Equity in education ensures that every student has access to quality learning resources regardless of race, gender, and social status. Our featured Haas alum for the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month is Guadalupe Nickell. She understands that students need specialized support to succeed in school and life. Guadalupe’s experiences as a student with a biracial heritage motivated her to address challenges in the public education system. She is a graduate of Berkeley Columbia EMBA at Haas School of Business. After establishing a career in the nonprofit sector, she went back to UC Berkeley as Assistant Dean for Development and External Relations at the Graduate School of Education.
Listen to this conversation on aligning professional experience in philanthropic work and leadership to address the barriers to equitable education.
What drives you to support fair access to quality education for students?
[00:01:59] “Growing up in Oakland, my parents always really drove home the importance of education. And I think all parents want the best for their kids. From an early age, the message was always, “Education is something that no one can ever take away.”
On working in the public education space
[00:16:45] “I’ve always been very curious about Berkeley as an engine of social mobility. The California public university system is a jewel and not many other states have invested in this way. And as someone who started my non-profit career, I really hit my stride when I started to align both my professional experience in philanthropy and in leadership, but then also drawing on that personal motivation and inspiration around the opportunity that education can provide and the doors that it can open. I found myself getting more and more drawn to that space.
The opportunity to work at this kind of scale within the public education system at the graduate school of education, where we are producing teachers and principals and researchers and policymakers, was just a really exciting opportunity to continue working in a space, but from a very different place.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today I’m joined by Guadalupe Nickell. She is the Assistant Dean in Development and External Relations of the Graduate School of Education here at Berkeley. But most importantly, she is a Haas alum. She was part of the Berkeley Columbia Executive MBA program, which was an amazing program.
Sean: We’ve interviewed a bunch of people on the podcast from the program and heard such amazing things about the bi-coastal program. But before we get into all of that, I do have to share your background, your current role as well. You are the Assistant Dean of Development and External Relations at our Berkeley Graduate School of Education which is awesome. My parents are educators. They’re both in the School of Education.
Guadalupe Nickell: Much gratitude to them.
Sean: I’ve a lot of respect for the school of education, but Lupe, before we start, would love to hear about your background, where you grew up, where you’re from, especially being Hispanic heritage.
Guadalupe Nickell: Thank you, Sean. And this is such a cool concept and I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to share my story. I am born and raised in Oakland. I am the daughter of a couple that met at Oakland High in the early seventies at a time when there were not a lot of interracial marriages.
Guadalupe Nickell: So, my mother is Mexican-American, born and raised in Texas. And my father is white and his lineage is from England and Germany. And he grew up in Oakland as well. I feel like my story is a bay area story with our diversity and I always think of my biracial heritage as a superpower.
Guadalupe Nickell: It is something that has allowed me to just have greater perspective and empathy from a very early age. But, you know, growing up in Oakland, my parents always really drove home the importance of education. And, you know, my father was a carpenter and my mother stayed home to raise us. I’m the oldest of three. And some of my very vivid memories of middle school was being a part of a program called MESA, which is Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement, and it was targeted for middle-schoolers in OUSD and other neighboring school districts. And we spent our Saturday afternoons on the north end of the Berkeley campus, working in engineering and all sorts of what we now call STEM projects. But those Saturday afternoons, you know, running around Bechtle auditorium just gave me that first experience of being on a college campus and allowed me to really dare to dream about imagining myself on the college campus. And this was something that, you know, my parents always wanted for their children. And I think all parents want the best for their kids. And from an early age, the message was always education is something that no one can ever take away from you.
Sean: That’s amazing. I had the privilege of interviewing another Haas alum, Chris Cindy Cordova. She’s also Hispanic, grew up in LA, and she was also mentioning kind of the MESA program or something similar for her down here and inspired her to go to work in the aerospace engineering space. So, that was pretty awesome.
Sean: I find that you had mentioned that, you know, there’s this bay area diversity that is quite different. And I noticed that as well. You know, I grew up in Michigan. I was born in China, grew up in Michigan, and I moved to LA shortly after college.
Sean: And LA feels very diverse, right, but at the same time it’s not because it’s very spread out, right. You have these pockets of communities and you have, you know, Korea town, little Tokyo yet, like everybody has their own little town and area. Right. Whereas the one thing I loved about the bay area was because of the limited space and the density of it, everybody was just kind of on top of each other. And so, you had true diversity in that sense where people were intermingling and less segregated. And I just loved that cultural vibe because whenever I go out to the bar, after class, obviously.
Guadalupe Nickell: Right. Never, never before.
