Margaret Quiñones-Perez attended college as a single mother in the 1980s to learn how to help her learning-disabled children reach their potential. However, she achieved much more. With the help of faculty and staff members, the California State University, Dominguez Hills alumna (Class of ‘84, B.A., mental health research methods) reached her own potential. A counselor for 25 years at El Camino College, and a 12-year board member and current president of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, she has made it her life’s work to see that students get educational opportunities.
“My biggest value is [students having access] to higher education,” said Quiñones-Perez, who is also a member of the executive board of El Camino College Federation of Teachers union, and was formerly the chair of the department of counseling services. “Everything is about access to higher education, especially for underrepresented students, which are the majority in California. But it’s for all kids.”
As a trustee advocate, Quiñones-Perez explained that she can affect changes that improve odds for student success rates in three key areas: policy, budget, and the hiring of the college president and superintendent. However, the Los Angeles native said she originally set out to be a parent advocate and never had aspirations for public office.
“I was a single mom trying to make sure I was going to survive with my children and I was a strong supporter of my upward mobility and education, and everybody else’s,” she recalled.
But 20 years ago, frustrated with how her two children were being “guided” in their special education classes, Quiñones-Perez was encouraged by her friend, then-Santa Monica Councilman Tony Vasquez, to run for the board if she didn’t like how things were going. Quiñones recalled replying, “What’s that?” She researched the function of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Trustees, ran and won. She served on her first elected position for eight years, including one year as president.
Quiñones-Perez pointed out that throughout her academic career as a student there was always someone who believed in her and championed for her. She credited advisement center counselor Ruth Banda-Ralph (Class of ’78, B.A., political science), who nurtured her through her bachelor’s degree, and two professors for helping her to gain self-confidence and set her sights higher.
“Dr. Larry Rosen was the one that really turned the switch on in me, because I did not have real math abilities. …He taught me to not be afraid of statistical analysis and research and he taught me that statistics were more about concepts than math,” Quiñones-Perez remembered. “He was really there for me.”
Although she was able to overcome her fear of math, she still had weak scores on the math segment of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and little hope of getting into any graduate program. However, the late Dr. Hal Charnofsky vouched for her, which she said helped her get into University of Southern California, where she went on to earn a master’s in counseling psychology.
These acts of support influenced Quiñones-Perez to work toward helping others.
“That committed me. That was something that I had to do; to make sure that I was there for support and to help other people to get into whatever they needed to do, whether it was to get a job, politics, or school. I was going to be their advocate and support, because that’s what [Banda-Ralph, Rosen, and Charnofsky] did for me,” she said.
Quiñones-Perez was also a Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program student. She recalled what her mentors advocated, “They told me, ‘You’re getting a doctorate.’ They all told us … it was a small group of us, African American, Latinos, Asian American. They said, ‘You guys need to start acting like you are doctorate students.’ They sent us to seminars and debates. These guys prepared us.”
Quiñones-Perez went on to earn her Ph.D. in educational leadership from University of California, Los Angeles, becoming part of a league she admired.
“I love Dominguez Hills. It’s a good place and the faculty [during the 1970s and 1980s], there were the most with Ph.D.s in any of the CSUs,” she said. “It was my professors and the support staff there that really challenged my thinking, my belief about myself … my capacity and the value of education. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Something they couldn’t have helped her with, though, was something they were unaware of. She had a learning disability herself.
“From first grade to 12th grade they put me in special education and they never told me why. They put me on the bus; I remember, I was in first grade. My mom didn’t say anything. I remember she signed some papers. They put me on a bus from my home school and sent me to another school. At the time, I didn’t know what it was called,” Quiñones-Perez remembered, adding, “It was called special education.”
In those days, she explained, there weren’t individual educational plan assessments, and she was simply grouped with mentally retarded, blind, learning disabled, and emotionally disturbed children, rather than provided with disability-specific education. During middle and high school things improved a little, she said, but not much.
“That’s why I never learned math,” she asserted. “They didn’t teach me algebra, or any of that.”
Tracking her for secretarial support, she was taught shorthand, typing, and a ten-key calculator.
“I can still type a good, mean letter,” Quiñones-Perez quipped. “I can format my letters and make them look pretty. I’m very proud of that.”
Ashamed of her learning disability, afraid of rejection, and barely making passing grades through most of her college years, it wasn’t until she was working on her dissertation at UCLA when one of her colleagues suggested she visit the writing center.
“So, I took my essay to [the center’s director]…he said, ‘So how long have you been LD?’ which is learning disabled,” Quiñones-Perez explained. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’”
The director helped Quiñones-Perez get the assistance she needed to overcome the stigma.
“For so long I thought that it was a curse. And I felt very ashamed of it for a long time,” Quiñones-Perez said of her disability, which involves difficulty communicating in written form. “I worked really hard so that my kids wouldn’t feel shameful of it. It’s just a special way of learning. You need to push educators to learn the latest techniques to teach those people how to learn. Because [learning-disabled students can be] pretty brilliant people.
“It compels me more to do advocacy so they don’t get lost in the system. So, they don’t get put on the bus and forgotten. I want to make sure that nobody’s forgotten.”