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Milly Peña: Full Circle

In so many ways, Peña is the right president for Purchase at this moment. And for Peña, rising to the rank of president at a public liberal arts school in New York is coming full circle.

On May 29, 2020, the SUNY Board of Trustees appointed Milagros “Milly” Peña, PhD as the sixth president of Purchase College. Following an exhaustive search led by Chair of the Purchase College Council Dennis Glazer, the SUNY Board of Trustees approved the appointment of Peña, the first Hispanic woman ever to lead a SUNY institution.

President Milagros Peña
Milly Peña was the first in her family to attend college. In fact, she was the first to earn a high school diploma. Her grandmothers fled the dictatorship of the Dominican Republic and made their way to create new lives in New York City’s Washington Heights.

She fondly remembers one of her grandmothers coming home from a long day’s work in the garment district, sitting down to play the piano she worked so hard to afford. She had taught herself how to play. “I have this image of her playing the piano and realizing that I was now in this place where the sky was the limit,” Peña recalls.

“I think about what could have been possible for her if she had been born in a different time and certainly in a different place.”

If she could only see her granddaughter now. Peña earned her BA in Spanish and Latin American Literature, Education, and Religion at Iona College. She then earned an MDiv in Religion at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary and an MA and PhD in Sociology at SUNY’s Stony Brook University.

“They always instilled in me that we were now in a place where I was going to have opportunities that were never available to women, at least in my family. So I was always very mindful of that,” Peña says.

Prior to her appointment at Purchase, Peña most recently held the positions of Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Be fore that, she was a professor, Associate Dean, and the Director of the Center fo r Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida.

Peña’s research falls perfectly in line with many values part of the Purchase fabric. Her first book, Theologies and Liberation in Peru: The Role of Ideas in Social Movements, was published with Temple University Press in 1995. Peña is also the author of Latina Activists Across Borders: Grassroots Women’s Organizing in Mexico and Texas (Duke University Press, 2007). Supported by a Fulbright-Hays/García Robles Research Award, the book was awarded the 20 08 Distinguished Book Award by the Latino/a section of the American Sociological Association.

Living Example of Think Wide Open

It seems fitting the culmination of President Peña’s academic, professional, and life experiences to date would bring her to Purchase College, the only four-year public college in Westchester County, where the fundamental mission of providing high quality education in the liberal arts and sciences and conservatory training in the arts to students of modest backgrounds proudly persists.

“As a first generation college student, I know the backgrounds of our students, the diversity of our students, and I just felt that I was coming home on so many levels.”

From grammar school in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen to graduate school at Stony Brook, Peña is the product of New York schools and a shining example of what’s possible when young people are given opportunity. She hopes her trajectory will resonate with students.

Peña often describes the Purchase motto, Think Wide Open, as a “clarion call”—one that she felt personally drawn to, but one that also perfectly captures the inherent strength of Purchase and its fusion of the arts and liberal arts. “I came into higher education from a very solid liberal arts education myself and appreciate how it can be intellectually transformative and life-altering. In many ways, I’ve been living Think Wide O pen my entire career.”

More than ever, the business world is sounding their own clarion call, for liberal arts graduates. “Business leaders are making the case for the liberal arts. They can teach the nuts and bolts of business, but they can’t teach them creativity and critical thinking.” she says. “Liberal arts graduates are future business leaders and innovators. And those who study the languages, media, arts, and culture are the content creators that the tech industry calls for.”

Peña hopes to position Purchase as reliable community resource for talent, building on the college’s natural inclination for hands-on learning. By working in the community, students gain practical knowledge and a sense of civic engagement. “We want students to think about what kind of person they will be in the communities they live after graduation,” she says. “We need to model that while students are still in college and have Purchase model that as well.”

