Alumna Paves Way as Palomar's First Latina President
By Bri Phillips
It’s been more than three decades, but Mary Gonzales still remembers the Friday meetings with Star Rivera-Lacey at an IHOP in Oceanside.
Gonzales referred to these regular meetups as her “counseling sessions” because Rivera-Lacey always shared sound advice. The two friends would chat over a cup of coffee and, if they were lucky and had enough money, share a piece of pie.
When Gonzales was struggling, Rivera-Lacey would ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being world poverty, where does this problem fall?”
Gonzales would typically respond with a low number on the scale, but the exercise helped her see her problems from a different perspective.
“It taught me to stop sweating the small stuff,” said Gonzales, who is now retired from the San Diego County Office of Education. “That was one of her biggest powers, because now I share it with my own kids and I've shared it with other students. And I've heard people give it back and tell me the same thing. She always had that optimism of looking ahead.”
That optimism continues to this day as Rivera-Lacey has grown from poverty in childhood to earning a Ph.D. and today serving as the first Latina superintendent/president of Palomar College. It was that ability to remain optimistic during challenging times that helped her become the first in her family to graduate from college when she received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at Cal State San Marcos.
It seems Rivera-Lacey’s parents knew she had a bright future from the moment they named her.
"My mom really wanted me to have aspirations and picked the highest thing in the sky,” Rivera-Lacey said. “That's why she named me Star.”
Money was always tight for Rivera-Lacey as a child growing up in Oceanside. Her parents immigrated from El Salvador before she was born, and they always stressed the importance of a college degree to allow her to have a promising career and future.
With her parents’ encouragement, Rivera-Lacey cultivated a passion for learning from a young age. She saw how they worked to improve their English by taking ESL classes at Palomar. Sometimes they even took Rivera-Lacey with them. Little could they have imagined that, almost four decades later, she would return to lead that very college.
But Rivera-Lacey’s path to becoming a higher education professional wasn’t an easy one.
Just as she was about to graduate from El Camino High School, she learned she was one class short. Her counselor recommended taking a physical education class at MiraCosta College to get the extra credits she needed to graduate on time.
Rivera-Lacey signed up for a hip-hop dance course, but getting to class was always a challenge. She was constantly searching for a ride or scavenging for gas money to make it to MiraCosta.
But once there, Rivera-Lacey was introduced to Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, or EOPS, which provides access to financial assistance and support services for low-income students. The program counselors reassured Rivera-Lacey that she could have a future pursuing a college education after she graduated from high school.
Rivera-Lacey gathered a strong support system at MiraCosta. When she wasn’t sure how to navigate the complex college system, the counselors helped her every step of the way. She also had the endless encouragement of her parents. And when she met Gonzales, they formed a quick bond because they understood each other's struggles as first-generation college students.
“I had a family, and she was single. But for some reason, when we met, we clicked really well,” Gonzales said. “We were both struggling financially. She had a car that she named Herman, and I had a truck. Sometimes Herman worked, and sometimes my truck worked. But my car had a hole at the bottom, and Star was always afraid that she would fall through when it was my turn to drive.”
Car troubles weren’t the only obstacle. Rivera-Lacey was juggling her academic pursuits while working full-time to make ends meet. Sometimes that meant a second job. But Rivera-Lacey remembers the relief she felt when EOPS helped ease the expenses of her classes, including a grant to help pay for books.
While trying to balance work and school, Rivera-Lacey needed five years to obtain enough credits to transfer to a four-year university. But MiraCosta’s EOPS counselors never wavered in their support. If she needed to take a semester off to focus on work, they would welcome her back every time with open arms.
“There was no judgment,” Rivera-Lacey said. “They offered me complete acceptance, which made all the difference in the world. I never had to feel embarrassed, and that's so special.”
Rivera-Lacey continued to receive that type of support when she transferred to CSUSM. She was also grateful to land an on-campus job. After working in retail throughout her time at MiraCosta and constantly battling to get the work schedule she needed to attend classes, it was a relief to be working on a college campus.