Sean: Never before. You would just see such a diversity of people versus in LA it’s, you know, it’s Asian night, Hispanic night, you know, black night, you know, it’s like at the club, it’s just, it’s like different themes. It’s like, why is that for such a diverse city? Right. So, that was really interesting.
Guadalupe Nickell: Well, and I think it does have something to do with space and how neighborhoods are structured. You know, the Oakland that I grew up in the seventies and eighties is very different from the Oakland that we are in today. But I still think that spirit of multiculturalism and political activism and thinking critically about society, that is part of the east bay’s heritage. And that is Oakland’s DNA, a thousand percent.
Sean: Absolutely. So, tell us a little bit about, you know, what you did before coming to Haas. I noticed you went to the east coast, you went to Princeton, you went pretty far from home to college.
Guadalupe Nickell: Yes. So, I got involved with a program while I was in middle school. My eighth-grade Life science teacher, I was just sharing this reflection with someone, those moments that you never forget, my eighth-grade Life Science teacher at what was then McChesney Junior High School and is now Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland. She sort of pulled me up to the front of the class and to have a one-on-one conversation and said, where are your parents going to send you to high school next year? And I was like, oh, I don’t know Mrs. Greer. You know, my parents, they went to Oakland High. They want something better for me but we don’t, you know, we’re not really sure what else is out there.
Guadalupe Nickell: And long story short, this was how I got introduced to a program called A Better Chance. And A Better Chance was born out of the civil rights movement of the sixties as an effort to diversify the admissions pipelines for private independent schools across the country. So, your top college prep schools.
Guadalupe Nickell: And this is how a girl from Oakland ends up at an elite boarding school in Southern California for high school. And from there, I had a very romanticized idea of going to college back east where the leaves change colors and I could, you know, be on the same campus as Brooke Shields. I wanted to go east and then that’s how I ended up at Princeton. The first in my family to go to college. And I knew there was a great big world out there and I was ready to see more of it.
Sean: How did you pick architecture as a degree?
Guadalupe Nickell: So, it actually goes back to those early MESA days in middle school. I loved physics. I loved math. I loved the sort of surety of the physical sciences and it all made sense. I remember building a solar powered remote control car. That was the project at MESA. And mine was modeled after Jose Canseco’s Jaguar because I’m also a huge A’s fan.
Guadalupe Nickell: And it’s just this right there gives you like a very late eighties vibe to this story. But I matriculated at Princeton as an engineering student. So, I was joint civil engineering and architecture. And, you know, my freshman year at Princeton, I had a hard time. It was a different level. I mean, I was prepared academically. I was somewhat prepared socially but it was just a whole new level of wealth, of social stratification, of, you know, certainly the, you know, coursework was very demanding, particularly in engineering. And, you know, I never forget that freshmen physics lecture where you’re in this gigantic lecture hall and McCosh 50, and you know, the professor saying this is where Einstein sat right here and I’m looking around and there is not a single other person in a class that looks like me.
Guadalupe Nickell: So, I’m someone who I wish there had been more supports. I wish the supports that they have now for first-gen students, women of color, who are interested in STEM careers, you know, I think there’s so much more support for them now. But what I ended up doing, I ended up dropping the engineering but sticking with the architecture.
Guadalupe Nickell: I loved studio. I’d love to drafting. I actually had to take a CAD course at Berkeley over the summer because Princeton did not yet offer AutoCAD because they are so into the Wu theory and never actually designing a building that would stand. And those again, I’m dating myself. This is the mid-nineties at this point, but, I feel, and I may have had this conversation with many, many friends, first-gen college bound students can feel a tremendous amount of pressure to study something that is practical, that they can explain to their parents, that they can make a good living at. And at the time as an undergrad at Princeton, like being a complex major and studying Portuguese and French and Italian and Spanish and reading books and all those language like that just did not even feel like something I was allowed to do.
Guadalupe Nickell: And not because of anything my parents said, but it was just like this self-imposed restriction. And that is a regret. That is a regret. And then I was at Princeton at a time when you had Tony Morrison in the creative writing department and, you know, just incredible people on campus to learn from.
But I believe everything happens for a reason and this is all part of my journey. And as someone who now works in public education and has done a lot of work at nonprofits to support first gen students, I draw from that personal experience of knowing what it’s like to have to navigate those classes, those pathways, those decisions.
Sean: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that story. A lot of it’s just so true, you know, things that we don’t think about, right. Especially I think at this stage in our lives, have been Berkeley MBAs to, you know, having a lot of privilege and not realizing our peers, all the things that our peers have gone through.
