Dr. Lynda Villanueva served as the keynote speaker for the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Baytown Chapter January luncheon.
Lee College’s new president, Dr. Lynda Villanueva, said she once read “true leadership is an act of love in the face of an uncertain world.”
“True leaders, those worthy of the word, lead us to truth, worth, wonder, imagination, joy, heartbreak, challenge, and to meaning,” Villanueva said, speaking to members of the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. “Real leaders appreciate the individual strengths of the people they work with, and they truly care about their well-being. Through love, they lead us to lives that matter.”
Villanueva served as the keynote speaker for the chamber ‘fireside chat,’ Tuesday afternoon at the Evergreen Clubhouse. She has just come on board the college as it’s new leader, taking the place of the soon-to-be-retired Dr. Dennis Brown.
“Today, I have the honor of representing Lee College as its 10th president in its 85-year
history,” Villanueva said. “In this role, I am the third female, the 2nd youngest, and, very importantly, the first ethnic minority. It’s impossible to describe what this moment in time means to me. I’ve had the dream of becoming a college president for as long as I can remember, and as I stand before you now, it is truly a dream come true.”
Villanueva said she had dedicated her entire career to supporting students to succeed, especially the most underserved.
“Some days are tough. These are the days when I know what I’m up against,” she said.
Villanueva said for the first time in history, more than half of the public K through12 education students are living free and reduced lunch lives.
“Can you imagine the enormity of that? This means that if you weren’t in school today, you might not eat,” she said.
The college president also pointed out that a child born poor in the United States today is more likely to remain poor than at any time in history.
“In fact, 70% of people born into the bottom 20% of income distribution never make it into the middle class,” Villanueva said. “What used to be heralded as ‘the great American middle class’ is truly shrinking. The only path to economic success – for both individuals and our nation – is to provide quality educational opportunities. Yet we’re really slipping here.”
Villanueva added the United States now ranks 16th in the world in completion rates, after leading the world in college degree completion for generations.
“This data clearly illustrates the challenge our nation faces in ensuring that we are competitively advantaged,” she said.
Villanueva also shared her personal struggles growing up and how it led to her to be a college president.
Her grandparents lived in Pusan, South Korea when the Japanese occupied the land.
“They owned a successful restaurant for a short time that, along with all of their belongings and home, was lost in a devastating fire,” Villanueva said. “This, along with World War II and the Korean War, forever altered the course of my mom’s life.”
Her grandfather died at the age of 55 of pneumonia. Her grandmother died 10 years later of lung cancer. Both died before Villanueva was born.
Her mother, whose name is Kye, never finished junior high school. On her father’s side, her grandfather was born and raised in Brownsville. He served in the U.S. Army and during World War II. He served in Fedala, Morocco when the Allied Forces invaded northern France. He was awarded a bronze star for his service in the war.
“When my grandfather returned from the war in 1945, he worked the rest of his life for John Deere down in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “And although he worked very hard at his roles, he was never recognized formally for his leadership efforts.”
Villanueva’s grandmother grew up in Matamoros, Mexico.
“She was never fluent in English. She spent her entire adult life raising other people’s kids in her home,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva’s father, Juan Santiago Villanueva, grew up picking cotton in the fields of the Rio Grande Valley. He ended up joining the U.S. Army and was stationed in Korea, where he met Villanueva’s mother. They married quickly. First, they had Villanueva and then her brother, Keith. They stayed married for 10 years before they divorced.
“I was 8 years old. My brother was 5. This was a defining moment in my life. Up until then, I woke up every day with the belief that the world was a safe place and that I was loved unconditionally. Everything changed after that,” she said.
Villanueva talked about how her father dealt with being a single parent. However, both parents remarried and had other children. Ultimately, Villanueva’s mother took over custody of her and her brother.
“And when this occurred, this marked a very dark chapter in our lives,” she said.
Having to deal with an alcoholic stepfather led to abuse.
“No matter how often I’ve shared it, it’s still painful to describe this period of our lives,” she said.
Eventually, Villanueva and her brother grew up. Today, he is a U.S. Navy officer, married and has a young son.
“Keith has come a long way from our difficult childhood, and I’m so very proud of him,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva struggled to make it through undergraduate school for eight years, but finally earned a degree and went to graduate school at the University of Houston. Today, she is married to her husband, Bill, and they have two children.
“So how did I get here? In a nutshell, I was fortunate to have crossed paths with some very special people who cared about my future,” she said. “ While my parents made mistakes, they did always love me. They just didn’t have the skills to make the best decisions for their kids. They did what we all do: They did the best they could with what they knew.”
Villanueva said she is here today thanks to the ordinary people who “gave of themselves and simply believed in me.”
“You know there seems to be this unspoken belief that the only stories worth telling are the ones that end up in history books,” she said. “But that’s not true. Every story matters. We are all worthy of telling our stories and being heard. We all need to be seen and heard in the same way that we all need air to breathe.”