“I have had a million careers,” Rivera-Lacey said. “But one of the best things that happened when I was at CSUSM is that I worked in a department that used to be called Student Affirmative Action and Outreach.”
This job was nothing like the ones Rivera-Lacey had before. She would visit students from local elementary and high schools and get them excited about a future in higher education.
Elementary school kids also visited CSUSM. Rivera-Lacey remembers the paper cutouts of graduation caps for kids to try on and fake checks to take to the bookstore to simulate the financial aid process.
“CSUSM was so forward-thinking by doing that kind of community outreach,” Rivera-Lacey said. “I'm not surprised at all to see the success that Cal State has now. They've been investing in the community for so many years.”
While Rivera-Lacey was helping other students get enthused about the possibility of attending college, she came to a realization as she watched people from similar backgrounds succeed in their jobs at CSUSM – she needed to continue her higher education journey and pursue a career in the field.
Rivera-Lacey worked alongside her friend Sabrina Sanders in the Student Affirmative Action and Outreach program. Sanders, who received a bachelor’s and master’s from CSUSM, also decided to pursue a career in higher ed because she and Rivera-Lacey saw themselves in the students they were serving and the impact of reaching underserved communities.
“The co-curricular experience as student assistants prepared and inspired us to our careers in higher education,” said Sanders, who also earned a doctorate from Alliant International University and is now the director of the Toro Reengagement Program at California State University Dominguez Hills. “As a first-generation Latina, Rivera-Lacey had an impact on the elementary, high school and community college students that was powerful. Her college journey, experiences and representation continue to inspire and exemplify the values and opportunities that education provides and her parents instilled in her. Promoting access, equity and student success is more than a job for President Rivera-Lacey – it’s a calling.”
When Rivera-Lacey received her bachelor’s in liberal studies in 1995, it was a life-changing moment for her parents to watch the first person in their family graduate from college.
“I think when you experience poverty and with every semester that I got under my belt, it was like one step closer to freedom,” Rivera-Lacey said.
Rivera-Lacey saw how her financial situation started to improve after earning her bachelor’s, but there were still challenges. When she was pursuing a master’s in counseling at San Diego State University, Rivera-Lacey remembers driving to take her final knowing she wouldn’t have enough gas to get home nor the money to fill her tank.
“I remember clearly walking on the freeway,” she said. “I do not recommend that anybody get on the freeway, but one of my friends came and rescued me. And to this day, it is one of the stories that we laugh about, right?
“There are going to be obstacles in the way, doors that close, but there's always a window that's open. If you just put one foot forward, the road will rise to meet. There are so many people who are in education that love what they do and believe in students. You'll find the help.”
Rivera-Lacey never let any of the obstacles she faced get in the way of her end goal. She received her master's in counseling at SDSU in 1997 and eventually returned to school to get her Ph.D. in education from Claremont Graduate University in 2016.
Rivera-Lacey knew she wanted to center her career around what she loved: student success. And she stayed with her passion for higher education for 17 years, which led her to become the superintendent/president of Palomar College in 2021.
Just as when she was a child, Rivera-Lacey still has the same passion for continuing to grow and learn – and she’s in a position to inspire others to do the same as she works to build on Palomar’s success.
Rivera-Lacey knows firsthand the struggles that so many students face, and she serves as a shining example to those who may never have seen a Latina college president.
“I'm very, very surprised at people's reaction,” Rivera-Lacey said. “I remember during commencement, a student wanted to hug me because they’ve never seen a Latina president. And another student thanked me because their parents were able to understand the ‘Superintendent/President’s Welcome’ because we did it both in English and Spanish, which shows that representation does matter.
“I tell people all the time, ‘I might be the first Latina Palomar superintendent/president, but I won't be the last.’ ”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
firstname.lastname@example.org | Office: 760-750-7314