Orem • When Astrid Tuminez started school in a little hut in the Philippines, she sat in the sixth seat in the sixth row — a spot, she said, that was “reserved for the dumbest girl” in the class.
She was determined to not stay in that desk for very long.
So she read as much as she could, from the packaging on the food in her kitchen cupboard to the papers she sometimes found on the muddy streets around her home. And she tried to learn as many words as she could from her parents (which included a few profanities from her dad, who was taught English by American GIs). In a few weeks, she moved up.
Tuminez told that story of her first experience with education Wednesday afternoon as she stood on stage at Utah Valley University — just after she was inaugurated as the school’s first female president.
She waved to her mother, the “young” 85-year-old woman in the audience who pushed her to go to school, Tuminez said with a smile. She twirled in a sparkly green dress that her older sister made her for the occasion. And she sat in the first seat in the first row next to the state governor and near her 22-year-old daughter, who she raised to be one of the smartest girls she knows.
“I started life as a statistic, and I would’ve been a statistic if people hadn’t helped me,” Tuminez said to a roar of cheers and claps from the crowd as she promised to return that guidance to the 37,000 students at the state’s largest college. “We will not be afraid or embarrassed to achieve. I know in my gut and my heart that we can do that.”
Her inauguration was a personal and cultural ceremony that included a Filipino folk song performed by the school’s chamber choir, a Buddhist prayer read by a niece of the Dalai Lama and a speech given by her daughter as the new president wiped tears from behind her glasses.
“My mother has always been fearless in trying new things,” said Michal Tuminez Tolk. “She’s so confident and brave that she’s able to handle just about any situation with courage and grace.”
Tolk said her mom has always loved education. But it’s been her upbringing and her quirks that have made her best suited to lead the university.
She’s so passionate when her family plays card games, like Go Fish and slapjack, that she laughs until she cries. She’s not a great driver and says a little prayer before getting on any freeway. She raised Tolk and her two brothers with humility, attending all of their childhood performances and sobbing from a hotel room when she wasn’t at home when her youngest got chicken pox.
“At this point, I think she’s basically adopted all of the students here, too,” Tolk said with a laugh.
Tuminez, who took office in September, now officially takes the helm of the Orem school and its ballooning enrollment, which is outpacing the University of Utah — the state’s flagship institution — by about 4,000 students. As UVU’s seventh president, she will oversee a sprawling campus with a top-tier teaching program, a competitive aviation school and a popular open admissions policy. Here, growth is the biggest challenge.
Including her appointment, five colleges in the state are led by women — a historic number. And she comes in at the tail end of a major shuffling of university leadership across the state with five new presidents being named in the last year.
Perhaps more significant, though, Tuminez will be the first person of color to lead UVU in its 78-year history and the only president of color currently heading any of the state’s ten colleges.
“We have a lot more to do,” she said about the school’s 35 percent six-year graduation rate (by comparison, the U.’s is 67 percent). But with minority students, she added, “We have so much more to do.”
Tuminez believes the school’s open enrollment policy helps attract minority kids — giving it the largest enrollment of Latino students in the state — but the university needs to do more to support and engage students of color, fund more scholarships and accept differences. “We must obsess over this,” she said.
The school, much like a community college, accepts all applicants “whose qualifications indicate they may benefit from the instructional programs offered.” There are no GPA or test score requirements. That model combines with the school’s founding as a technical institute, and it still provides certificates in areas including automotive technology and programming.
“We are open admission. We don’t have admission scandals here,” she said to laughs from the more than 900 people in the audience. “We mean it when we say, ‘Come as you are. UVU has a place for you.’”
Those looking back at her wore the school’s signature green on ties and jackets. Several made a wolverine claw — to represent the mascot — with their hands. Most shouted and stood in ovation as she walked onto the stage. And everyone waved green pompoms.
A few of the university’s athletes had them put under the chairs in the auditorium so everyone could cheer her on, as she has at all of their home games.
“President Tuminez may only be 4-foot-10, but she is a giant in our eyes,” said one member of the women’s basketball team.
“4-foot-11,” Tuminez corrected with a giggle.
“She’s there shouting ‘Kill it’ at the top of her lungs at the women’s volleyball games,” said a player on the squad. “She is such a wonderful example to me of what a woman can accomplish with grit and strength.”
A wrestler added that he sometimes worries she might jump onto the mat during his meets “and tag team it.” A few in the crowd, including her husband, Jeffrey Tolk, and two sons, Whitman and Leo, responded as she would during a match: “Go Astrid.” “Kill it!” “You’ve got this.”
Tuminez replaces Matthew S. Holland, who announced he would retire in June 2018. Before first stepping into the new post last fall, she was Microsoft’s regional director for corporate, external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia and lived with her family in Singapore. She has a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, a master’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Each in the long line of speakers — including Utah State University President Noelle Cockett — mentioned those accolades. But each spent more time describing Tuminez’s gratitude and empathy, vivacity and dedication.
“She has already shifted the culture of UVU to one that emphasizes the individual,” Cockett said.
Harris Simmons, chair of the Utah State Board of Regents, which voted in April last year for Tuminez to lead the school, added: “Your warmth, accessibility and seemingly boundless energy will serve you well.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who grew up in Orem, said her appointment made him feel “hometown pride” for the school where two out of five students are the first in their family to attend college and 77 percent work while they’re attending classes.
“You are the right person for this chapter of Utah Valley University’s history,” he noted. “I have every confidence in your success.”
As her inauguration ended, Tuminez returned to talking about the farming village where she was born and the slums where she grew up. There was no electricity or running water. But she had a big imagination, Tuminez joked, and she dreamed often. No matter their backgrounds, she wants the students at Utah Valley University to have the opportunity to dream, too, and succeed.
“It takes a village to get it done,” she said to the audience. “You are our village. Please work with us.”
With that, Tuminez stood on stage in the spot reserved for her, smiling and crying.