Corrine Occhino, an assistant professor with a dual appointment in the School of Education and College of Arts and Sciences, has been awarded an SU Engaged Humanities Mini-grant for a project to serve Deaf refugees learning American Sign Language (ASL)….
Bea González to Retire After 36 Years of Creating Opportunity for Syracuse University Students, Connecting the University with the Greater Community
When Bethaida “Bea” González came to Syracuse at age 3 from her birthplace of Cayey, Puerto Rico, her family settled in an apartment on Adams Street, on the periphery of the Syracuse University campus. She had no way to know then how much the University—and the City of Syracuse—would become a part of her identity.
When González retires on July 3, she concludes more than four decades of service in higher education and continuing education administration. Most of those years were spent at University College of Syracuse University (UC), where she rose through the ranks to become dean of the college. For the past three years, she has been the University’s vice president for community engagement. In that role, she has used her lifetime of community involvement, strong relationships and years of distinguished public service as an elected official to energize and strengthen the connections between Syracuse University and the greater Syracuse community.
Settling in Syracuse
The oldest of six children, González and her family moved back and forth between Puerto Rico and Syracuse often during her elementary school years. The family settled permanently in the city during her middle school years. In her first election, she became president of her senior class at Corcoran High School, beating out a baseball player at what was then a very baseball-focused school community. “I was a disruptor for sure,” she says.
It was during those middle and high school years that she became invested in her community in many ways. “I was a product of all of the War on Poverty programs,” she says. She was one of the first children in the country who benefited from Head Start programming and participated in Upward Bound, a program that helps prepare students for college. She was a member of the Neighbor Youth Corps, which provided teenagers with summer employment opportunities. At 14, she worked as a fire prevention educator, teaching elementary school kids about fire safety. In that role, she worked with Deputy Chief Rudy Duncan Sr., one of the first African American deputy fire chiefs in the City of Syracuse.
During those formative years, some of González’s greatest lessons came from watching her parents engage in the greater community. They were activists who took part in the Model Cities movement and were founders of the Spanish Action League. Her father was an early member of Syracuse United Neighbors.
“In many respects, I was really blessed to have opportunities and experiences with interesting people who were really committed to community in the way they lived their lives and the work that they did,” she says. “For me, life is not transactional, it’s about building relationships.”
After graduation from Corcoran High School, González went to SUNY Binghamton through the Higher Education Opportunity Program. She stayed on there for eight years as a counselor in the HEOP program until coming back to Syracuse in 1984 to be closer to her family.
University College—A mission of access and inclusion
González came to Syracuse University as an academic counselor at UC. The college was a special place in the life of her family. Although neither of her parents had a high school diploma, they were able to participate in and benefit from UC programs to further their education. Both took courses at the college’s English Language Institute. Her mother participated in an Opportunity Program in the 1960s, which focused on providing professional development to paraprofessionals in the community. González herself was a first-generation student and HEOP alumna. “I know firsthand the benefits that UC programs have,” she says.
During her tenure at UC, from academic counselor to associate dean, interim dean (2004) to dean (2007), González focused on providing the best possible education and experience to students—first-generation students, part-time students and veterans—through programs that met their unique needs.
“I always saw UC as a mission-driven organization within the University with a very clear mission of access and inclusion,” González says. “UC has a history within the field of adult higher education for being an early adapter. I tried to be really true to that mission of creating opportunity through educational programming appropriate for the population.”
She also credits the people she has worked with over the years, both at UC and around the University. “I worked for great leaders and I learned so much from the people that came before me,” she says.
Is there any one student or experience from her time at UC that sticks out in her mind? “They all do,” González says. She remembers running into a former high school classmate in the lobby of UC. While both had gone to college at the same time, the woman was not able to finish her college education. She was at UC to start down the path to completing her education. She did just that, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree and master of social work degree.
“Four years ago, I got a letter from her son saying ‘thank you,’ because when his mother took the steps and the path to come back and finish her degree, it changed the entire family’s trajectory,” González says.
UC Dean Michael Frasciello says to know González is to understand her fearless and unwavering commitment to educational access and opportunity.
“I witnessed the power of Bea’s beliefs shortly after I joined University College. We were ‘debating’ how best to press University leadership to permit strategic expansion of online undergraduate programs. With her signature-measured tone, Bea concluded, ‘We will not do this—I will not do this—if it introduces another barrier to entry or obstacle to completion for our students. Show me that we can get online students in and over the finish line with the same quality, dignity and respect that we provide to our residential students, and I’ll support this.’
“Bea’s philosophy of service to non-traditional student populations is simple yet impactful: Remove as many barriers as you can, then create the conditions and opportunities that allow students to outlast the barriers that remain. Do that aggressively and respectfully, and you will succeed,” Frasciello says.
UC has played a special role in González’s family’s life in more ways than one. She met her husband, Michael, on a blind date at a college event in 1986. “He has been a part of my amazing journey,” she says.
A distinguished record of public service
González won her first election in the senior year of high school, but didn’t think of elected office again until January 1991, when then-Syracuse Mayor Tom Young appointed her to fill a vacant position on the Syracuse City School District board. She ran for the seat in November of that year. “Between January and May I had to learn how to build a campaign, run a campaign and win a campaign, and learn to be a school board member because I was already appointed,” she says.
Being a school board member is a challenging job. “When parents come to you with a school issue, it is very personal and emotional because it is about their children,” González says. “We were dealing with major disparity issues, funding issues, physical plant issues, all while trying to ensure the best possible experience for more than 20,000 students.”
González completed a four-year term on the school board but decided not to run for reelection to focus on raising her son, who was still young at the time. “I needed to make the choice to take care of my family first, but I said I would be back when my son goes to college,” she says. Her son, Nick, graduated from college in 2000, and, true to form, the phone call came. González was asked to run in the 2001 election for president of the Syracuse Common Council.
