In recognition of Women’s History Month, we are publishing a series of blogs about the women behind EDC—our fearless leaders, our board members, our executive committee, our guiding lights. Up next, an inspiration for women and immigrants in STEM, President/Superintendent of Mira Costa College, Dr. Sunny Cooke.
Tell us who you are and what you do. Why did you choose your career?
As President/Superintendent of MiraCosta College, located in North County San Diego, I’m proud to serve 30,000 diverse students with degree/certificate programs designed to prepare them for careers and university transfer.
Defined by uncommon experiences and identities, my purpose is shaped by simultaneously being part of various “minority groups.” For example, I was raised as a Christian in India—a belief only practiced by two percent of the nation’s population.
Arriving in the U.S. during the civil rights movement with only $40 to my family’s name (Indian law permitted $8 per person), we, like many immigrant families, rebuilt our lives. I spent grades 7-12 in a very rural part of the county where my family made up the only people of color… for counties. Being forged in the crucible of life has driven me.
For my family, education is a means of empowerment in service to others. Majoring in biology, I received a teaching credential, and a doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology from Georgetown University. My post-doctoral research brought me to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Shortly after, I was hired by a community college to teach biology/biotechnology as the first faculty of color and the only woman in the sciences. Community colleges open doors for people who have not been included, and my life experiences make me steadfast in my commitment to create truly inclusive environments.
Married to a supportive and patient man for 35 years, as my greatest supporter and life partner, we are proud of the remarkable son we raised.
What does your involvement in EDC mean to you?
Workforce and economic development are central to my career in higher education over the past 25 years. Collaboration in San Diego is most evident in groups like EDC where business, education, and community-based organizations gather to build, grow, support, and sustain our community. Our recent emphasis on inclusive economic development has been critical to ensure historically marginalized communities thrive and are meaningfully connected with opportunities not yet equitably afforded to them.
Community colleges are crucial to inclusive workforce development because they serve as the gateway to educational opportunity helping individuals achieve family sustaining jobs important to our regional economy.
What role do you see women playing across the San Diego region in the next five years?
Because so many of us have been pioneers or trailblazers in areas where women were not traditionally seen, we are keenly aware of what it is like to get there. We most likely can identify with those that struggle to be seen, heard, and included, and most of us can pinpoint individuals who believed in and supported us to become leaders in our respective fields. Our mentors are individuals who have shifted the trajectory of our careers and lives. We have a duty to lift up those that come after us.
Women have had to be strong and resilient. We have learned to partner with ease and shift between leadership and followership. Oftentimes, our compassion, empathy, and desire for connectedness have been interpreted as weakness. Yet, my experience is that when we lead authentically and caringly, we set a stage for inclusive excellence. My hope is that our region empowers and collaboratively works towards the betterment of all San Diegans. Those of us who have benefitted from the encouragement, inclusion, and support of others, must bravely advocate for others who still do not have the opportunity and hope that they deserve.
I look behind me and see future leaders and community builders that I support and from whom I strive to learn each day. As a result of COVID-19, rebuilding our lives, communities, and organizations will require new leadership skills and collaborations.
Share with us your favorite quote.
Two favorites from Mahatma Gandhi:
- “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
- “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
What advice do you have for women in business?
You do you! Although it may be difficult in some workspaces and situations, find ways to connect to your authentic self as you lead. Do the interpersonal and intrapersonal reflection required to truly lead in an inclusive way as you address systems and structures that were not designed for the people we currently serve. Seek out allies—progressive leaders (men and women) who share your values, beliefs, passion, and positivity. For me, it’s about creating a just, equitable, and sustainable future.
So many incredible women that have inspired me. Today I honor my beloved mother who passed, Anna Verghese. A loving mother, minister’s wife, career woman, community volunteer. She gave of herself, displayed courage & strength like no other! Miss you mom! ❤️ https://t.co/URzem7Uh4E
— Sunny Cooke (@MiraCostaPrez) March 8, 2021
Follow along with Dr. Cooke on Twitter: @MiraCostaPrez