The familiar feeling of invisibility settled in as Dr. Gladys Ato found a seat among 500 others in her introductory college class at the University of California, San Diego. As a child, she always preferred to fade into the background away from the taunts of bullies and the critical eye of attention. Now, as an undergrad, the future president and provost of The National Hispanic University (NHU) sought the same shelter that anonymity provides—only this time, her father wasn’t there to force her to confront her fears.
Ato never relished the spotlight. It was only by her father’s mandate that she competed with her school’s forensics team from 4th through 12th grade. That his daughters would go to college and create better futures than the poverty from which their parents came from in Mexico and Peru was never in question. It was through migrant labor that Ato’s mother moved to the United states and met Ato’s father in Livingston, California. They began a family, both determined their daughters would only inherit their work ethic, not their line of work.
Ato found a new community on the San Diego campus where no one held any preconceptions about her. Where she could experience the messiness of defining herself without caring who could see. Free to grow into herself, she began to discover her strengths in listening, empathizing, and helping others heal. Her interest in psychology grew. Pursuing her clinical psychology doctoral degree and license, she provided therapeutic services to combat veterans in Albany, New York, and worked extensively with children and families with trauma in various hospitals and mental-health centers in Texas, New York, and California.
A State of Evolution
“I realized,” Ato recalls, “there aren’t many of me in this profession. I was often the only minority in the room. In graduate school, I was the only Latina in my cohort.” What others saw on the outside, Ato was conflicted about on the inside. “I didn’t want to be associated with a race,” she says. “People would ask me what I was, referring to my nationality, and I’d say, ‘I’m Gladys!’” Embracing her heritage, her parents’ origin story, and the thread of hardship, hard work, and hard-won success that tied them together as it does for so many Latinos in America, was a process Ato describes as an “evolution.”
Words of advice from Dr. Gladys Ato
“My dad always told me: ‘You are who you are because you want to be that way.’ To anyone aspiring to accomplish something even they believe may not be possible, I would say trust what’s inside you. Even if the world is saying you can’t do it, believe you will become it because you have all the tools needed within you to achieve your greatest aspirations.”
In her clinical training, Ato’s first practicum was with preschoolers. She had never envisioned herself working with children, but found that the experience resonated with her. As vice president of the board of directors for Kids’ Turn, a nonprofit supporting parents and children dealing with parental divorce or separation, Ato is able to reconcile parts of her past and be the advocate she knows from experience affected kids need. “I was comfortable not speaking up as a kid,” she says, “but it’s so critical to attend to children and encourage them to have a voice.”
At NHU, Ato hopes to provide a similar environment where students can feel confident and capable to use their voices. That’s why she’s meeting with everyone from members of student government to department chairs to create a student experience that is the most conducive for leadership and success. “The one word that brought me here, and which I hear over and over, is ‘passion,’” Ato says. “Passion shows up in many ways, but the passion here is within every person concerned with graduating future leaders who will represent the Hispanic community.”
Recalling the uncertain, and sometimes ambivalent, way in which she related to her heritage as a young Latina, Ato becomes emotional when discussing the great opportunity and responsibility her role as president and provost presents. In the furrowed brows and slumped shoulders of some students she addresses on NHU’s campus, she sees the person she used to be and hopes to change that. “I was okay with being anonymous,” Ato says, “because I was trying to figure out who I was. Understanding what it means to be Latina has been a process, a journey.”
Acknowledging the success of being the first in her family to go to college—an achievement Ato shares with many of the Hispanic students at NHU—was the first step to realizing her potential. “Now I look for every opportunity to help my students understand they have everything inside of them they need to be leaders in and representatives of our community.”
One of the Family
To achieve this Ato is focusing on academic quality and student retention, specifically asking what she and the university can do—from the moment students enroll to their first jobs as alumni—to support their success. One area that Ato hopes to expand is online course offerings. Making them more widely available to students, particularly more Hispanics, studying out of state would make the university truly national. More than just opening the courses, however, Ato wants to ensure that every student, online and on campus, feels like familia at NHU, what she says the university represents.
Ato believes the students graduating from NHU can be influential as elected officials, doctors, and teachers, but she realizes that their impact begins much closer to home. The value Ato’s parents placed on education was manifest in the three jobs her mother worked to put Ato and her sister through college, and in the way her mother pursued her GED until her death. For many Latinos, Ato says, the pursuit of education poses a real struggle for survival. “Every student here is making sacrifices that may impact their families, but are necessary for a better future,” she says. “We want every student to graduate not just to get a job, but to be role models for their cousins, siblings, parents, and grandparents. We want them to leave a legacy.”