Judy Sakaki didn’t want to sell her home in North Natomas after more than a decade there, but her husband and sons pointed out that she wouldn’t be able to spend much time in the Sacramento Valley, what with her new post as president of Sonoma State and all.
Sakaki will be formally installed as president of that university in an April 20 investiture ceremony. But she took the reins at the college on July 1, becoming the first Japanese American woman to lead a four-year university in the United States. Her parents and grandparents were interned during World War II.
Sakaki moved to the Sacramento region from the Fresno area when she became vice president of student affairs at UC Davis in 2002. She held that position for four years before she was selected to take on that role for the entire UC system, working out of its headquarters in Oakland. While there, she maintained her Natomas residence and regularly returned to it on weekends and holidays. The youngest of her two sons, Gary, teaches high school English in Natomas.
The Bee asked Sakaki, who was reared in Oakland and lives in Santa Rosa, about leadership, her work ethic, what she hopes to accomplish at Sonoma State and more:
Q: What were early influences that put you on this career path?
A: My high school counselor directed me toward vocational education. She told me I would be really good in retail sales. I thought she had done me a favor by letting me get out of school early to work at Newberry’s, which was in downtown Oakland. It was a five-and-dime store.
I got out of school early, and I was sweeping popcorn and lining cosmetics up on shelves. Recently, I found my pay stubs. I was earning $1.65 an hour at Newberry’s.
I was getting to know the women working at the store. They were teaching me how to do certain things, lining the stock up, and I looked at them one evening, and I noticed that they were all women of color, and they were in their 40s and 50s and 60s, and I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this for the rest of my life. I just don’t know.”
Then I went back to my high school, Skyline High, and I happened to bump into an outreach counselor who was talking about going to college. That one person opened my eyes to the idea that there could be more. That was a pivotal point. That’s why I always state that one person can make a difference in your life. That one person, the counselor, steered me toward not going to college, but then another person helped me to realize that I could.
Q: What shaped your work ethic?
A: I never expected to become a single mom. My background is in developmental psychology and counseling. I read so many books about how difficult it was for single moms to raise children and to be able to provide for them and care for them and raise strong, young men and women. I worried about that (after divorcing in 1987).
I became even more driven, after I became a single mom, to make sure that my two sons, who were 3 and 5 at the time that their dad left – I wanted to make sure I could be the role model, provide for them. That pushed me. That’s when I went on to get my Ph.D. at Berkeley where I was working full time and raising these two young boys.
That’s why I say that my two sons are my hardest but proudest accomplishments. One of them, Gary (Sakaki Wong), is a high school English teacher in Sacramento. My oldest son, Dennis Sakaki Wong, is a family medicine and sports medicine physician in the Bay Area.
The funniest thing is, when I started here at Sonoma State, I was meeting with a group of student leaders, and right afterward, this young woman comes up to me, and she says, “Are you Mr. Wong’s mom?
I said, “Yes, I am.” And, she said, “Oh, he was my best teacher.” That was one of the proudest moments for me, to think that my kids are out there teaching and helping and making the community and world better by the work that they do.
Q: Your parents and grandparents were interned during World War II. Did that affect your family life?
A: I didn’t know about the internment. It was never taught at school, and my parents never said a word about it until I think I was in middle school, in junior high. I remember hearing something about “camp,” and in my experience, although I had never gone to camp, I thought of “camp” as summer camp. I remember going home and sitting at the dinner table and saying to my parents, “Somebody said the Japanese went to camp.”
I remember that so well because my father just looked at me, this hard look, and my mother shushed me, and we sat in silence for the rest of the dinner. I did not know what I had said or done.
That evening, I remember saying to my mom, What did I say that was so wrong?” I realized that I had to learn about the internment myself because the pain and the embarrassment was so raw for them, even years later.
I also have family artifacts that talk about the hope and resilience of a people, even in the most difficult situations. My family was interned in the desert, in Topaz, Utah, and the dirt was hard. But my mother said, if you dug in it, you would find shells in the sand, and she created a little heart pin made of these tiny shells. I wore that pin at the honorary degree ceremony where the University of California awarded degrees to Japanese Americans who were students at the University of California but could not finish because they were sent to the internment camps.
I was part of a group of who said we wanted to make that right. Many of these former internees were 90 years old. I remember one wonderful gentleman who walked across the stage at UCLA in a letterman jacket, and he could not play in the Rose Bowl that year because he was sent to the internment camp.
Q: What career or life moments shaped or defined your management style?
A: Norma Rees was one of the few women presidents at the time (I was studying education). She was the president of Cal State in Hayward, now East Bay. She took a special interest, asking me after I finished my Ph.D.: “What’s next?” I hadn’t even thought about it.
Michael Drake (now president of Ohio State University, who was previously a leader in the UC system) stands out for me because there have been periods in my career that have been really hard, where I’ve experienced a combination of, I would say, racism and sexism, and there were times when I questioned my ability to lead in traditional organizations and institutions.
Michael Drake pulled me aside one time and said, “It’s not you. Don’t lose your confidence. What you’re experiencing is not about you. It’s about the other person not understanding.” That was very significant in my career, when I almost felt like giving up.
I started my career out at Fresno State, working with John Welty. He created what he called a “dream team,” a Cabinet that was representative of the people of California. No matter what the situation or decisions he would have to make as president, he would ask us for our perspective, what we thought of it. That could be your life perspective or your academic, professional training. I think we were a better decision-making, advisory, leadership team because of that.
Q: What advice would you offer new grads?
A: One of my very favorite quotes is from Mary Church Terrell, who was an African American educator, and she coined this quote, “Lift as you climb,” and so that’s one of the things that really resonates with me. We didn’t get to where we are on our own.
Our responsibility is to continue to reach back and lift, so our students, when they graduate, they need to think about that they are now role models. They need to think about going back. I even tell our current students this: They need to think about going back to their communities and back to their neighborhoods and their churches and to their younger siblings or to their nieces or nephews or cousins and help them see what an education can do. It can open your eyes to things you never thought were possible.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
Title: President of Sonoma State
Education: Ph.D. in education with a focus on counseling psychology and higher education administration from UC Berkeley; master’s in educational psychology from CSU, Hayward, bachelor’s in human development from CSU, Hayward
Adages she cites:
Lift as you climb. It is meant to encourage those who have achieved success to reach back and show the path to others.
Tsumoreba yama to naru. Loosely translated from Japanese, it means that even specks of dust piled up become a mountain. This pile, Sakaki said, will let others climb higher and see further and reach higher than they ever dreamed possible.