Christian excited to begin new role as chancellor of California Community Colleges

Mar. 18—Sonya Christian began her career in education as an international student turned part-time California community college instructor who taught at three sites when she had no car.

She took the transit bus, RTD, from Los Angeles to Glendora at Citrus College, to El Camino College in Torrance and L.A. Harbor College in the South Bay.

That's how it started. How's it going?

She was named chancellor of the California Community Colleges, a 116-college system, on Feb. 23. Christian, the former Bakersfield College president currently working as Kern Community College District chancellor, starts her new role on June 1 as the first woman and first person of South Asian heritage to be appointed as permanent chancellor.

Christian is from Kerala, India, specifically from the small city of Kollam. She lived there when it was known as Quilon, where her late father was the dentist of her hometown. Her father, Paul, influenced her about the great importance of teaching because of the life-changing opportunities it can provide for others, she said.

She gained confirmation of her love for education when she worked part time at three community colleges while with no car.

"When I came to the United States as a graduate student it just seemed natural that I would look at being a teacher," said Christian, who landed her first full-time job as a math professor at BC in 1991. "Although I knew I would be a teacher, I discovered community colleges as a foreign student and I just fell in love with the essence of the community college."

Christian calls Kerala, India, home. But her home in the U.S.? That's Kern County and Bakersfield College. Not long after becoming a math professor at BC, the college helped her obtain her green card, which eventually led to gaining U.S. citizenship, she said.

Christian's daughter, Eisha, a Highland High graduate, also studied at BC. Eisha is now a pediatric neurosurgeon in Los Angeles.

After serving as an administrator at Lane Community College in Oregon for several years, Christian returned home to the KCCD in 2013, when she became the 10th president of BC.

In July 2021, Christian was named the sixth chancellor of the KCCD.

Romeo Agbalog, president of the KCCD board of trustees, spoke about Christian when she was named district chancellor during her formal introduction. He also talked about Christian in front of the California Community Colleges board of governors when she was named state chancellor.

He said Christian "is clearly qualified" to be the state chancellor because "she has the experience, education, background and proven track record of success."

But he believes what makes her unique is her strong love and care for students and their futures. Agbalog said that was evident in Christian's efforts to attend sporting events, home and away games for football and other sports at BC. She also attended BC performing arts events.

"She is the best choice for this position," Agbalog said. "But what the California community college system is also getting is a chancellor with a heart."

Christian's care for students was seen in 2015 during a BC football game at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Agbalog said.

During that game, BC defensive back Terrence Young from New Jersey suffered a catastrophic injury, BC team doctor William Baker said. Baker did not want to name the player to protect sensitive health information, but Young's name was in a Californian article. The BC football player suffered a severe spinal injury that caused nerve avulsion for use of an arm, Baker said.

Christian went to the hospital and stayed with Young throughout the evening until he was stable, Baker said. Young's care involved hospitalization and a referral to a surgeon in San Diego, Baker said. The then-BC president was involved every step of the way and made sure Young received the best care, Baker said.

"It was a real example of her concern and connection, not just with the athletic department but the students of Bakersfield College," Baker said. "For her, she took it as a personal responsibility to make sure he got the best possible care."

Christian and others from BC were involved in arduous recovery treatment, Baker said. Unfortunately, Young did not fully recover full use of his arm, but it was "not for a lack of leadership," Baker said.

Christian plans to use her passion and care for students to tackle the myriad challenges in front of her as state chancellor.

"The list is long," Christian said. "The task at hand is huge and there are also significant challenges. I truly, truly believe that our greatest challenges enable us to do our greatest work."

Christian noted areas of need, including "equity in access," which translates to increasing enrollment.

At BC, Christian is credited for increasing enrollment before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in 2020.

In 2015, Christian spearheaded a coalition that resulted in philanthropic funding for a Guided Pathways project that helped increase enrollment. That led to a $150 million state investment in Guided Pathways for broader use throughout the state's college system.

Applying and carrying out more ideas throughout a 116-college system could appear to be overwhelming and daunting.

"I plan to bring coalitions together to tackle the challenges and I'm confident that we're not just going to solve the problem but we're going to take it to new heights and opportunities," Christian said. "I just believe that in my heart in a deep way and I feel it in my bones. My job is just to unleash the talent and get the talent to come together and that is going to be a very powerful force. It is there. It's only bringing people together. That's all I got to do to engage in the work at hand."

Not all went smoothly at BC. In the fall of 2015, four KCCD trustees voted against renewing her contract as BC president. The Californian reported that an evaluation of Christian hinted at why that took place. A document obtained by the newspaper noted that Christian reassigned staff without district approval, failed to meet budget deadlines and didn't work within district procedures.

Christian, however, had more supporters than dissenters.

"She's able to get people to work together well because of the care she has for people," said Nick Strobel, a BC astronomy professor, who has known Christian since she began working at BC in 1991. "Her passion is infectious. She cares for people so people care for her and are inspired to follow her."

Strobel, the Academic Senate president, credits Christian for Measure J, saying that, "it was only possible because Sonya was (BC) president."

Kern County voters approved the $502.8 million Measure J bond in November 2016 with BC to receive $415 million for various improvement and construction projects across its campus.

All that positive news can be seen on Christian's blog. She usually writes the blog on Saturdays. After waking up at 4 a.m. (a daily routine) and walking her golden retriever, Neo, she sips on coffee while blogging. She said she plans to continue her blog as the state chancellor.

"It's a forum for celebrating community colleges and community college students," Christian said.

Christian is set to host the fourth annual Women in Leadership panel on March 30 at the Weill Institute. The event will be livestreamed on KCCD's YouTube and Facebook.

Former state Sen. Jean Fuller will be the moderator of a panel that includes Kern County Superior Court Judge Gloria Cannon, Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Sierra View Medical Center President/CEO Donna Hefner.

Christian just might talk about her new role as chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

"I'm so beyond excited and ready to really work hard because it is an opportunity to do incredibly good work," she said. "Every moment I'm going to take it seriously. I'm not going to take myself seriously. That's a gift I got from my dad. He was always lighthearted."