G. Gabrielle Starr, who will become the 10th president of Pomona College in summer 2017, visited campus on Feb. 14 to meet with students, faculty, and staff of the Claremont colleges. She sat down with TSL to discuss her upbringing in Tallahassee, Florida, her ideas for supporting marginalized students, and the advice she would give her 18-year-old self.
TSL: Can you talk about where you grew up and what your family was like?
GS: I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, until I was 15. My dad was a professor at Florida A&M, and my mom taught at my high school. She taught English American history, and I’m really close with my brother who’s closest in age to me; also I have a half brother. But my brother George is very funny. We have the same sense of humor which sometimes drives people crazy because then if we’re together it’s like stereo jokes.
It was great growing up in a college town, which is what Tallahassee really is, and that’s one of the things that I’m really excited about having for my kids — which is people from all over the world [coming] to a place because of the kind of educational institutions that you have. I grew up with a lot of kids from Venezuela because my father had done education work in that country and a lot of his students came from Venezuela, so I grew up playing with their kids on the playground which was really awesome.
I used to have great Spanish and I don’t now so I have to work on it again. But it was wonderful to grow up with just that kind of vibrancy around. It also was really protected because everybody looks out for each other. That’s another thing that I’m looking forward to about Claremont because it seems really [great] to have that same village-y kind of feeling.
TSL: In what specific ways did your upbringing influence the way you think of the world today and how you’ll be a college president?
GS: I think certainly the international aspect; you wouldn’t think about north Florida in general as being a place that drew a lot of people, but there are a lot of, as I said, folks from around the world. My best friend growing up, who was the daughter of a mathematician who was born in Israel, grew up in South Africa, moved to the United States, and her family mainly spoke Romanian at home, so I spent a lot of time in that household, a multi-generation household, which was really great.
So I would say that the first thing about my growing up in that sense was really learning respect for people from around the world and the things that they bring. I think that that has really shaped my sense of personal identity. So that is something that I definitely will bring with me.
My father, though I will say, had a real suspicion as a faculty member of anything to do with academic administration and I will also always take that healthy skepticism, I think, into my role as president because one of the dangers of being a college president is not everyone knows you, but everyone sees you, and so you can become a caricature really quickly.
One of my great hopes is that by continuing to interact with the community, with students and faculty members and staff, we build a sense of rapport and engagement and that’s gonna be important for me too.
TSL: [Earlier] I talked to you about how Pomona is trying to support undocumented students, immigrants, and also Muslim students in [the wake of] the election. Do you have any more thoughts about that?
GS: The thing that I am most concerned about, first of all, is continuing the commitments that Pomona has made to students. I think those are absolutely the right ones to have made. President [David] Oxtoby has shown extraordinary leadership around undocumented students but support for everyone the community is really crucial now and as we go forward but I think it’s really important that Pomona as a whole keep to what seem to me to be the fundamental values that Pomona stands for.
One, it is the kind of openness that David has brought in supporting people no matter what their immigration status may be. All the steps that have been taken since then to provide concrete support for students. I think that’s absolutely crucial. But the other part of our values that we have to hold onto is an absolute commitment to open and free discussion. There are more than two political perspectives in the world; in fact there probably is as many as there are people in the world. And one of the fundamental values that Pomona has to stand for is an open, engaged, inquiring community.
So, support for every single individual and listening to each other is gonna be crucial as the political landscape becomes yet more charged.
TSL: What would you tell your 18-year-old self if you could go back in time?
GS: You know a lot less than you think you do. That’s for sure. I thought I knew an awful lot at 18. I would say don't limit yourself. Don't let other people limit you because there will be plenty of people who will look at you and decide that they know exactly what you should do and exactly who you are and you have a long time, a lot of moments in your life to reinvent yourself.
So, don’t think that who you are at 18 is who you’re always gonna be. Take care of your friends. I think that is very important. And they will take care of you. I have friends from my first semester of college that are really important to me now, so those are big advice — bits of advice. And I also would say you can never study too much.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.