Sean: I mean, when you were talking about, you know, going to these schools and seeing just the different level of wealth, that’s a story that we hear commonly for first gen students on this podcast. And it’s one thing that, again, I just don’t think about how difficult that is for people to go through.
One thing I remember very starkly from high school days is I had a friend, who his parents, you know, gave up everything, sent him to private school in high school. And still because he came from an underprivileged family at this private school, everybody else was just loaded, and his experience was terrible because no matter what, he couldn’t really socialize with everybody else.
And it just felt so unfortunate that he got to go to this amazing private school but I mean, still couldn’t fit in or just be accepted despite all the best intentions of his parents.
Guadalupe Nickell: Yeah. No, I mean, that’s hard to hear and, you know, I want to add and push back a little bit also on that narrative because, and this is where that biracial superpower comes in, is I’ve had to from a very early age be able to suss out a situation, and we now have a word for it which is code switching.
And I did some of that my earliest memories. Right. Am I going over to abuelita’s house to learn how to make tortillas by hand? Or am I going over to my grandma’s house over here where she’s going to serve tea on her really nice China. And I’m doing both at seven, going to these school, yes, there’s so much, it’s like going through a door and it’s just seeing the world that, I mean, when I went to a boarding school, I had never had real grass in any of my campuses and OSD. I see that all the wealth in the world doesn’t mean that a child can’t feel sadness because their parents actually couldn’t wait to drop them off at boarding school.
Guadalupe Nickell: Whereas my mother is in tears over here, doesn’t really want me to go, I’m coming from so much love, but she’s letting me do this because she knows it’s going to be a transformative experience. I’m also so grateful for being in these spaces where you have an opportunity to really learn about the humanity within each of us and wealth and academic success and family and connections and relationships, it’s all very, very complicated. And while my parents scraped to make these educational opportunities happen for me, I was coming from a place of so much support and so much love. And I’ve come like a big family. I didn’t just go to Princeton, right?
Guadalupe Nickell: My grandparents were going to Princeton. My Tiya was going, everybody was going to Princeton. And I am just so, so grateful to have had that experience which then allows me to still navigate those new and challenging spaces with some measure of confidence and certainly a lot of dignity.
Sean: That’s amazing. Thanks for sharing that. You’ve such a wealth of experiences on your resume or your LinkedIn. What would you say are some of the highlights?
Guadalupe Nickell: Oh, some of the highlights of my career, I mean, I think certainly making the decision in my mid-thirties to invest in my education and go back to school and get my MBA was an absolute highlight.
Sean: At Berkeley of all places, too.
Guadalupe Nickell: At Berkeley. Exactly. And it’s so interesting too, because you know that 17-year-old girl at the prep school who wanted to go to Princeton, but would always have that love for that Berkeley campus. When it came time at 35 to look at business schools, and at that point I had a firmly established career in nonprofit philanthropy. I was working in major gifts. The Nature Conservancy in California program here in San Francisco. I knew I was looking for a part-time program. I knew I didn’t want to have the opportunity cost and I was too old, frankly, for the full time programs. At the time, it was really about, you know, Berkeley and Wharton West and the Berkeley campus, and that opportunity to kind of come full circle to the best public university in the world and that campus that helped make that dream possible for me. That all felt right.
So, being able to go back to school, you know, in the middle of my career with a totally different lens of what I wanted out of the experience, paying for it all myself, you know, my parents weren’t chipping in. And I tell this to people who are thinking about grad school or business school, and I think there’s increasingly more people in the social sector, non-profit sector thinking about this. I tell them that there are so few opportunities as you get deeper into your career to have both your thinking and your network turbo-charged. And I feel like that’s what the Berkeley Columbia program did for me in terms of the folks who I call friends and colleagues now.
Guadalupe Nickell: And just skillset that it helped me develop to be an even more effective leader. That was absolutely a highlight. And I know this is a Haas podcast and it’s probably a little bit corny that I pointed that out, but it really, that really was a highlight for me. And, you know, led to me taking a number of chief development officer level roles at nonprofits before landing here at the Graduate School of Education in the fall of 2019.
Sean: Was there anything in particular that drew you to the graduate school education here?
Guadalupe Nickell: You know, I’ve always been very curious about Berkeley as an engine of social mobility, you know, the whole California’s public university system is a jewel and not many other states have invested in this way. And I sort of started my, you know, non-profit career in a couple of different mission-based organizations, largely environmental education.
