Skip to Main ContentCOE HomeSDSU Home

Search I&I News

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Inspired to Lead: Ed.D. Candidates Embrace Start of New Professional Journeys

Stills and Cataño
Karen Stills and Yolanda Cataño

As a new year draws near, the finish line has come into view for Karen Stills and Yolanda Cataño

Both candidates in San Diego State University’s Ed.D. program with a concentration in community college leadership (CCLEAD) are on track to complete their doctorates in May. Their long journeys as students are almost complete. 

But as their final semester before hooding beckons, both are celebrating the start of exciting new journeys as community college leaders. This fall, Stills was named Associate Vice Chancellor at Dallas College in Texas while Cataño was named Interim Associate Dean of Institutional Effectiveness, Equity and Student Success at Imperial Valley College.

They take on the new roles with a similar sense of purpose — one that speaks volumes about where they’ve been and how far they've come. 

For Cataño, it’s about working to support students who, like her, grew up in the shadow of the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“It's funny because being from the Imperial Valley, I think everybody wants to leave at first — I wanted to,” Cataño said. “But coming back now? I can't even explain how much happier I am. I'm back and ready to serve in a different way.” 

For Stills, it’s about paving the way for other first-generation college students. 

“I really do believe that education is a vehicle for hope,” she said. “I know that it was for me. It can influence generations beyond yourself, and I'm inspired to help others to have a choice in the kind of life that they get to live.” 

Transcending borders 

Cataño’s new position has been a very literal homecoming. She’s back in the Imperial Valley after more than a decade in San Diego — but she’s also back in her parents’ house. 

As she rides out the pandemic and completes the last of her coursework, she says she relies on her parents for emotional support frequently. And she always gets it — even in the wee hours. 

“There are times my mom will see me up at 3 in the morning, and she'll bring me a cup of coffee and say, ‘You've got this,’” Cataño said. “My mom has a fifth grade education and now a daughter at a doctorate level. I wouldn't be here without my parents and their support — those things have made this journey possible.” 

Born in the border city of Mexicali, Mexico, Cataño spent much of her childhood on both sides of the frontera, attending seven different schools. She was 13 when she moved to the U.S. for good. 

Even though she lacked stability, Cataño considers herself lucky because she had a mentor. A professor in the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program saw her potential and helped guide her toward a college education. 

But she knows many in The Valley — a rural, agricultural community — don’t have that kind of support. Now she wants her Imperial Valley College students to know that she gets it. 

“I think it's important to have someone with whom they can connect — to whom they don't have to explain what that borderland experience is like,” said Cataño, a recent recipient of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) Voices of Inclusion Award. “I want them to know that they don't have to navigate that alone. I want to create a sense of belonging on campus and validate them.” 

Defining moment 

As a high school student growing up in Shreveport, La., Stills dreamed of attending Howard University, the prestigious historically Black university. And she recalls beaming when her Howard acceptance letter actually arrived — until the moment her mother broke the news that the family couldn’t afford to send her.

“That was one of the defining moments in my life — really the first moment in my life where I realized that we were poor,” Stills says. “And my family just didn’t have the experience with college to help me access financial aid.”

But Stills will tell you that she believes everything happens for a reason. In her new role, she is now in a position to help other first-generation students seize opportunities and make the right choices for their future.

At Dallas College — which serves more than 80,000 students, 80% of whom are Black and Latinx — Stills’ responsibilities include overseeing academic advising, career services, first-year experience and academic success.

“I'm looking to increase graduation, completion and transfer for students who have historically been marginalized and are using community college as a vehicle to change their lives,” said Stills, who proudly notes that she started working at the college 18 years ago as an administrative assistant.

“If I can do it, certainly they can too,” she adds. “And I'll be there to support them.” 

Impact of CCLEAD 

Stills will tell you that in her two-plus years in the CCLEAD program, she has rarely missed a class — either virtual or in-person. Prior to the pandemic, she used to fly to San Diego at least once a month, often resulting in puzzled expressions from chatty Lyft drivers. 

“They’d always say, ‘'Wait you live in Dallas but you go to school in San Diego?’” Stills said with a laugh. 

Ultimately, she said it was CCLEAD’s unique focus on equity that made her decide to rack up so many airline miles. 

“They say they do everything bigger in Texas, but for me, San Diego State is where it's at for developing equity-minded leaders," Stills said. “In every single class, the question always centers on who is at the margins and how to create equitable approaches in everything that we do.” 

Equity is also of particular importance to Cataño, who identifies as queer and serves on the board of directors of the Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center. She says she found the diversity of her CCLEAD’s cohort particularly empowering. 

“Our cohort is not just diverse in terms of race and ethnicity — it's gender identity, background, experiences, locations, everything,” Cataño said. “Bridging all of these different experiences together is really what creates the strength of the program.”