Hilda Solis, '79, political science

Hilda SolisPursuing education and embracing opportunities are messages close to the heart of alumna and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. They are lessons that reflect her own experiences of growing up in the working-class community of La Puente, being the first in her family to attend college, serving in the House of Representatives and becoming the first Latina in a president’s Cabinet.

This academic year, Solis returned to campus as a scholar-in-residence. She sat down with us to reflect on her time as a student at Cal Poly Pomona, the value of education and the way she overcame obstacles.

What were your first impressions of college and Cal Poly Pomona?

I’ll never forget the orientation program because we had to stay in the dorms with students from various states and countries. It was my first experience living away from home. I was the first in my family to go to college, so it was quite a shock even though it was so close to where I grew up. It was a good experience because I learned to be more relaxed around different people and different surroundings.

College was very competitive. I actually enjoyed the experience. It forced you to really prioritize where you spent your time, and to set priorities. Through the Educational Opportunity Program, we had a strict regimen because we had to meet with counselors and make sure that we were making progress. At the time, I didn’t realize how important it was to have someone guide and advise you. Those are the type of support services that add value to your education.

What kind of leadership experiences did you have in college?

One of my first student jobs was through the program that recruited me here — the Educational Opportunity Program. I was asked to be a student recruiter and to conduct outreach at local high schools. The message was: “There are opportunities. Change the course of your life by preparing for a career. Apply your talents and skills. You can do it. Don’t let people put obstacles in your way. Realize your full potential.”

What kind of obstacles did you experience?

Not all public education at the secondary level is equal. At the time, there were students in my groups who were not geared toward a college education. Courses such as AP classes were not offered for people like me. I recall spending many hours in the library and summers preparing for my college course work. Even though you may come from a different socioeconomic background, that doesn’t have to determine your fate. That’s something I believe in. That’s a story that has to be told, because that’s what an education does. It helps to equalize and provide balance in our society. This year, we have 6,000 new freshmen and transfer students.

How should they approach college and what can they expect in the working world?

It’s a very competitive atmosphere right now because of the economic contractions. Businesses are looking for highly talented and skilled individuals. Find out what your passion is, what you like to do, and follow it. But also figure out what that means in terms of economic well-being, where you want to be and where you see yourself. I think its fine for young people to come in and aspire for one thing, but it’s OK to change your mind too. I did. I think I changed my major two or three times. You’re not going to fail. It’s really more about finding out your preferences and where you ultimately want to be happy.