Guadalupe Nickell: But when I really hit my stride was when I started to align both my professional experience in philanthropy and in leadership, but then also drawing on that personal motivation and inspiration around the opportunity that education can provide and the doors that it can open. And I found myself getting more and more drawn to that space.
Guadalupe Nickell: And the opportunity to work at the kind of scale within the public education system at the graduate school of education where we are producing teachers and principals and researchers and policy makers. It was just this really exciting opportunity to continue working in a space but from a very different place. And the intellectual stimulation of Berkeley, I mean, one of my favorite defining principles at Haas, the students always, I’m constantly learning and I absolutely love it.
Sean: That’s wonderful. I mean, education is an area that I feel like is facing a lot of challenges. Especially this past decade in context of the rise of the internets, right? The kind of availability of information. But it still seems like there hasn’t been much, at least I hear from my dad, right. Being the teacher’s teacher as he calls himself. It’s quite challenging to keep up, I guess, with what the changes. But at the same time, when we talk about education, the graduate school of education, we’re talking through, you know, like K through eight, K through 12, right.
Guadalupe Nickell: K through 16 and our graduates work in higher education as well. It’s the whole system.
Sean: That’s right. And the needs of students within those, what, how many years? 16 or 20 years? Kids can start at like four, I think, or five for pre-K? I’ve assigned actually I need to figure that out.
Guadalupe Nickell: He might want to get on that, Sean.
Sean: That he’s 20 months old. How’s that she asked my wife, I was like, when do they go to kindergarten the other day. But just the needs of kids as I’m learning, just across even pre-K. Right? It’s just so different across the spectrum. It’s like how do we keep up with what society needs in terms of education.
Guadalupe Nickell: And particularly with what we have seen for the last year and a half and the inequities that have always existed in the systems of public education have been illuminated, have been exacerbated. And I think we’ve been really struggling with that. But within that, I think also lies an opportunity to rethink, you know, the role of education and how our educators need to be prepared and trained. And it’s one of the things that I’m so proud of at the Graduate School of Education is that we, the core of our mission is equity and in a way that no other ed school in the country thinks about it. And again, it goes back to that Berkeley ethos, that activism, that desire to challenge the status quo, and in the moments over the last year and a half where, and we’ve all felt them, where it was just a really hard time, you know. We’re exhausted where the anxiety, the stress, the challenges, burdens, like to feel like I am working on things that matter with people who care about equity the way that I do that care about shaping the systems of education for better. I mean, that’s been a big part of what’s been able to keep me one foot in front of the other.
Sean: Can you talk a little bit more about kind of the inequities of education that have popped up the past year, just for listeners that have not been keeping abreast of the, you know, the effects in the education space.
Guadalupe Nickell: My partner and I live here in east Oakland and he is an administrator at a public six through 12 school, right, just five minutes away. And things like internet access. And what do we mean when a household is either connected to the internet, under connected. There are families where their sole connection to the internet is a phone.
Guadalupe Nickell: I don’t think you want to do any of your homework on a phone. I know I don’t. I mean, we see this stuff, day in and day out. And I think about in the early stages of the pandemic where there was this huge scramble around learning loss and just the difference of what you’re able to create in terms of space for your children if you have the privilege of working from home versus not working from home. Getting together with other families to create learning pods.
During this time, I had just done a lot of reflection about my own experience. I mean, my life has been shaped by a handful of incredibly serendipitous happenings that resulted in these very elite experiences, but that’s not accessible to everyone and nor should opportunity be limited to those who have these serendipitous opportunities. So, we’re also reflect on the early weeks of the pandemic and, you know, seeing on the news or reading in the New York Times, it was like, you know, less than something like 15% of all Latinos in the United States have jobs that they can do from home. Only 15%, and sort of sitting in my privilege and reflecting on it and then thinking about, well then what am I going to do with this? And how does this fuel my work and how does this also fuel the kind of community that I very actively create of people who are also working towards the same thing.
So, I am heartened that we are talking about these things in a way that we never really have before, both from being able to name the things and having a shared vocabulary, but also, really starting to understand, you know, the interconnectedness of it all and then structural elements that that gives me hope because you have to have hope.
Sean: Yeah, absolutely. I remember this was last summer, early into the pandemic. One of our team members that I just hired, she’s in the Philippines. Luckily, she’s able to work from home because the nature of the job was remote, that I hired her for. But they only had one computer.
