Prior to studying sociology at PLNU, Mark Sanchez (99) received his associate degree in general studies from Southwestern College (SWC). Over 30 years later, stemming from his innate care for the college and post-secondary education students, he returned to SWC — this time, as president.

“What led me back to be the president here,” Sanchez said, “it was never on my radar.”

Before returning to SWC in 2021, Sanchez served as the assistant superintendent vice president at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, CA. When the presidency first opened up at SWC, one of the consultants leading the search for the new college presidency asked Sanchez if he was interested in taking the next step in his career. Satisfied with his position, community, and the city’s brimming scenery, he respectfully declined.

“I prayed about it, talked about it, and the more time I spent with it, the more it became an interesting concept; coming back to my alma mater and leading the institution where I was once a student,” he said. “For something like this to happen is very rare.”

Dr. Sanchez trains educators at a conference.

After discussing the opportunity with his family, he was encouraged to apply — and so he did.

“The rest is history,” he said.

Finding the Right Fit

Sanchez’s love for education was ingrained at an early age. Outside of his own schooling, Sanchez spent much of his time in educational environments with his mother, a librarian for 35 years, engaging with teachers and students.

His exposure to and infatuation with learning environments helped him discover his vocational calling to become an educator. After graduating from La Jolla High School, the Barrio-Logan native was accepted into a four-year university; however, he wasn’t sure if he was ready for the college experience.

After sharing his concerns, his family suggested that he tour local community colleges, which led him to take his first steps on SWC’s campus.

“The day I visited Southwestern College, I remember asking for help to find an admissions counselor, and a staff member walked me to the building. I felt that the people went out of their way to help you. I connected instantly, which led me to start at a community college. It was where I was meant to be,” he said.

In 1989, Sanchez graduated with his associate degree in general studies. Wanting to become a high school history teacher, he met with academic advisors and professors who suggested that he pursue a degree in sociology, as it would allow him to work in teaching, social work, and multiple different industries.

Sanchez loved the idea, then transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara to study sociology.

While he did well academically, he didn’t feel a connection to the college or the campus. On a visit home over Thanksgiving break, he visited Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) and chatted with students who didn’t go home for the holidays. Sharing a conversation at the cross near the entrance to campus, he felt the same connection that he felt when first touring SWC. 

“It was really that crossroads in transferring to PLNU where I think I found who I was and my calling and mission.”

After the Thanksgiving break, Sanchez started working on his application to PLNU. 

“The whole mission of the institution was meaningful and purposeful. The people were genuine and the professors took the extra time to spend with students and know their stories. It was really that crossroads in transferring to PLNU where I think I found who I was and my calling and mission,” he said.

A Pathway to Post-Secondary Leadership

From 1997-99, Sanchez studied sociology at PLNU. When he wasn’t working full time as a program coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club, volunteering with his church’s homeless ministries, or in class, he worked on an undergraduate research project with now-retired sociology professor Mary Conklin (Ph.D.) on the recidivation rates of youth in the juvenile probation system.

“That was probably one of the most impactful experiences that I have had in education,” Sanchez said. “To have access one on one to a professor of that caliber was tremendous.”

Conklin and Sanchez went on to present their research at a conference for the National Sociological Association, which was eventually published.

After graduating from PLNU, Sanchez’s first professional position in education was as a high school teacher at Alisal High School in Salinas, CA. 

Following his exposure to different post-secondary levels, the care Sanchez had for his work became increasingly apparent  — so much so that his colleagues and loved ones encouraged him to get his master’s degree.

“It is interesting when people see something in you before you even see it for yourself,” he said.

“It is interesting when people see something in you before you even see it for yourself.”

Sanchez then went on to get his master’s in educational administration at California State University, Fresno. Once graduating in 2004, he entered his first position in community college leadership as a program director at San Jose Evergreen College. 

In 2010, he got his distinction and doctorate in educational leadership from California State University, Fresno.

Highlights at Hartnell

In 2013, Sanchez served as the dean of Hartnell College in Salinas. During this time, his administrative team built a comprehensive math support program for local high school students after reviewing high school achievement data.

“Over 30 years’ worth of data was consistent where we saw that particularly Black and Latino students were having a really hard time meeting the GE requirements to graduate high school, especially when they couldn’t get passed the seventh-grade algebra sequence,” he said.

Working with Salinas-area high schools, Hartnell College found educators who would teach math in a non-traditional way and apply it to where students could use math in everyday life. Their program also provided after-hour tutoring in local middle and high schools. 

“After implementing the program, we started seeing college success rates and graduation rates — particularly for historically disproportionately impacted students, Black and brown — go up. I was really proud to be a part of this project,” he said. “It took so much work, so much coordination, but at the end of the day, we built a really strong structure to help students be successful.”

A group at a conference smiles for a photo.

In 2016, his administrative team worked with Soledad Prison to offer college courses for medium-risk inmates. Once the inmates were released, the goal of the program was for them to have or be close to having a college degree and be ready to transfer to the university system.

“These were often people who had issues with substances that needed counseling and positive things to be focused on in their lives,” Sanchez said. “We worked in the prison system and with prison officials so that inmates would have viable skills to live a productive life in the workforce.”

Transparent Leadership

While Sanchez is whole-heartedly committed to leading in post-secondary education settings, he’s open about the challenges that come with them.

“People don’t always agree with you, and that is okay. Leadership takes explaining the things that we are working on and soliciting a lot of input and feedback; being a good listener. When you do that, people will respect you and follow you,” he said.

The Sanchez family in a group photo.

Sanchez added how maintaining tenacity is vital in his role, as the things that happen in society make their way into and onto college campuses. 

“As a leader, you have to demonstrate true care about these things that people bring into the environment and also maintain a laser focus on the mission to lead the college and better the community,” he said.

As his job requires his full attention, Sanchez makes sure to prioritize self-care and spending time with his wife and adult daughter. Together they go on hikes, bike rides, and travel — doing hard work but also balancing life.

Sanchez attributes his innate sense of care for others to the values that were instilled by his family, teachers, and mentors.

“I have had people my entire life demonstrate what it looks like in their treatment of me. Having all those models combined with an innate sense of care for people and the community is where my care originates from,” he said.

Katie Morris is a student at PLNU studying psychology and journalism. She’s currently the copy editor at The Point, PLNU’s student-run newspaper and is an intern at PLNU's Marketing and Creative Services.