Dr. Pedro Avila Leads Major Expansionby Gary M. Stern on Aug 22, 2023
Originally published in Hispanic Outlook on Education magazine.
In Gilroy and Hollister, California, two of Gavilan College’s four campuses, president Pedro Avila is spearheading the expansion of this two-year community college, which will transform its future.
Gavilan College’s campuses include its main campus in Gilroy, Coyote Valley Center in San Jose, Hollister Briggs Site in Hollister, and its San Martin-Aviation Technology Site in San Martin, California. It’s part of the Gavilan Joint Community College District.
Called the Measure X Bond construction project, it will create a new campus in Hollister and a new Library Student Center and STEM Center at the Gilroy campus. And the result, it hopes, will be that Gavilan College becomes “the college of choice for high school graduates and adult learners,” Avila stated. It’s expected to be completed in the fall of 2024.
One other factor fueling the expansion of the Hollister campus stems from the population growth there. “It’s one of the more affordable cities in the area. We anticipate more growth in that community, and it’s an opportunity to serve them and provide them with a local campus,” he noted. Since it’s located about 30 miles from Gilroy, students face difficulty gaining access to that campus without a car.
So, the Hollister campus will have a new library and student center. “It will give us the ability to make those services accessible to students in a welcoming environment at the entrance to the campus. It will blend student and learning support services under one building,” Avila said.
The new STEM center on the Gilroy campus will be a signature program, “creating excitement for STEM students,” he said, and leading to a variety of careers in engineering, computer programming, software development, computer security, math and science. Though its campus is 40 miles from San Jose, many people commute to Silicon Valley.
The expansion, he acknowledged, “will be part of my legacy as a president.”
Giving Back to His Community
Avila was named president in July 2022, and had previously served as Vice President of Student Services at Santa Rosa Junior College. He has had 20 years of community college experience. He holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland in Community College Policy and an MBA from Rockhurst University, after graduating with Latino studies and business degrees from Fresno State University.
He’s originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1984. His family faced issues of housing insecurity and poverty.
Becoming president at Gavilan College was extremely satisfying for Avila because he was raised in Castroville, California, about thirty minutes from Gilroy. “After spending two decades working at other community colleges, I wanted to come back to my community and bring my experience to support and do the best for these communities,” he said.
Asked about his philosophy of education, he responds in a very personal way. “My philosophy is based on my experience. For me and my siblings, education helped us to move my family out of poverty. Everyone should have an opportunity and access to education. As a first-generation college graduate, I bring that experience to education and use it to redesign the way our programs and services are provided so they’re more accessible to everyone,” he explained.
Supporting a Diverse Student Body
Avila describes the Gilroy area as a “blend of agriculture and technology.” Its student body, therefore, stems from several worlds, including children of farm workers, people who work in tech firms as programmers or software developers, and offspring of people from retail centers who work at local shopping outlets.
Gavilan College consists of 3,700 full-time students; 61.4% are Latino, 22% White, 5.4% Asian American, and 2% Black. About 70% of its students receive some form of financial aid.
Since nearly two of every three of Gavilan’s students are Latino, it offers targeted services such as El Centro, which provides basic needs services to address food insecurities, rent money assistance, and a Food Pantry on campus. At the Gilroy campus, all signage is being replaced with bilingual or English and Spanish instructions, to accommodate Latino students.
It also offers a Dream Center, which helps undocumented students “navigate enrollment into college, and provides them additional services. It also has partnerships with United Farm Workers (UFW) and offers free legal services for undocumented students,” he said.
To appeal to a broad audience, its GAV 4 Free program offers all students free tuition from summer 2023 through spring 2024, regardless of financial status. It offers students free courses, free parking, free printing, and appeals to all middle-class, working-class, or poor students. “Middle-income families are struggling too because the cost of living is so high,” Avila stated.
Reaching the Goal of Employability and Upward Mobility
Gavilan’s student body has diverse motivations for attending the college. “Some students come here and want to transfer to four-year colleges, while others come here to learn English since we have a strong ESL program. Some come here for nursing and others to figure out what they want to do and sort things out,” Avila explained.
All of its students either earn associate degrees or certificates. Its most popular majors are Health, Public and Protective Services, Business Management, Engineering, and Associate Degrees for Transfer.
Many Latino and other students gravitate toward nursing degrees because of the high demand, immediate job placement, and high pay. Upward mobility is the goal of nearly every student who attends Gavilan College. Most students attend to “gain skills and improve their employability and gain certification that help them become more employable. And those that transfer to four-year colleges are trying to get a bachelor’s degree and further their education,” Avila said.
Based on his immigrant background and success story, Avila strongly empathizes with all his students. “I see myself in my students because I had a sense of urgency to complete my education to provide my family a better life,” he revealed. “I take a lot of responsibility to make sure the decisions I make are in the best interests of my students.