She also sees the arts as another perfect conduit between Purchase and the greater community, through student performances, the Neuberger Museum of Art, and The Performing Arts Center. “We shouldn’t be shy about the role of the visual and performing arts in our community and how they can help us heal,” she says. They can also play a pivotal role in K-12 education, reinforcing critical topics in classrooms through creative means, while exposing the next generation to the importance of the arts to our societies.

Bridging the Issues

Peña is the first academician to lead Purchase College in nearly thirty years, which will no doubt influence her approach to leadership, programming, and decision-making.

“As a sociologist who thinks about social justice issues, whether it’s the backgrounds we come from, food insecurity, inequality, and inequity, as a leader I look to be mindful as I’m making decisions or engaging others in collaborating on projects or programs,” she says. “That’s at the forefront of the way that I think.”

The campus community can expect Peña to work on encouraging a cross-disciplinary conversation on societal challenges. Approaching broad themes such as sustainability or social justice from multiple vantage points, through readings, performances, films, exhibitions, and guest lectures, will inspire healthy dialogue.

“I see that as the way in which our students in particular could truly see what a liberal arts education offers; it will really prepare them to think critically about the challenges we face as a society and become an essential piece of their college experience.”

But she fully understands that words and dialogue fall short unless they lead to action. That’s where she hopes these efforts can make a difference and hopefully bring forward solutions.

“This is real. Tragedies like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have become part of our legacy. How do we take these moments and have them be transformative in a substantive way?” she asks. “Not just talking about how mired we still are as a nation in racism and anti-blackness and bias, in all of its forms, but moving from conversation level to the transformative level. What does it really mean to commit to transformation?”

Bring a Folding Chair

A friend sent Peña a card when she announced being named president at Purchase. In it was a quote by renowned politician and educator Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to US Congress in 1968 representing New York’s 12th district, which read, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

With a strong history of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Peña plans to use her experience rising through the ranks to set an example and to create opportunities for more diverse groups at tables everywhere.

One area she hopes to see real movement is through fostering a more diverse faculty at large. Beyond hiring, she sees room for progress in retention of those who may feel marginalized. Pairing the power of mentorship with the creation of intellectual and physical spaces on campus where people can come together is key. “Creating community and connecting outside of departments and programs is essential to having a campus experience where you don’t feel like an outsider or you’re living in the margins of your campus,” she says.

But again, conversation is just the beginning. Like so many, Peña is looking beyond the COVID crisis to a time when everyone is back on campus. “I’ll be working very closely with Jerima DeWese (Chief Diversity Officer) on implementing ideas for diversity action plans that will be important in creating a different culture and experience of Purchase College to help us address some of the challenges that we have.”

Peña also hopes to secure designation by the US Department of Education as an Hispanic-Serving Institution. Eligibility is based on the percentage of Hispanic students falling at or above 25% of a college’s student body. The most recent number at Purchase was 24.9% and rising. One aspect of the initiative provides funds for higher education programs that increase college access and success for Hispanic students to help ensure a greater percentage earn degrees.

If All the World’s a Stage, We’re Preparing the Actors

Peña’s own study abroad experience had a transformative effect on her life. She likes to share with students a poster that’s always hung on her wall to summarize her experience—The View of the World from Ninth Avenue, the famous Saul Steinberg illustration appearing on the cover of The New Yorker that depicts nothing more than a flat square of land between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean. “My study abroad experience in Mexico during college is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she says. “Study abroad really changes how you think about history, about art, the way you experience another culture, and it was really transformative for me.”

Research abroad and short-term study away programs are both great options for students to experience other cultures without committing to an entire semester away. Too often students must choose working and paying bills over study abroad experiences, so Peña hopes to raise funds to make certain no student would miss out on those experiences due to financial obstacles.

She also hopes to create opportunities for faculty and students in what she refers to as term professorships, where full-time or visiting faculty members might hold an endowed faculty title for a term of three to five years, with extra funding for research and projects and to work in tandem with students.

Peña is a proven fundraiser who led a campaign “Living the Promise” at UC Riverside with a long-term goal of $45 million. When she began at $26 million, she moved the needle to $52 million in under five years.

