After graduating from Aquinas, Juan Olivarez began his teaching career in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Aquinas College President Juan Olivarez gets personal when he likens higher education to a passport to a life chockablock with purpose.
“Education was my ticket out of poverty,” said Olivarez, who became Aquinas’ seventh president July 1, 2011, and was inaugurated Oct. 26 that year.
“It’s an investment. Nobody can take it away from you. My parents made education for my brother and I top of everything. They didn’t have an education. Life was hard for them.”
A native of Texas, Olivarez and his family moved to East Chicago, where his father worked in the steel mills in Gary, Ind.
In 1967, Olivarez arrived in Grand Rapids to enroll as a freshman at Aquinas College. On the surface, it may sound like a cliché to say he found the Catholic liberal arts college, founded by Dominican sisters in 1886, an eye-opening experience, but he means it.
“I came to Aquinas at 17 and graduated at 21,” he said. “I think of that time as my real formative years, learning things I never experienced before. Being among a diverse group of people really changed my world, my perspective.
“I want that for other people.”
Olivarez started making that possible when his career in education began in 1971 at Grand Rapids Public Schools. He initially taught first grade, becoming one of the first bilingual teachers in the district. He taught at GRPS for 20 years.
Meanwhile, he earned a master’s degree in educational psychology from Wayne State University and, in 1986, he earned a doctorate in family and child ecology from Michigan State University. Family and child ecology is the study and practice of understanding and enhancing the well-being of families and individuals across the lifespan.
Though he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation more than 20 years ago, he still can recall the theme of his study, which he says remains apropos today.
“I looked at young boys’ behavior, the environment and how boys behave,” said Olivarez. “I wanted to prove we create the behavior children respond to.”
Olivarez was tapped as Grand Rapids Community College’s president in 1999 and served in that position until 2008.
He then went to work as president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, a post he held from July 2008 through June 2011, and one he was content to remain with — or so he thought.
There are several reasons he was drawn to the presidency at Aquinas. For one thing, it was where, as a student, he met his wife, Mary. The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in May 2011.
And then there was his strong sense that the presidency was an opportunity for him to give back to the college that had played an important role in shaping his life. Essentially, this was an opportunity to pay it forward, he said.
“I think, for me, being in education has been a real calling,” said Olivarez. “I loved working at the (Kalamazoo Community) Foundation, but I missed that direct contact with students. (Working at the foundation) was the first time in 37 years that I didn’t have that. Part of the reason for coming back to Aquinas was I want to be a mentor, to help shape the education of students.”
As he reflects on his career in education, Olivarez compares and contrasts the issues students face today with a campus life that was far different when he was cracking the books.
“Technology today is a blessing and a curse,” he said. “(Students) are bombarded with information, and that’s really a distraction. The pace when I was here was a good pace. It was taking the time to be in the moment. We didn’t have cell phones, texting and massive amounts of daily information and news. They have the challenge of sorting through all of this — what’s real and what’s not.”
Compounding the problem are faceless online posts attempting to sway a person’s way of thinking, some of it for nefarious reasons, with scant time for students to scout out their veracity, according to Olivarez.
Olivarez also believes that expectations of students today are not the same as they were for him.
“I don’t think we’re expecting as much from our students,” he said. “Some might say we’re expecting too much, such as we’re big on sports. But I think expectation isn’t focused.”
This dearth of academic achievement is already rearing its head in sobering ways, said Olivarez. The United States clearly is lacking enough qualified people to fulfill the job openings that go begging in what are known as STEM careers: in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Olivarez plots out some of the sign posts. Some of the problem is due to a tall order of skill sets employers want potential hires to fulfill.
“We are wanting a lot of our students but are not getting enough from our students,” said Olivarez. “They’re confused, in some ways. Employers do want specialists. … But in terms of attributes, they want employees to be well rounded, with critical thinking, communication skills, problem solvers and a good grasp of history.”
Some of this range of educational achievement rests on teachers’ shoulders, said Olivarez.
“Teaching is a wonderful career, but they need to learn how learning happens,” he said. “It’s not just having kids stand in a straight line. Teachers have to know so much more today.”
The gaggle of program choices on television, the near-infinite offerings of the Internet and the different mores of Gen X and Gen Y add up to the sobering reality that educators have not been able to keep pace with it all, said Olivarez.
Olivarez also argues it’s time to take a serious look at the three months school districts take off during the summer. That hiatus from school learning was needed when the nation was largely an agrarian economy and young people were needed to work on their parents’ farms. But today, Olivarez said, so much of what students learn during the school year is lost over those three months.
“I’m the first to say students and teachers need a break, but there needs to be a balance,” said Olivarez. “Some districts have specialty buildings (that offer year-long school), but it’s not part of the system. The challenge is to try to create a program in all of a district.
“That’s not to say this is a simple challenge, but we’ve got to make some drastic changes. There are a lot of small schools that are making changes, but when they take it out of the system, no one wants to make the drastic changes. Unfortunately, it’s keeping us behind.”
Olivarez sees other reforms he said must be made, including the way schools are funded and how teachers are promoted.
“There are great things happening in education in America, Grand Rapids and at Aquinas. It just isn’t enough,” he said.
He is a strong proponent of early childhood education.
“I believe so strongly you have to shape students early on in their learning experience in the new world, because students must have capabilities, cognitively,” he said.
He’s learned from his younger brother, who was born with Down syndrome, not to box people in with preconceived ideas.
“He shaped how I see kids and how I see potential,” said Olivarez.