Imagine going to University of California–Berkeley to study mechanical engineering. On a full scholarship. With free housing. And a provided meal plan. For most students, it would be a dream come true. For Jorge Mata, it was a nightmare. Then, out of nowhere, Mata’s father got laid off, and the young student saw a way out of his gilded cage. He rushed to the bursar’s office, dropped out, and walked away from a full ride at a prestigious university to help care for his family.
“I never looked back,” Mata says. “Leaving Berkeley was one of the happiest days of my life.” Mata, a twenty-nine-year veteran employee of the Los Angeles Community College District, understands the irony in that statement. He’s a strong believer in higher education, and as CIO, he does more than build sophisticated plans that support education through technology. He works tirelessly to uncover student needs and deliver tools and software that will improve student experience and put learners on an optimized path to success.
The simple truth is that Berkeley wasn’t a fit for Mata. “I wanted to be hands-on and dynamic, but we were trapped in traditional classrooms, studying physics and mathematics and theory of things that rarely change,” he says. Leaving took courage, but Mata knew he needed a different type of learning environment. He wasn’t giving up; he was looking for his place in the world. He found it in the library at East Los Angeles Community College.
That’s where, as a night student, Mata found a job listing for an assistant programming analyst at the nearby Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Having received the necessary qualifications at Berkeley, Mata interviewed and landed a dream job. Soon, he found himself part of a dynamic team working in secondary education at the onset of the personal computing revolution.
While the grand research institutions seemed boring and stagnant, life at LACCD, in Van Nuys, was vibrant and inspiring. Initially, Mata helped take the college’s legacy process digital, and the project united him with the school’s business and mission. “There was no precedent,” he says. “I had to learn the business before I could recommend technology.”
For nearly the next two decades, Mata got to know the trials and triumphs of students, faculty, and administrators as he was promoted through Los Angeles Valley College’s information systems team. Along the way, he helped design websites, implemented wireless networks, managed multimillion-dollar projects, sourced new technologies, and cast a vision for a transformational tech plan he’s leading today as CIO.
In his role, Mata has oversight of all enterprise tech systems that support the largest community college district in the nation. The LACCD’s nine colleges serve a quarter of a million students in forty communities spread over nearly nine hundred square miles. While most CIOs develop and deploy tech plans, Mata says he views his job differently. “I don’t build tech systems,” he says. “I build relationships. My job as CIO at the Los Angeles Community College District is to understand what people are trying to achieve and then find the right technology to enable and empower them.”
“We are serving people who have decided to make their lives better, and that’s a big responsibility.”
To do that, Mata has to understand a teacher’s vision and a student’s dream. He interviews colleagues and counterparts and talks to as many students as possible. And, in the process, he leverages his own experiences at Berkeley and beyond. “I know that success in life depends on hard work and on being surrounded by the right people who can give you the right tools,” he says, adding that countless mentors have invested hundreds of hours into his life.
In each conversation, he aims to figure out a teacher’s pain points or a student’s needs and then translate them to his colleagues, who help develop and execute a plan. Mata often has to prioritize time, money, talent, and other resources, and he uses one guiding question to inform each decision: “How does this help the student or the people that help the student, and finally how does this help the bottom line?”
Mata sees himself as an advocate for each student, and he views serving as CIO as a way he can give back. As the hardworking son of migrant workers, he knows the student experience. He knows more than half of LACCD students are Latino. He knows that 19.2 percent learned English as a second (or third) language. He knows 51 percent live below the poverty line and 40 percent are over age 25. Some are single parents, and many work at least one job.
District chancellor Francisco Rodriguez often reminds Mata and others that the colleges serve the top 100 percent of their student population. That means every student is the number one priority. “We are serving people who have decided to make their lives better, and that’s a big responsibility,” Mata says. As CIO, he is using tech tools and solutions to improve the community college experience for all students, including the single moms, the disadvantaged minorities, and the hardworking learners juggling part-time jobs.
One of his biggest projects—a new student information system (SIS)—launched in 2017 after nine years of planning and four years of execution. Mata says the software, which integrates once-disparate systems and automates formerly labor-intensive processes, will have a dramatic impact on students. About 250,000 students go through the district’s doors every year. Now, those students can manage their academic careers on their tablets and smart phones. Dropping a class or paying a fee was once a daylong chore. Now, students click a few buttons on the digital solution Mata’s team has created. Colleges can communicate directly with students in a catered, personalized way.
Future plans include a mobile application and automated alerts making students aware of pending financial aid and enrollment deadlines. Once SIS deploys predictive analytics, administrators will be able to leverage data to discover why enrollment is low in certain subjects. That information is virtually impossible to get now.
When Mata left Berkeley thirty years ago, he did so to improve his life and help his family during a time of need. Today, as he watches students realize their full potential, he’s aware that the impact of public secondary education goes beyond each individual. “The student is just part of a community college’s reach,” he says. “There’s a whole family watching. The family doesn’t always know what can happen, but when they see one student earn a diploma or a certificate, they understand what’s possible.” And, an inside look at the journey of education can change the entire family.