Education has always played a major role in Irma Archuleta’s life. When her grandparents crossed the Texas border from Juarez, Mexico and settled in El Paso, they brought with them an ideology that’s impressed on many Mexican-Americans: Education is the key to success.

Her mother lacked a formal higher education, and her father was taught to read and write by her mother, but even so, Archuleta excelled at school from an early age. When her family moved to Southern California from El Paso she was skipped ahead to the fifth grade and even became a helping hand at her father’s night school classes, where she would help the English instructor by doing one-on-one lessons with the adults.

“As you can see, teaching has always been part of my experience,” Archuleta said.

IrmaArchuletaBut her road that’s led to the Long Beach Community College District Board of Trustees seat she currently sits in almost never started at all. Although she was a bright and promising student at Paramount High School, and even earned the first ever Cal Grant awarded to anyone at Paramount, she nearly fell through the cracks because she was completely in the dark about the college process, including the application process.

“My generation, traditionally, was not expected to go to college,” Archuleta recalled. “We grew up in an era when we were either tracked to home economics or business if you were a woman, or if you were a male student of color, then you were tracked to the trades.”

The fact that she hadn’t even applied to college meant that the Cal Grant she had received—something that she still has framed—was worthless because she wouldn’t be able to collect any financial aid without being enrolled. In what she called a turning point both in her educational path and her path as an advocate, a representative from Compton College approached her to ask where she was attending college, and then upon hearing she hadn’t even applied, personally followed up by going to the Archuleta home and helping her fill out an application.

That experience marked her, she said.

What also left an impression on Archuleta was the amount of red tape and confusion that awaited her at UCLA after her transfer from Compton College. The school’s loss of her financial aid papers and the ensuing headache caused by being passed from department to department to try and fix the gaffe eventually led to her transferring to California State University Long Beach, where she found her home and her voice for advocacy. Upon graduating, she headed back to Paramount to help prevent other students from repeating her experience.

“The first thing I did was return back to my high school and I talked to the principal and asked if we could talk to the Mexican-American students that were there because I wanted to make sure that they didn’t miss out on an opportunity of going on to college because they didn’t have the right information,” Archuleta said. “I wanted to make sure our community had access to the information that they needed.” 

Since then, Archuleta has served in a multitude of education positions. In her 33-year career she’s worked as an instructor of political science and ethnic studies at both CSULB and El Camino College, and most recently she served as the Vice President of Student Affairs at Evergreen College in San Jose, a post she held until last year when she officially retired. However, it was her time in that position at Evergreen that she said prepared her to serve on the board.

“As a vice president you have to be part of the board meetings so you’re pretty much familiar with the board process and I know what the role of the board of trustees is,” Archuleta said. “Our role is to focus on the what, not on the how, on the what. What do we want this institution to be. What the expectations are for the institution, that’s our role.”

She was appointed to the position in 2014 after Roberto Uranga was elected as the seventh district council representative in the middle of his board term. Having his support throughout her campaign has been invaluable, Archuleta said. She added that the fact that both Uranga and his wife, Tonia, have served the West Long Beach community in a variety of elected positions has helped to break the ice while she’s walked doors during her election bid.

“A lot of the people in this community they really like him and respect him,” Archuleta said of Uranga and his choice to endorse her. “I’ve walked up to households and they find out that Roberto or the mayor are supporting me and they say, ‘If they’re supporting you, I’m supporting you.’”

In her time on the board she said she’s most proud that it’s started the discussion of, and shifted the focus to what kind of benchmarks it needs to set for student success. The College Promise—something that the board extended to provide two free semesters of tuition during her service—is also a point of pride for Archuleta, as its national profile has grown, with even the White House taking an interest in its aim.

She said that as much as resources are in play, there’s been a demographic shift in enrollment that is stunting the college’s ability to get students in and out of its doors in a timely fashion. The non-traditional student—one that started school late, isn’t pursuing a degree or is going to school part-time—has become the traditional student she said.

She pointed to an increase in students that now have to work multiple jobs to help support their families at home instead of solely focusing on their studies as a contributing factor. She noted that the cost of living has changed dramatically since the time when she was a student and her share of rent was $180 per month. But she also said that a precipitous drop in funding from all levels, including the Pell Grant being reduced to six semesters from nine, is also an obstacle the college must face.

“This is happening across the state, across the nation actually and it’s important to keep that in perspective that it’s not just a Long Beach City College phenomenon,” Archuleta said. “I didn’t have to work, I worked because I wanted to get experience and I wanted to have a little discretionary funds for myself. Today, students have to work multiple jobs, not for discretionary spending, but to help their families survive.” 

The current model, Archuleta said, is not working for the digitized-era the students grew up in. She said the school needs to do more to embrace that, but it also needs to do more to cater to students’ needs regarding class scheduling. She said the core classes like math, english and science—ones that often times stand as barriers to transfer because of wait lists—are there, but “not always at the time that students need them to be.”

She said the challenge will be for the college to address scheduling issues and reimagining how decades-long practices can be tweaked to better serve a student body that live different realities than those from ten or twenty years ago. She believes that her depth and breadth of experience—something she thinks her opponent lacks—make her the more qualified person to see those changes through, noting that her extensive service in education over the past three decades has provided her with the ability to govern at a macro-level, but also supplied her with an understanding with what’s happening on the mico-level.

Her understanding of her community is propelled by her own experiences as a first-generation student that had to navigate her own way through college. The politics on campus or any issues surrounding the board are not the concerns she hears from her constituents. Instead, its ‘how do I get my son or daughter into college’ and ‘how am I going to pay for it,’ she said.

“I know what the areas are, I know what the challenges are, I want to make sure that as a trustee we have the services that are needed,” Archuleta said. “Because dissemination of information is vital, I want to make sure that we have the staff that is able to relate to the students and be able to speak and connect with the parents.”

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.