Mike Muñoz is a success story of the California Community Colleges.
The incoming superintendent-president of Long Beach City College, Muñoz himself was in community college for five years in the 1990s, attending East Los Angeles College and Fullerton College before earning his degree and transferring to the University of California Irvine.
As a student, Muñoz faced many of the obstacles and circumstances that face today’s most vulnerable community college students. He was housing insecure, moving 11 times after graduating from high school and while in community college, going from his parents’ house to his aunt’s to his grandparents’ before jumping around several friends’ homes. He was also a first-generation college student and a student parent, raising his daughter as he worked toward his degrees.
More than 20 years after transferring to UC Irvine in 2000, Muñoz was named superintendent-president this month of Long Beach City College. He starts in the role Jan. 1. He’s currently the college’s interim superintendent-president and was also previously the college’s vice president of student services.
As superintendent-president, Muñoz wants to help students find success like he did and said a major component to accomplishing that is to help students with their basic needs, like housing. Under his leadership as interim president, Long Beach City College has already piloted a program that allows students living in their cars to park in on-campus parking structures overnight.
In an interview with EdSource, Muñoz discussed additional plans he has to help students with housing, child care and more. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was being superintendent-president of Long Beach City College a job that you wanted?
When you look at the Long Beach community and the demographics that we serve, we are one of the most diverse community colleges in the state. We have a large Latinx population. We have a large African American population. We have a large Asian Pacific Islander and Desi (people with ties to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) population. It’s a very diverse community college. And not just in racial and ethnic diversity. We’re recognized nationally as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in America. We also have socioeconomic diversity as well. You have students who are experiencing extreme poverty. When I think about my social justice lens and the work that I want to do, Long Beach City College has a tremendous population and community. I’m also deeply motivated and moved by just the generosity of people who live in Long Beach. We have a very strong philanthropic arm in terms of our foundation. But really what I think it just comes down to for me is the students. They are some of the best students I have ever worked with in my career, as well as the employees, my colleagues.
You are a former community college student, and your college experience had a lot in common with many of today’s community college students. How do you expect that background will inform your approach to being superintendent-president?
My leadership is very much influenced by my lived experiences, and I think it also helps me connect from a place of empathy with our students. Many of our students are facing housing and food insecurities. They’re raising families. They are working multiple jobs. They’re overcoming all sorts of obstacles and barriers. And because I’ve lived some of these experiences, I approach this role not only with a deep sense of empathy and compassion for our students, but also with a sense of knowing we need to really solve these issues. When my team and I make decisions, we try to situate ourselves in the student experience, and the first question we ask is, how does this decision impact students? And then more specifically, how does this impact our most vulnerable students? Our former foster youth, our housing-insecure, our veterans. The students that we know have historically experienced challenges and systemic counters from the institution.
Long Beach City College recently piloted a program that allows students who are living in their cars to park their vehicles overnight on campus and sleep there. Do you have any other ideas for ways to address the housing crisis facing students?
We want to continue to expand our partnerships with different organizations, like Jovenes, that can provide transitional housing support for students. I’m planning to go visit what’s called Hope Housing, a nonprofit that obtained a house in Long Beach. They want to partner with us to place some of our students there. So we’re going to tour those facilities to see if we can expand the number of placements we can have for our students because, although we already have great partnerships with Jovenes and the Economic Roundtable, they only have so many beds. And so we know that we need more beds.
We’ve also applied for between $75 million and $90 million to build affordable housing on our campus. We’ve already completed a feasibility study. We’re really looking forward to that because that’s going to be another game-changer in terms of the number of beds we’re going to be able to offer.
We’re also partnering with our foundation around rental subsidies. So we have students that are at risk for becoming homeless but that aren’t homeless. So how do we make sure that we keep them housed? We’re looking at exploring some options to have some scholarship assistance focused on that population. We received a $30 million gift from MacKenzie Scott. We have an advisory group that we’re working with, and one of the recommendations was to look at using some of those funds for scholarships, with intentionality on supporting unhoused or housing-insecure students.
What is the timeline for the on-campus housing project?
We’re hoping that we’ll hear some time between March and April if we’ve been awarded the funds. Should we be awarded the funds, we’ll move into the design-build phase. We would begin to work with an architect and go through that whole process. Obviously, it would still take a couple of years to build a project at that scope and scale. We’re committed to this project, but it’s still a few years away, and that’s why we still have to look at other options.
If you can help get students secure housing, how do you expect that will impact their success at college?
It’s hard to get to 60 units and achieve all those graduation requirements and transfer requirements and move on to the four-year university if you don’t have stable housing, or if you don’t have regular access to food, or if your utilities are constantly being shut off, or you don’t have access to Wi-Fi. All those barriers impede those outcomes. I look at a lot of this as a social justice issue. We have to be more conscious about how we support our students. I’ve had well-meaning colleagues ask me, “Why are you opening up your parking structures? Or why are you applying to build affordable housing on your campus? Is that really our mission?” I always remind folks that our mission is to help our students reach their educational goals. And these are barriers that are preventing them from reaching their goals. I believe we do have a moral obligation as a system to respond and meet our students where they’re at.
I know this is anecdotal, but I’ll use my own living testament. Prior to me transferring, I was dealing with all sorts of challenges and issues, and I moved like 10 times in a very short span of time. And I remember when I finally transferred to UC Irvine and I was able to have my housing needs met, my life transformed. My GPA improved. Until I had that stability in my housing and the child care for my daughter, I wasn’t really able to fully actualize. And so I know for myself, there was a direct link between my housing being stable, having access to food, having access to child care and my academic outcomes. And I think that’s not uncommon.
You mentioned child care. California’s community college system enrolls far more student parents than any other college system in the state, yet many of those students struggle to complete college. Do you have any ideas to help student parents in Long Beach?
We do have a child development center on both of our campuses. We also have been looking at the option of developing what we would call a family center. Oftentimes student parents need to be able to study or have study groups, and they don’t know what to do with their kids. I have my financial aid director exploring the possibility of hiring work-study students to create study hall rooms where parents can bring their children. And then the work-study students could help create reading circles or activity tables so that the kids can be occupied and cared for while the parents are studying and doing their homework. Obviously, when you have people with children and liability, we have to work through some of those things, but that is something that we’re exploring right now and researching if that is an allowable use of our federal work-study dollars.
Are there any other goals you have that you want to highlight?
We’re very committed to increasing transfer and completion, but really doing it in a way that’s race-conscious. We have been very focused on closing equity gaps for our African American and Latinx students, and we’re seeing those gaps continue to close. And so we are fully committed to that, and it’s going to be one of our largest priorities. Almost 60% of our students are Latinx. Another 14% are African American. And those are the two groups that are most disproportionately impacted. And so we want to continue to really close those gaps.
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