Chancellor Smith and 10 students sit around a u shaped table for a discussion

Chancellor Gregory Smith believes that students wil find life-changing experiences when they engage with and invest in their SDCCD communities.

Q and A with Chancellor Gregory Smith

April 11, 2024 | San Diego Community College District

After serving as acting chancellor since March 2023, Gregory Smith's first official day as chancellor of the San Diego Community College District began February 1, 2024. 

We sat down for a question and answer session with Smith to get to know our new chancellor.

On a personal note ...

What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

My first career aspiration was to be the starting shortstop for the Oakland A’s, my second was to be an actor/filmmaker. On a whim, I enrolled in a theater class while I was at Cerro Coso. I did several plays including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, You Can’t Take It with You, Cyrano de Bergerac, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, among others. I enjoyed playing baseball and acting more than people enjoyed watching me play or act, so I had to find other career aspirations.


When you’re not at work, what are you doing?

I have a 2-year-old daughter so I’m at the park, at the beach, at the zoo, having tea parties, demonstrating my mastery of the alphabet, explaining why we don’t climb on coffee tables, and fondly recalling the days when I could sleep through the night. I used to read quite a bit, but the demands of life leave little time so I’ve finally embraced audiobooks. My wife and I enjoy cooking and are semi-professional foodies, so we love getting out and trying new and eclectic restaurants when we have a chance.


If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and why?

When I was younger, I would have answered with some historical figure of consequence that would impress people and whom I hoped could share some brilliance I could learn from. Or, to be funny, I might have answered with a renowned chef who would prepare the most amazing meal I would ever eat.

As life progresses, our priorities change, and my answers are more personal and pragmatic now than when I was younger. Lunches with my wife and daughter mean the world to me and I cherish those moments. I wish I could have lunch with my grandma or dad, whom I miss dearly. I think of friends I haven’t seen recently and opportunities to sit and reconnect over a meal.


What drew your interest to English during your undergraduate studies?

I was drawn to language and storytelling from a very early age. I remember feeling books were almost magical, able to create people, places, and events through my imagination. I would ask my mom to read me books over and over again, to the point I memorized the words before I could even read them. She likes to tell the stories of me at 2 years old sitting and reciting the words in a book, turning the pages at the correct moment, and other adults thinking I could actually read.

Over the course of my childhood, I increasingly recognized the power of words and language to shape how we understand the world and each other. I had no idea what I would do professionally with an undergraduate degree in English literature, so, it was purely an academic interest at that point in my life.

I didn’t fully appreciate the value of my English studies until early in my professional career. Years of reading, studying, contemplating, and writing about literature provided me with a strong foundation of communication skills which I believe are the primary source of my professional success and are skills essential to every career path.

I never intended to have two baccalaureate degrees or to pursue a degree in political science. As so often happens, a situation that seemed negative at the moment proved to be life-changing in the best ways. I moved from California to Arizona for personal reasons in the late 1990s. I had transferred from Cerro Coso Community College to CSU Northridge with the intention of finishing my degree in English Literature. I moved to Phoenix after one semester at CSUN and went to work in retail electronics and set about establishing Arizona residency so I could continue my education at Arizona State

University. It took four years for ASU to consider me a resident for tuition purposes. When I was finally able to enroll, I met with a counselor and learned Arizona would not count my high school foreign language courses towards my degree requirement. While I had fewer than 10 upper division English courses to complete for my degree, I had four semesters of foreign language courses to complete.

My counselor noted the majority of my elective classes at Cerro Coso were political science courses and I could double-major or minor in political science within the same timeframe it would take me to complete my foreign language requirement. So I did.

I had not realized how many political science classes I had taken until it was pointed out to me. As I reflected on it, it became clear I was very interested in political philosophy and how people come together to decide how power and governance will be organized within a society. As I progressed in the upper division coursework, I learned the basics of social science and statistical analysis and discovered an aptitude and interest in using data to identify patterns in human behavior and decision-making. Those courses provided the knowledge base that led to my career in the Department of Labor. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.


What advice do you have for students walking into an SDCCD classroom for the first time?

Engage! You are capable of extraordinary accomplishments when you show up and engage. Build relationships with your peers, your faculty, and the professionals serving you the various offices you enter. Invest in being part of our community and you will have incredible, life-changing experiences in higher education.


What is the legacy you to hope to leave behind in this world?

The legacy I wish to leave is one of hope. I try to be relentlessly optimistic in every aspect of my life. Tomorrow always has the possibility of being better than today, if we can only envision it and work towards it.

Professionally, I hope my work will have strengthened the foundation of the organizations I served such that they create more public value and better serve the full diversity of their communities well beyond my years of service.

Personally, my legacy will be the relationships I have built over the course of my life. I hope the majority of people will feel I impacted their life positively in some unique way. The defining feature of the most impactful relationships in my life is the gratitude I feel from knowing and interacting with another person. I hope my actions will leave the majority of people I have known feeling grateful for the time we had together.


What is one thing you wish all people knew about the SDCCD, its faculty and classified professionals, and its students?

The social value we are creating. There is a lot of national and local discussion around the role and value of education in America. Most of the conversation I hear or read is framed by political viewpoints, financial considerations, or ideological concerns. Those are important, valid issues. I would offer they highlight the value and importance of education, not diminish it.

Higher education is not an abstraction. It is human interaction and engagement. Our students make an extraordinary commitment to showing up, making sacrifices in other parts of their lives, and deepening their knowledge, skills, and abilities. They go on to put their training and preparation to use within our society in so many different ways that allow us all to enjoy a better quality of life.

Our faculty devote their academic and professional lives to guiding students through the discovery and mastery of knowledge. Their service gives people the tools to make valuable contributions within their professional lives.

Our classified professionals devote their professional lives to facilitating every aspect of our instruction, services, and operations. Collectively, we come together to mutually invest in improving the human experience. If everyone understood education in this context, I cannot imagine anyone would question its value. There is much to debate about the appropriate way education should function within a complex, diverse, democratic society; there should be no debate education is essential and those who choose to engage in education deserve our highest appreciation.


Related article: Chancellor begins new role with clear focus on equity and opportunity

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