Experience fortifies leadership

Equity, human rights influence perspective


Cody Casares / The Advocate

NSAS Dean Ghada Al-Masri aims to be an educational resource for students and faculty. Dr. Al-Masri conducted research in Lebanese refugee camps after the 1974-1990 Lebanese Civil War.

By Roxana Amparo, Associate Editor

She was invited into the homes of refugees living in Beirut City, Lebanon eight years after the 1974-1990 Lebanese Civil War ended, while researching how Filipina and Sri Lankan domestic workers were treated and the impact the war had on families there.

She learned about the traumatic experiences children, families and neighborhoods endured during 16 years of war. 

“I remember walking through the alleys. There was so little space that you didn’t realize you were in the (refugee) camps because there was so much poverty. People sat on the ground and slept on the floor.” 

While working on earning her master’s degree in anthropology from UC Davis’ School of Social Sciences in 1998, Contra Costa College’s Dean of Natural, Social and Applied Sciences Ghada Al-Masri was able to return to Lebanon, her place of birth,  to research the living conditions of the Lebanese refugees.

Dr. Al-Masri, who received her Ph.D. in geography from UC Davis in 2007,  was hired from outside of the Contra Costa Community College District last summer to oversee the NSAS Division.

Prior to taking that position here, she was a student equity analyst at Sacramento City College in 2014-15, as part of its Student Equity Committee, focused on serving the educational needs of college students regardless of their social, educational, ethnic or cultural background, sexual orientation, gender, age or disability.

Her job was to help the entire Sac City community learn how to support college goals, outcome measures and information related to suggestions to improve overall student success.

She is now part of CCC’s Equity Task Force focusing on equalizing academic success across all student populations. 

As an example, equity funds set aside for Per Ankh Academy, which Al-Masri oversees, are used to enhance  the educational and cultural experiences of CCC African-American students, helping this targeted population.

Developing her role as dean

With a teaching background, Al-Masri has a deeper understanding of what professors do in the classroom, astronomy professor Jon Celesia said.

He said her experiences help her understand what students and faculty need to be able to work effectively and efficiently in the classroom.

Al-Masri said, “This (NSAS) division is not about me at all. It is about the faculty. They are on the frontlines with the students.”

When she arrived on campus last summer, she took it upon herself to form connections with students and faculty to create a better learning and working environment. 

NSAS Administrative Assistant  Maritza Guerrero said Al-Masri cares about the people she serves.

“She always wants to make sure the students are well off and has conversations with them. She will address the concerns of students in confidentiality so they feel comfortable with who they are trusting.”

When Al-Masri first arrived at the college, Celesia said, “It was scary with a new dean. But we’ve been very pleased, and I think everyone agrees.”

Al-Masri said her commitment to students is ingrained in what she does on a daily basis as dean.

She said, “Education is never a waste. You can have a lot of things taken away from you, but no one can take (away) your education.”

She came from a family where her mother’s biggest accomplishment was receiving a seamstress certificate from the Singer Corporation manufacturing factory in Lebanon, which was seen as the “highest achievement” in the family.

Al-Masri said even though it didn’t seem like a lot, it was something that made them proud. But she knew she wanted to aim higher.

Her mother was taken out of school and denied an education while in fourth grade. “She never got an opportunity (to get an education) and that’s why she pushed it in me,” Al-Masri said.

She said her mother was a big influence in shaping her identity as a woman.

Al-Masri said her mother said to her, “You’re born with a disability, like a bird with a broken wing.” She said that was her way of telling her daughter that this is a man’s world; a patriarchy, and to overcome barriers caused by being a woman, she had to compensate through education.

“Education is a path to helping people not be refugees,” she said.

Al-Masri and her family were living in Santa Ana, California in February of 1974 when she was 4 and half years old.

When she was 6 years old, she was beginning to understand what her father meant when he urged her to learn English at school while she was young.

She said she remembers her father restricting her from speaking Arabic, their native language, in their home after having to retake kindergarten for not understanding English.

“I kept getting mixed up with Arabic. The English numbers looked like Arabic letters,” she said. “I was not supposed to speak any of the first languages I had learned. The problem was that my mother only knew Arabic.”

So, in order for Al-Masri to grasp the English language, she was forbidden to speak Arabic at home.

Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Grants and Metas Program Director Mayra Padilla said Al-Masri’s experiences help her relate to students who come from similar backgrounds of poverty and having to immigrate to a different country, leaving their homeland behind.

Dr. Padilla said previous deans have not been as insightful about a lot of information about Latinos and their backgrounds and struggles while at a community college. She said Al-Masri came to the college aware of the challenges these students face.

Al-Masri said students don’t recognize that they have the opportunity to get an education. She said even she didn’t recognize that she was given the chance to receive a great education while an undergraduate student at UC Irvine.

She said students sometimes blame themselves for failing a class without considering factors that may limit their success, like their lives at home, relationships and transportation issues.

She said professors may not be teaching in ways that students feel comfortable learning.

First-hand experiences shape perspective

Al-Masri said her perception on education shifted when Liisa Malkki, her anthropology professor at UC Irvine while an undergraduate in 1992, inspired her to look at things differently.

Malkki’s research project was on Hutu exiles from Burundi and Rwanda taking refuge in Montreal and other parts of Canada after the genocide in the African Great Lakes region.

Al-Masri said she was interested in the various ways people become refugees.

As an associate professor for global studies at Marymount University in Rancho Palos Verdes, prior to taking a job in the California community college system, Al-Masri visited the United Nations in New York City with 18 students representing a nongovernmental organization at U.N. meetings on food, agriculture and world hunger.

When working in the political science department at Marymount from 2010-13, she said she realized she wanted to work in a position that supported faculty in and out of their classrooms.

“It was so natural for me. I came to understand that if it doesn’t feed back to the community it comes from, it should feed back into it.”

Padilla said Al-Masri’s experiences also help her see how a college’s policies and procedures will impact its most vulnerable students.

She said Al-Masri has a strong sense of social justice and understands that equity does not mean treating every student the same, but means treating people in unique ways that will help them succeed.

She said she advocates for students’ necessities, such as an emergency grant from equity funds to help students with book loans, daycare, food and transportation costs.

Al-Masri said she wants to make sure she is a resource for faculty and if she doesn’t know something she will find an answer.

“Faculty and students see her as an ally,” Padilla said.

Making herself available for faculty and students’ educational needs, Al-Masri said teaching is something she loves.

Electronics Technician Jeffrey Kamalian, who works in the NSAS Division, said deans are meant to support faculty and students.

He said Al-Masri is focused on the important material needed to be covered during division meetings.

“She is conscientious about campus procedures and always appears to be on point,” he said. “It is hard to find that.”

The priority she gives to students and faculty allows her to form connections with those she is serving. She said she wants to help students succeed not only by helping them recognize their educational challenges, but also by helping them figure out how to overcome those challenges.

Al-Masri said she cares about the students she serves and wants to impact the college at least “a little.”

“I was always an outsider,” she said.

She and her family fled Lebanon just prior to the beginning of its civil war and took refuge in Mexico City in December of 1973. Al-Masri came to the U.S. at the age of 4.

“Mexico gave me and my family status. And I remember being smuggled through the U.S. border,” she said.

“I was a refugee.”