Amid the DEI debate, this fireball Utah college president stands out as a living example of diversity

Astrid Tuminez drank beer as a preteen and now is a Latter-day Saint convert. She defended her dissertation while seven months pregnant and is proving “unstoppable” in her drive to boost UVU.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez poses for a portrait on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, during a visit to the UVU Museum of Art.

She’s at Utah Valley University’s board meeting. She’s waving green-and-white pompoms at a wrestling match. Now she’s discussing plans for building a bridge across a freeway. Then she’s flying in a helicopter with student pilots or jetting off to New York to meet with giants of industry.

There she is at ribbon-cutting for a performing arts center or dining with hundreds of donors at a banquet or giving a speech at a Latter-day Saint Institute of Religion or handing out candy in hallways or gyrating with friends to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

Meet Astrid Tuminez, the petite Philippines-born UVU president, who took off at a furious pace in 2018 as the surprising choice to lead the Beehive State’s largest university. And she hasn’t slowed down ever since.

She’s running “a marathon at a sprint pace,” says Jeanette Bennett, a UVU board member. “I honestly don’t know how she keeps up her schedule.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley University President, Astrid Tuminez cheers for her team in overtime action against the Brigham Young University Cougars in 2021.

In the midst of a statewide debate about the value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs on college and university campuses, Tuminez is the embodiment of those ideals. So is the student body of nearly 45,000 at the Orem school, where 37% are first generation, 13% are Latinos, 20% are other students of color, and 19% are 25 or older.

The inexhaustible business leader beat out three white male finalists for the job — to become its seventh president and the first woman and person of color in the school’s 83-year history.

In her five-plus years at UVU, with its top-tier teaching program, a competitive aviation school and a popular open admissions policy, the 59-year-old Tuminez helped the school navigate the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing online and hybrid classes and hosting drive-thru graduation ceremonies. She also created Vision 2030, a 10-year road map of strategic initiatives guided by three objectives: include, engage and achieve.

If he were to go back to the 1990s, he could not have imagined her soaring professional flight path, says Kent Christensen, a Salt Lake City artist who lived in the same Manhattan apartment building as Tuminez and her husband, Jeffrey Tolk. “I had never seen a woman who had gone on such a trajectory from abject poverty to the pinnacle of success in business and education.”

She is, the artist says, “unstoppable.”

From powerless to powerful

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez's sister Julie Ludlow, left, mother Redencion Tuminez, who died in April 2023, and sister Marley Sutton celebrate during Astrid's presidential inauguration in 2019.

Tuminez was born the sixth of seven children in a poverty-drenched farming community in the Philippines.

At 5 years old, her mother moved the family to slums in Iloilo City, an island south of Manila where nuns from the Catholic Daughters of Charity found them and invited several of her siblings to enroll at the second most expensive school for free. Other students came from rich families, with maids, drivers and clean clothes.

“It was literally a miracle,” Tuminez says in an interview. “It’s like being snatched from the jaws of despair.”

The nuns were strict, she recalls. “We couldn’t wear nail polish, but our nails had to be clean. We couldn’t, you know, laugh boisterously. You couldn’t cuss, and you had to go to Mass.”

Exposure to rigorous classes and a culture of refinement, she says, “made a difference.”

That experience proved “pivotal and foundational,” Tuminez says, “to my appreciation of how education can change lives.”

Then came missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One of the two young men fell off a bamboo walkway and into seawater full of sewage. The pair got transferred shortly after and never returned, but left the family’s name on a card in the drawer of the missionary bungalow for the next crop of proselytizers to find.

Her two older sisters joined the Utah-based church, while young Astrid was steadfast against it.

“I was a devout Catholic, and my sisters stopped going to Mass with me. So I was very upset,” she says. “I drank a lot of beer starting at the age of 10. And so I just didn’t think this religion was the right religion for me.”

After several sets of missionaries, though, Tuminez converted, which eventually led to the Catholic school charging her family tuition. At the same time, a thief broke into the hut she and her sisters shared, stealing the little cash they had. Unable to afford the fees — and worried for her safety — the insatiable student moved to Manila to live with her mother and explore other ways to finish her last year of high school.

It was in her Latter-day Saint congregation that the teen met Susie Griffin, whose parents were Mexican Americans.

“I was a foreigner and different,” recalls Griffin, who works at Provo’s Brigham Young University, “but she didn’t treat me as different as the other Filipinos did.”

The two became fast friends, attending seminary classes (for teens) and youth conferences. Once Astrid suggested the girls crash the adult meetings of their youth leaders, and Griffin saw close-up her friend’s ambition and drive.