Sean: And, you know, she had asked me if she could work a different shift, basically just work at different hours of the day. She asked if she could work at graveyard shift. You know, thinking, of course, you know, it’s a remote opportunity. You can work at any hour that works for you. That’s the beauty of it, right? The flexibility. But just out of curiosity, I asked her why. Why would you want to work a midnight shift? She just said, well, you know, school’s online. And I have two girls and we need to get another computer and we can’t get two computers. Right. So, one of the computers that I work on for school, and I thought that’s crazy.
Guadalupe Nickell: It’s very real. It’s very, very real.
Sean: It’s very real. And to hear that this is, you know, very real in United States. I suppose at first of all a first world country, like, you know, it’s even harrowing to hear. And so, you know, the most natural thing for me to do is, you know, how can I help? Right. Let’s see how much laptops or computers are over there.
Sean: Do we just offer to buy them two computers just for the girls because education is so just like you said, it’s so important, especially at the early ages. And, but in that situation, you know, I was able to help someone in need, right, immediately, but it’s because that opportunity to help presented themselves to me, right.
Sean: I think for a lot of people listening, we hear these stories, but we feel disempowered in some ways to say, how can we help? And I think from some perspectives, it’s just like, well, Google it. Right. But then in other ways it’s, you know, it’s difficult to think about how you can start solving a problem in a meaningful way.
So, I’m curious to hear if you have any suggestions on, you know, how can we help the communities, the Latino communities that are most affected by pandemic. I mean, their kids most effected by the pandemic.
Guadalupe Nickell: I know we’re at Haas and we’re in the bay area and technology is supposed to solve everything but this is where I take a bit more of an analog approach, which is, you know, instead of Googling and typing in a search string, talk to people, right. And, for us, it’s about, you know, supporting the community that we’re in.
Guadalupe Nickell: And I think one of the things that we were hopefully learning from the last year and a half is that we’re all interconnected, right? Our wellness, our health, our resilience, is all interconnected. And I think if more people, and we can talk about, you know, the bay area and we can talk about Oakland, but if more people actually got involved at a local level and got to know, you know, what are my local schools and let me look them up on a particular platform and see if their teachers need some supplies.
Guadalupe Nickell: Looking for organizations that are founded and run by folks of color, by Latinos, and asking folks we know which organizations they care about and getting more personally involved. I think because if we’re all interconnected and I hope that this is a lesson again, that we take with us in as we move forward and as the pandemic hopefully recedes in the rear view mirror.
Sean: Yeah, think that’s a great message. That’s something I loved about growing up in a relatively small town in Michigan, while compared to the bay area in LA, is that you really got to know your neighbors. And that’s something I think the pandemic has shown us, especially, you know, in the digital age.
Sean: It’s so easy to be disconnected and isolated, right, as I say, to be surrounded by a lot of people but still be alone. But I think that community aspect is really important. And it is the, I think, most impactful way. I think people can make a difference is impacting your local community.
Guadalupe Nickell: Right. And even in the cities, you can do it. I mean, I lived in San Francisco for over two decades and including the first part of the pandemic. And one of my dearest neighbors was, you know, a very elderly man and I’m running out to grab some things. What do you need from the store? You know, who are your closest neighbors now? Have they been checked up on? Can you offer to pick something up? I think those little things, I think they add up.
Sean: Yeah. you know, any parting words of wisdom you’d like to share with alumni or current students that might be listening.
Guadalupe Nickell: Advice for alums and current students, so, I think, within the Haas context, I really encourage us to connect with one another and see how we can support each other. Be the spirit of Haas. I think none of this was under, you know, Rich Lyon’s leadership is the defining principles, I think are just, they’re so powerful and they continue to be a big part of our identity and our culture.
Guadalupe Nickell: And we’ve seen that the world and the business world needs a different kind of leader. Right? The way we have been leading and working is not been sustainable on multiple levels and how can we work together to create a more equitable society, to create businesses that add more value to our lives and to our health and to building community?
I’m very hopeful because the folks that I meet through Haas over the years are so inspiring and working on really great things, right? You know, a big part of our business school experience is the network. And that’s also the value that we are creating when we sign up to do an MBA program. And I would just say continue to feed into that network and feed in what you want out of it so that we can, again, create that better world that we all want to be in.
Sean: That’s a wonderful message. And on, especially tied to, you know, the community aspect is that, you know, the Haas alumni network is our local community, right? No matter where you are, it is local.
Guadalupe Nickell: That’s right.
Sean: That’s what I love it. So, well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Guadalupe. It was a pleasure having you.
Guadalupe Nickell: Thank you Sean. This was a lot of fun.
Sean: And look forward to staying in touch.
Guadalupe Nickell: Alright, thank you.