She ran and was elected, becoming the first Latino/a elected to the position. At that time, the council was dealing with a host of issues—a proposed curfew, the city schools, Destiny USA, the Midland Avenue sewage treatment plant and ongoing environmental issues with Onondaga Lake. She balanced her role as Common Council president with her full-time position at UC. In both roles she focused on the same mission—service to the community. “At City Hall, I totally focused on constituent service, which is what I did at UC as well, focused on student service. I really didn’t change my philosophy,” she says.
González has also had a great impact on the City of Syracuse through her service on a wide range of community boards. In 1990, University Trustee and community leader Judy Mower ’66, G’73, G’80, G’84 and fellow community leader Chuckie Holstein co-founded Leadership Greater Syracuse, a leadership development program. They turned to González to help ensure that the program engaged all people. “We wanted someone to help us keep our values in front of us,” Mower says. “That person was Bea.”
Mower also worked with González on the board of the Rosamond Gifford Foundation. They were two of three community members brought onboard to help overhaul the grant-making organization and make it more broadly focused and community based. “Bea is a joy to work with,” Mower says. “She is quick to laugh and fun to be with, but she is also quick to respond or challenge when a remark or proposed action is not made respectfully.”
Connecting the University and Syracuse communities
González was named special assistant to Chancellor Kent Syverud in 2015. In that role, she worked with diverse groups across campus.
“Bea has been a champion of our community, and of students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, for nearly four decades,” says Chancellor Syverud. “I am proud to know Bea and to have worked with her. This institution has learned a lot from her over the last 36 years. And we will be good students, as she would demand, and continue to honor that collective wisdom.”
“For more than 30 years, Bea’s vision, strategy and dedication created the opportunity for thousands of students to attend Syracuse University,” says J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation. “Her passion for our community is unmatched and she is truly a trailblazer. I thank Bea for her tireless devotion to our University, our neighbors and our city. We will miss her deeply as a colleague and friend.”
Keith A. Alford, the University’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, has known and interacted with González since he came to Syracuse in the mid-1990s. “Bea is an original and a true pioneer in so many ways. She has always been a staunch champion of social justice, a voice that has boldly helped move our campus and community forward,” he says. “When I think about how Syracuse University has benefited from her magnanimous influence and intentional focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, I smile with gratitude.
“I am enormously appreciative of the many efforts Bea has put forth to not only elevate discourse associated with diversity and inclusion, but to actively secure structural changes that have made our University more just and equitable,” Alford says.
González became the University’s vice president for community engagement in 2017. In that role, she works closely with Haynie, Interim Vice Chancellor and Provost John Liu, and the University’s academic deans and faculty on a variety of program development initiatives directly related to the University’s effort in community outreach, and consultative services to employers and government agencies.
“Community engagement is about taking and leveraging the needs and desires of our community and the needs and desires of our students and our staff and our faculty for the benefit of each,” she says.
One of the first things that González tackled in her new role was the perception that access to Syracuse University is hard to gain for members of the greater Syracuse community. Even though she is deeply connected to the broader community, González went on a listening tour. “I just wanted to hear what people had to say,” she says.
She found a need to build a stronger connection to the student resources at the University and to better prepare students to work in the community. That required partnerships with the Shaw Center, Hendricks Chapel and the Division of Enrollment and the Student Experience, and partnerships with the schools and colleges that were doing community placements. She started a conversation across all of these populations, now known as the Community Engagement Roundtable, to discuss shared goals and values and to encourage authentic and respectful engagement in the broader community. Efforts are also underway to connect the community to student volunteers through the Handshake platform.
One of the community engagement initiatives that González is most proud of is the Building Local strategy, which encourages the entire campus community to build local, hire local and buy local. González and Chancellor Syverud visited with community-based organizations to explore how connections could be made. On a visit to Catholic Charities, they discovered the organization has a commercial kitchen certificate program. González connected Catholic Charities with the University’s Office of Human Resources, which resulted in the hiring of community members to fill open positions in Food Services.
Other community organizations have since been added to the initiative, and 82 community members were offered positions at a job fair last July. A procurement fair last year was another piece of the puzzle. “We have opened up that door and started to rethink how we do business to level the playing field and to create opportunity.”
González has also been working with the Office of Admissions and the Syracuse City School District to begin visits to campus for district eighth graders. “I kept hearing that our kids don’t know that Syracuse University is real for them even though we have programs such as Say Yes to Education,” she says. “This is aimed at putting the option in their minds.” She has also laid the groundwork for University departments such as Information Technology Services, the Department of Public Safety and Campus Planning, Design and Construction to engage in mentorship opportunities in local schools.
It’s never a straight line—and pay it forward
As someone who has dedicated her career to helping students overcome challenges and preparing them for their world beyond the University, González has some advice for recent graduates who are entering the working world at a very challenging time.
“You have all the right skill sets, the time management skills and the problem-solving skills,” she says. “You need to continue to invest in yourself. I waited to be invited … don’t wait. It is nice to be invited, but it is okay to invite yourself.”
González also encourages students to invest in their communities and in others. “It’s really important that we pay it forward because none of us achieved anything by ourselves,” she says.
Once she retires, González plans to catch her breath and decide what her next step will be. She will continue to serve her community, including through new board positions with the Central New York Community Foundation and the Onondaga Historical Association. “I’ll stay connected,” she says.
And, no doubt, she will continue to run into people whose lives she helped transform during her years at Syracuse University.
“Syracuse University has allowed me to really follow my dreams of helping my community,” she says. “It was a perfect match.”