SJCC's President Rowena Tomaneng driven by commitment to social justice & equity in educatio

When Rowena Tomaneng was a child, her mother would often tell her stories of her grandfather. He was a “Faith Healer" in their family's village in Mondoro, a large island located in the Philippines.

A Faith Healer is one who heals with one’s hands, and this gift is believed to be passed down in a family.

Tomaneng’s grandfather was highly sought after among the villagers, who would often call him to their homes for uplift, healing, and support. It was through hearing these stories of her grandfather that a deep sense of community service imprinted itself upon Tomaneng’s mind and spirit.

This is something she carries with her today—something that informs her in her role as President of San Jose City College (SJCC).

This passion for serving others—-along with her commitment to social justice, equity, and education—is something Tomaneng embodies so deeply that her every action seems to spring from it. When she was working as a Professor at De Anza College, she co-founded a community and civic engagement institute known then as the Institute of Community and Civic Engagement (ICCE), which included a youth leadership development program along with training in community organizing. (The institute has since been named Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action, or VIDA.)

“We also worked on thematic-based initiatives,” said Tomaneng. "We had a women’s initiative based on exploring and taking action when it comes to violence against women issues, and we worked with Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women.”

While serving as President of Berkeley City College (BCC), from 2016-2020, Tomaneng contributed her passion and attention toward developing and increasing resources, services, and curricula for low-income students of color. She also helped to enhance the Undocumented Community Resource Center, which was involved with advocacy work around immigrant rights issues, along with voter education and engagement. Overall, as an educator for the past 25 years, Tomaneng has been fiercely committed to providing an educational experience that deepens students’ understanding of themselves and the world around them, and teaching courses such as Asian American Studies and Women’s Studies has only served to strengthen that commitment.

In the meantime, Tomaneng is currently serving as a Board Member for California Campus Compact, which works to advance civic and community engagement throughout colleges and universities across California. She is also co-Chair for Community Colleges for Democracy, an organization that mobilizes students and supports them in being informed and active leaders engaged on their campuses and in their communities.

As Tomaneng moves into the eighth month of her presidency with SJCC (during a pandemic, no less), she remains as committed as ever to engaging with her community and doing all she can to close racial opportunity gaps in education, especially Black and Brown students who continue to be disproportionately impacted.

Tomaneng first set foot on the SJCC campus as President in January, 2020, just two months before COVID-19 shut everything down.

"I felt fortunate that I had a solid two months of face-to-face, in-person contact with the community here. In that time, I was able to meet different leaders on campus representing our different constituencies. I got to know some of the areas and initiates that were underway,” said Tomaneng. "Really, in the first year and a half of a presidency, you’re on a listening’re sitting down and meeting with organizations, students, managers…to take in as much information as possible.”

When the college shut down in mid-March, not a moment was wasted; distance learning was swiftly activated. College Emergency Response Teams were established and began to meet up regularly.

"The challenge at the same time was that we still had to continue meeting the deadlines of the work and initiatives that already existed,” said Tomaneng. "You just felt that all of a sudden you were given this additional job on top of the job you were already expected to do."

Since the majority of SJCC faculty had never taught in an online format, the college began to hold online trainings and distance education academies. Over the last five months, most of the faculty has been trained, and the trainings and academies have remained ongoing.

In addition, SJCC has been loaning out Chromebooks and laptops, while also providing students with wifi hotspots. Recently, the college ordered a hundred additional hot spots to deploy when needed.

"Another thing we did through the Federal CARES Act and college foundation funds is that we’ve been able to distribute emergency grants,” said Tomaneng. “We’ve distributed at least a million dollars in student emergency grants of $500 each.”

During this challenging time, that money has gone a long way toward supporting students in paying for bills and buying essential items.

At present, SJCC’s main campus and Milpitas Extension campus are both closed and are not offering in-person classes, with the exception of Allied Health Programs such as Emergency Medical Services.

Although college officials are not sure when in-person classes will resume, Tomaneng remains committed to ensuring that students receive equitable access to education, and continues to look for ways to deepen student engagement.

"When we engage with students and connect them more deeply to our programs and faculty and clubs, we’re fostering a sense of belonging and connection,” Tomaneng stated. “And there is research that shows when you increase engagement with students, it increases their academic engagement and achievement.”

As far as the future is concerned, along with increasing engagement opportunities for students, Tomaneng is also focused on implementing high-impact student equity and student success practices within the institution. She seeks to be part of the solution when it comes to closing opportunity gaps for Latinos and African-American students who are the most disproportionately impacted in terms of academic achievement.

And since mental health is a concern, and one that must be prioritized, Tomaneng looks forward to hosting wellness events at the college, and working with new student government leaders to sponsor listening and sharing sessions, the better to hear student voices and determine how to best improve their services.

While Tomaneng was at Berkeley City College, she and others worked hard to accomplish increased voter engagement among students, which led to them being designated a Voter Friendly Campus (VFC). Prior to Tomaneng leaving her position at BCC, the college partnered with Rock the Congress East Bay to hold an on-campus event. This is something Tomaneng hopes to continue at SJCC.

“I’m very blessed and fortunate to have so many employees who are passionate and committed to the college and to the students,” said Tomaneng. “I have many employees who are very active and always thinking about how we can do better to meet our students’ needs—from affordability issues to connecting with them better on the instructional side to thinking about how we can provide more emergency grants.”

In addition to that, SJCC’s mission is one that resonates with Tomaneng, aligning deeply to the core of who she is:

“Our mission is to provide equitable access, opportunities, and social justice. I want to engage our students and participate in uplifting marginalized communities in which our students come from,” said Tomaneng. “I feel fortunate to be part of a community that always wants to do better.”