“I knew then,” Griffin notes, “she was a go-getter.”

BYU opens the door

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astrid Tuminez, president of Utah Valley University, speaks during a panel discussion in October 2018.

Griffin’s father helped Tuminez secure a visa to study at BYU and, after three tries, she was successful. Her friend lent her hand-me-down clothes, a generous act the future college president never forgot.

When Tuminez graduated in 1986 with a degree in international relations and Russian literature, she spoke at her college’s convocation as the valedictorian.

“Astrid described trying to sleep in a hut, where the ceiling was dripping water on her all night and thinking, ‘there’s got to be something better than this,” Griffin recalls. In that moment, she knew her young Filipino pal was on her way.

Indeed, she was headed to Harvard for a master’s degree and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a doctorate. Along the way, she married Jeffrey Tolk, a fellow Harvard student whom she met at church. The couple have a daughter and two sons.

When she found herself pregnant in 1996, she worried that she would not be able to finish her Ph.D.

“I started bawling, thinking my life is over,” Tuminez recalls. “In fact, the pregnancy was what made me finish the dissertation because I knew that once the baby was born, who was I kidding that I could work full time, have a baby and still write a dissertation?”

She was seven months pregnant when she defended it before her MIT committee.

“My professors were impressed by my words and my girth,” she quips. “I warned them, ‘You better pass me because I could go into labor right here.’”

An epiphany in a Bali rice paddy

For the next 20 years, Tuminez acknowledges, her career was a tad “unplanned.”

She was the vice dean of research and the assistant dean of executive education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. She consulted the U.S. Institute of Peace, was the director of research at AIG Global Investment Corp. and worked at Carnegie Corp. of New York. Her career also took her to Moscow, where she oversaw an office of the Harvard Project on Strengthening Democratic Institutions.

Then, in 2017, while living in Singapore as Microsoft’s regional director for corporate, external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia, Tuminez and her family invited Christensen, their New York city friend, to join them in Bali for Christmas.

Christensen, who teaches art at UVU, heard that then-President Matthew Holland was planning to leave to serve as a Latter-day Saint mission president. So when the friends were walking through a rice paddy, it struck him that Tuminez might be the perfect candidate to replace Holland.

He urged her to apply and she laughed. “No way a conservative Utah County school,” she scoffed, “is going to choose a little brown lady to be president.”

But he was dead serious. It felt to him like a divine directive.

Tuminez had “a male energy from the start,” he says. “She has always lived in a man’s world.”

She was driven, he believed, to change that world.

Thus, she began to ruminate on the possibility until it mushroomed into a real desire.

The appeal of an unconventional university

(Jay Drowns | Utah Valley University) Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez chats with students on the campus in Orem in June 2018.

UVU’s open admissions model intrigued Tuminez.

“It was so contrary to what I had known about higher education, which was about excluding people and being a snob,” she says. “I liked its nonprejudicial, come-as-you-are approach to education. [UVU] doesn’t care about your past. We care about where you want to be now.”

The school believes in “radical human potential,” she says, “whether you’re 18, or 16, or 70.”

She was sold but now needed to sell herself.

“I had not gone through the ranks of academia,” she says. “I’d never been a department chair or a provost. I told them they would have to take a calculated risk.”

They did.

For months, a common community conversation had been, “Nobody can replace President Holland! Who will they ever find who will come close to measuring up?”

At her inauguration, the new 4-foot-11 president joked that she literally could not fill Holland’s large shoes. (Holland, now a Latter-day Saint general authority, checks in over 6 feet.)

(August Miller | Utah Valley University) Then-UVU President Matthew Holland, left and his wife, Paige, get a selfie with Astrid Tuminez after she was announced as the first female president of Utah Valley University in 2018.

“She came to the stage with confidence,” says Bennett, the UVU board member and founder of Utah Valley Magazine, “and a sense of humor” while bringing a real sense of humanity and a tenderness in the midst of toughness.

It took “grit and competitiveness” for Tuminez to rise above poverty and illiteracy,” Bennett says. “Those characteristics show up in our meetings as well. She wants to be the best. She wants everyone around her to be the best.”

Fitting in

(Kim Raff | Utah Valley University) Astrid Tuminez talks with students during a UVU Student Association interview in 2018.

The diminutive leader started her stint with a “listening tour,” says Bennett, “where she went around campus and the community getting to know people and processes.”

She still draws on what she learned “when she was doing more listening than talking,” the board member says. “Now, she is the keynote speaker in every room she enters.”

