Alumnus Named to Forbes "30 Under 30" in Education

by Caitlin Gipson

James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream as a “life [that is] better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.” Jonathan Garcia ’11, M.A.’12, exemplifies that dream while making it more attainable for those around him, and his efforts repeatedly pay off. So well, in fact, that Forbes Magazine recently named him on its 2018 list of “30 Under 30 in Education.” The 29-year-old APU alumnus has led several nationally recognized efforts to build networks of business and philanthropic leaders to invest in public education systems, resulting in more than $20 million in private investments to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Now in a similar role at the Portland Public Schools, the Oregon’s largest school system, he inspires the state’s influencers like Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Intel to help transform public education.

Garcia has reached heights he never imagined before he attended APU. “Outside of a few educators who helped create a sense of self and hope, it was difficult to see beyond the trauma of extreme poverty, community violence, and poor opportunities,” he said. The son of undocumented immigrants, he initially experienced discomfort when faced with privilege, affluence, and influence. That changed at APU. “I was a hyper-involved student, and it brought opportunities to befriend APU’s leaders. I discovered that I could speak and be heard, and even effect change.”

Recruited by APU’s Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity as a Multi-Ethnic Leadership and TELACU Scholar, Garcia served as president of the Latin American Student Association and spearheaded multiple efforts to improve the experience of Latino students at APU. He initiated an effort to offer part of the university’s website in Spanish, provide translation for monolingual guests at APU graduations, and later partnered with APU trustee Michael Lizárraga, LHD, to bring a proposal to university leaders to join the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). These steps aligned with the university’s intentional efforts to embrace diversity, reduce barriers, and increase access to education, resulting in significant improvements for the university’s Latino students and their families, which now make up xx percentage of APU students.

Garcia’s HACU proposal initiated the five-year membership process, teaching him that strategic connections with decision makers can bring about social good. “I became more comfortable being around people of influence,” Garcia said. “President Wallace mentored me, and I interacted with every member of the Board of Trustees and cabinet. My professors and coursework also helped me articulate a social justice equity lens that helped me understand my role and power to create change, and my interactions with classmates taught me to communicate with people who were sometimes very different from me.”

These skills readily transferred to Garcia’s career after graduation. SFUSD brought him on to lead one of the nation’s premier in-house strategic fund development departments, replacing a traditional independent fundraising model in K-12 public education. “I helped realize Vision 2025, San Francisco’s articulated vision toward a reimagined public education system,” Garcia said. “We asked, ‘What are the skills and dispositions that every child should have when they graduate from our schools?’ Then, we determined the shifts and pivots needed to get there and used philanthropic dollars to achieve it.”

Garcia’s team identified areas for major investments: innovation toward literacy in elementary; bold science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in the middle grades; and holistic college and career readiness in high school. “Once we identified the needs, we approached philanthropy and business leaders based on their particular area of charitable interest and encouraged them to use their funds to transform the way we do public education.”

However, Garcia had some convincing to do. Some pointed out that their taxes already pay for schools. Others, argued that they did not want their money to disappear into the black hole of government. “I had to clarify that I wasn’t asking them to pay for the basics that all public school systems should provide, but instead fund innovations to transform the system and support student achievement.”

Garcia’s partnership with Google, for example, centered around supporting African-American students. “The SFUSD graduates about 250 Black students each year,” he said. “Google was excited to invest in these students’ success in college and beyond. They pledged $1 million to make sure every African American 12th grader had dedicated college affordability advising.”

In all of these conversations, Garcia draws on the learning provided by those early social justice wins at APU. “Just yesterday, I had dinner with 20 people of influence in Portland, and I was the only person of color in the room,” Garcia said. “I’m committed to systemic change in education, and that involves getting the right people, and many diverse people, around the table, helping them become part of the solution.”

Caitlin Gipson ’01 is a freelance writer, marketing consultant, and search engine optimizer living in central California.

Originally published in the Summer '18 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.