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Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama: Inspiring Speaker, Inspiring Woman

Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama

Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama

On a wet, chilly evening in early March (Women’s History month), a small and attentive group gathers in Todd Hall to hear Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama give an intriguing and powerful talk.  Margarita is the third woman to speak in WSU’s Week of Women Speakers, presented by the Coalition for Women Students.  After listening to her speak, it is evident that this woman is quite remarkable—and her passion to promote justice and equality is inspired by the time she spent as a student at WSU.  Even back then, she knew her future career needed to incorporate her campus activities.   “You can have jobs where you live out your passions,” she insists.  Her words encourage students who have chosen a field of study based on their interests, rather than practicality.

Margarita was born in Yakima and grew up in a large family of farm workers.  Though her parents placed an emphasis on education, being a farm worker kid also meant there was less of a chance that Margarita and her siblings would graduate from high school. She views the situation differently, however, and argues that farm worker children use their Mexican heritage to their advantage—it helps them to succeed.

To describe Margarita as being involved is an understatement—during her college years she was a Chicano student leader, participated in the national Chicano Movement, and was one of two MeChA founders and the only student in a committee proposing a Chicano Studies Program.  She was also the former chair of the Racial Justice Training Committee, which promoted racial injustice awareness and provided racial justice training in dorms, fraternities, and sororities.  Since the time when Margarita was a student at WSU, racial diversity has come a long way. When she came to Pullman, there were only six Mexican students. She saw this as a problem, and by working to fix it she was able to banish stereotypes and build trust among Chicano students. Margarita’s involvement in various activities on campus was not without criticism from the WSU administration; in fact she says that they couldn’t wait for her to graduate!  Later, when Margarita began working at WSU, the ratio of colored faculty members increased from 12% to 25% and a corresponding increase in students of color soon followed.

Margarita has spent 37 years as a civil and human rights professional, has held a position with the Washington State Department of Transportation (as diversity programs administrator), and has worked as a staff member for governors, an attorney general, a college president and agency directors.  Throughout all of her professional experience, Margarita has been tenacious in holding people accountable for their job responsibilities. Yet, despite all she’s been through, this ambitious woman describes life as a joyful struggle, something worth struggling for.  She has also maintained a positive attitude, viewing every person she meets as a way to learn more.

Despite her recent retirement, it’s obvious that Margarita still has so much energy and passion for life. “I’m not done.  There’s more to Margarita that is yet to happen,” she concludes.  This is an easy statement to believe when it comes from such an accomplished woman.


With Eyes Wide Open” (profile of Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama in Washington State Magazine, Summer 2003)

Speculating on Bros, Jocks and Diplomas

A lot of factors—like money and a good high school GPA—naturally improve one’s chances of completing college. But an analysis by WSU researchers has unearthed a few surprises, like membership in a sorority or fraternity, or participation in varsity sports.

The study, which looked at nearly 6,000 WSU freshmen enrolled in the fall of either 2002 or 2003, found varsity athletes are more than twice as likely as similar non- athletes to graduate in five or six years. Students in a fraternity or sorority were nearly three times as likely to graduate as similar students outside the Greek system.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen was a WSU Phi Kappa Theta and dropout. But a WSU study suggests Greek life and varsity athletics generally improve a student's chances of graduating.

This is important stuff, given that one-half to one-third of freshman don’t graduate in six years, depending on the school. That may have helped the project earn the “Best Poster” award at a meeting this year of the Association for Institutional Research.

It’s also something of a surprise if you’re among those clinging to certain notions about “Animal House” fraternities and the alleged oxymoron, “student-athlete.” As the Huffington Post put it, “The phrase ‘dumb jocks’ is officially bogus, at least according to a new study out of Washington State University.”

Vicki McCracken, a professor of Economic Sciences and co-author of the study, notes that there are strong statistical relationships between factors like varsity sports and graduation, but establishing causal relationships is outside the power of social science. In other words, varsity athletes tend to graduate more frequently, but it’s not possible to say they graduate because of their athletic participation.

But it is possible to speculate on why one might lead to the other.

To whit:

Finances are a huge reason students stop going to college. Many athletes get financial aid, and need to maintain good grades to keep the aid. Many also have tutors, computer labs and other academic support.

Athletes can be disciplined, hard-working people. Try hitting a tackling dummy in the heat or enduring three hours of controlled suffocation in a pool.

Yet another theory: Greek life and athletic participation are measures of student engagement. Disengage, and you are lost, floundering and uninspired, making it easy to leave and do something else.

For Greeks and athletes, says McCracken, “there’s another reason for being here. It’s not just the academics.”

Feel free to join in the speculation. It’s one of the great intellectual parlor games.

And you might consider another feature unearthed by the study, a poster of which can be seen here: Just as being an athlete seems to boost one’s chances of graduating, so does being female.

Ready, set, discuss.