Tuminez seems to have a “photographic memory,” Bennett says. She has specific numbers on various subjects on the tip of her tongue, and packs a depth of knowledge on politics, religion, world history, languages, science, sports and more. In addition, she speaks four languages fluently with a smattering of a fifth: Spanish.

Within weeks, Tuminez became UVU’s biggest cheerleader.

“We will not be afraid or embarrassed to achieve,” she said at her official 2019 inauguration. “I know in my gut and my heart that we can do that.”

The Utah County school had been known for its exponential growth for a long time, says Wioleta Fedeczko, president of UVU’s faculty senate. But “school spirit was lacking.”

Then came this short president with tall dreams.

Her “excitement and faith in our institution is abundantly clear,” Fedeczko says. “As a faculty member, I appreciate the huge shift in our community about the role of UVU and our accomplishments, and I give President Tuminez credit for that.”

Tough but with ‘delicacy’

The president addresses problems with intelligence and insight, says the Poland-born English professor.

“Higher education is facing a lot of challenges with legislation regarding DEI, tenure and shared governance,” Fedeczko says. “I am continuously inspired by the delicacy with which the president addresses those issues. In my meetings with her, our discussion includes a consideration of specific faculty fears and needs as well as the context of the bigger conversation — in the Utah Legislature, for example.”

No matter how many demands the two have to balance, Fedeczko “is never nervous about talking to her about them. Our conversations leave me energized, confident and supported. Her knowledge, skills and experience — and her willingness to listen, really listen — help me grow as a leader and to find a unique outlook or solution.”

Walking the halls of the burgeoning buildings and listening to students, the English professor says, you will hear students and faculty talk about how much they love UVU.

The president “has made sure,” Fedeczko says, “that our public spaces reflect that excitement.”

Women, immigrants, first-generation graduates

To have a university president who understands the “journey of an immigrant, first-generation college student, and woman,” Fedeczko says, and appreciates “me for my merits and for my abilities, is remarkable.”

Tuminez’s acceptance and encouragement have “meant that more individuals who may not have otherwise sought leadership positions have applied,” the faculty senate president says, “which has massively changed the culture at UVU for the better.”

The school’s Cabinet and board have seen “increased gender equity,” Bennett says. The president “looks out for first-generation students and others of diverse backgrounds. I believe she wants to do for others what the Catholic nuns did for her — she wants to open doors and lift.”

That, Bennett says, “will be her legacy.”

Clearly, Tuminez is thriving at Utah Valley University.

“I love it,’ she says. “It is so diverse and welcoming. And deep down in its DNA, it has a lot of grit.”

She rattles off some of the school’s successes during her tenure: more classrooms and programs, art museums, a new alumni center, student retention (which rose from 63% to 70%) and improved graduation rates, especially among first-generation students.

“When I arrived, our completion rate was 35%, and we declared a goal under my presidency that we would have a 45% completion rate by 2025,” Tuminez says, adding that the school already has surpassed it: “As of 2023, it’s at 46%.”

Oh, and the men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament.

“I prayed to God to let us beat BYU just once during my tenure,” she says exultantly, “and it happened twice.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez high-fives a fan during a game between the Brigham Young University Cougars and UVU in 2021.

At the same time, students adore her, says Zac Whitlock, a junior from nearby Highland majoring in personal finance.

“She is one of the most well-rounded university presidents I have ever heard of,” says Whitlock, who is the UVU’s student body president. “I’ve seen her go from trustee meetings in the morning, where she is serious, detailed and focused, to an afternoon dance party with students.”

The student leader once confessed to Tuminez that he was having a hard time finding an internship, and she immediately went through her contacts and set him up with one of them.

“She is at every game as a proud Wolverine,” Whitlock says. “Her story is phenomenal and inspiring and captures the mission of UVU for us all.”

Still, the work is never finished.

Every year, “you get better, you get better, you get better,” Tuminez says. “You ask hard questions, you examine why things don’t work, you give feedback, you celebrate, you reward good work, but also call out when it’s not working, which is so important.”

How does she have the energy for it all?

“I drink a lot of green tea. I listen to Taylor Swift. I exercise on a regular basis. I do breathing [that] I learned in Asia to energize yourself in the morning.”

There are many “dark things” in today’s world, the president says. On top of that, the job is hard, raising a family is hard, and now her husband has Parkinson’s disease.

“Everything comes and goes like waves in the ocean,” she says. “But what we can control is the perspective we have and the quality of our energy.”

So every morning, she asks herself “what’s good today”?

Then she shows up for it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez poses for a portrait on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023, during a visit to the UVU Museum of Art.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.