deeply respect.

I am equally grateful for and proud of our resilient students. The past year was unexpected, and the personal challenges that many of us experienced were trying. So many of our students exhibited poise, flexibility and trust in ASU.

Here’s one final important lesson that I’m reflecting on and that will inform the way I lead. During COVID-19, I was witness to daily examples of faculty, administrators and staff coming together from various parts of the university and collaborating constructively on massive challenges. The natural willingness to work together beyond the limits of an organizational chart to solve these problems is an example of why our university has the reputation for innovation that it does. I plan to lead in a way that continues to nurture this spirit of collaborative, solutions-focused problem-solving.

Q: We’re returning to Learning Mode 1 for the fall 2021 semester, with the majority of classes back in the classroom and many activities back in full swing. It’s a change many are looking forward to, since campus life is such a big part of being an on-campus student. As a Sun Devil yourself, what are some memories of campus or places on campus that are important to you?

A: Our gorgeous ASU campuses hold a special place in my heart. Palm Walk has always been my favorite view of the campus for its grandeur and the invitation it offers to enter the campus and become part of something big and exciting.

I felt that the first time I stepped onto the campus as an undergraduate student and every time since. I also appreciate Palm Walk because it has been part of the campus for as long as I can remember. It feels nostalgic, like "A" Mountain and Gammage Auditorium, where I worked as a box office manager as an undergraduate student.

Q: What are some pieces of advice you would give to students as they navigate the upcoming school year, in and out of the classroom?

A: I’ll give you two.

1. Take your interests seriously. While your time at ASU is in many ways about mastery of skills and knowledge, it is equally important that you deepen your understanding of yourself. Because there are countless career options — including many that don’t yet exist — the best way to get on a path toward a meaningful future is to explore interests by getting involved as early and often as possible. While this sounds obvious, this advice is often complicated by the expectations that others may have for you or that you have for yourself.

2. Seek out support. The college experience will be filled with amazing and less-than-amazing experiences. You will have great success as well as challenges. I want to share this to normalize it. When you experience these inevitable roadblocks, please don’t question your ability. You were accepted at ASU and you belong here. Raise your hand and tell us how we can help you. I have been a professor for much of my career, and we love teaching and building relationships with students. The ASU community is steadfast in our commitment to your success. And, those are not just words — if you feel like you don’t know where to go to seek that assistance, you can always email my team at provost@asu.edu.

Q: OK, time for some quick, get-to-know-you questions. What’s next on your book pile?

A: Two books on my pile now are "Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future" by Elizabeth Kolbert and "The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together" by Heather McGhee.

Q: Do you have any pets?

A: Our two family dogs, Ella and Louis, always make me smile and feel good — like the two jazz greats that inspired their names.

Q: Favorite spot in Arizona?

A: The many Arizona mountain trails are my favorite spot in Arizona. Whether hiking Camelback’s Echo Canyon Trail, Boynton Canyon in Sedona or the trail outside my back door, Arizona hiking offers an easy escape and stunning views that keep me inspired and grateful for the natural beauty of our state. I did a lot of hiking this past year as a break from long days on Zoom with my colleagues working to support ASU through the pandemic outbreak.

Q: Most memorable travel experience?

A: I love to connect with local culture, learn something new and challenge myself when I travel. My family’s favorite trip was to Costa Rica. With my husband and four of our then-high-school-age kids, we enjoyed Spanish language immersion and scuba lessons, spontaneously wonderful experiences with the local people and food, and at least one adrenaline-packed adventure every day. I also like to take cooking lessons when we travel to various locations as a great way to immerse myself in the local culture and markets.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News