No Miracles, But Courage and Community

The sobering fact is, Peña comes to Purchase during a difficult time. The pandemic brings enormous challenges, not only in keeping the campus community safe, and worrying about the impact it has on students academically, socially, and financially, but also in the enrollment and budgetary implications of fewer students on campus and fewer students enrolled.

President Milly Peña with Sasha and Koko President Milly Peña with Sasha and Koko

“I worry for the students, I worry for the faculty and staff, and all of us who are here just trying to do our jobs and do the best for our students,” she says. “I’m very cognizant of how much more people are taking on, with multiple generations living in the same household. And in the middle of it all people are trying to teach, not only their students here, but children at home. It’s a lot and it’s on my mind every day.”

But with vaccines rolling out, there is hope for a return to some semblance of normalcy next year. While Milagros is Spanish for “miracles,” it’s courage that she sees as the path through COVID-19.

During the meeting when the SUNY Board of Trustees resolved to appoint Peña as president, Trustee Eunice Lewin referred to her as a “true American success story,” adding, “We believe Dr. Milagros Peña is a perfect fit for Purchase College now and for the future.”

Peña recalls how touched she was by Trustee Lewin’s words. She carries with her always the spirit of her family members who sacrificed so she could succeed. “Her words really crystallized, although my family is no longer alive, a moment in our history, which they were able to realize in their daughter and granddaughter something that they aspired to, but couldn’t even imagine.”

Peña remembers how proud her family was when she graduated high school, then college. “The parties just kept getting bigger.” When COVID is nothing more than a collective memory, the inauguration party at Purchase will be big—worthy of this moment in history—and in attendance will be the spirit of all those who sacrificed to make it possible.

—Kristi McKee


Career Highlights


University of California, Riverside
Dean, College of Humanities, Arts, and Social SciencesProfessor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies

University of Florida
Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts and SciencesDirector, Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research Professor


2008: Distinguished Book Award, awarded by the Latino/aSection of the American Sociological Association

2007-2010: University of Florida Research Professorship

1994-1995: Fulbright-Hays/García Robles Mexico Research Scholar Award

1987-1988: Luce-Moore Dissertation Fellowship, State University of New York, Stony Brook


2004-2005: The Pew Charitable Trusts ($33,000 subgrant) / Principal Investigator for continuing research on the Faith-based Community Study in the Hispanic Church Research Initiative, in collaboration with the Institute for Latino Studies, Dr. Edwin I. Hernández, Director, University of Notre Dame

2002-2004: The Pew Charitable Trusts ($66,000 subgrant) / Principal Investigator, for the Faith-based Community Study in the Hispanic Church Research Initiative, in collaboration with the Institute for Latino Studies, Dr. Edwin I. Hernández, Director, University of Notre Dame

1997-2003: The Lilly Foundation ($569,000) and the Ford Foundation ($130,000) / Co-investigator with Anthony Stevens-Arroyo (Principal Investigator and Professor at CUNY, Brooklyn College), Latinos National Congregations Study


2018-2019: Selected for Leadership Riverside program, Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce, Riverside, California

2007-2014: Appointed to the Advisory Board, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), Georgetown University, Washington D.C.


Spanning the Divide: Latinos/as in Theological Education, Edwin I. Hernández, Milagros Peña, Caroline Sotelo Viernes Turner, and Ariana Monique Salazar, AETH, 2016.

Latina Activists Across Borders: Women’s Grassroots Organizing in Mexico and Texas, Duke University Press, 2007. Awarded 2008 Distinguished Book Award by the Latino/a Section of the American Sociological Association.

Emerging Voices Urgent Choices: Latino-a Leadership Development from the Pew to the Plaza, Edwin I. Hernández, Milagros Peña, and Kenneth Davis (editors), Brill Academic Press, 2006.

Punk Rockers’ Revolution: A Pedagogy of Race, Class, and Gender, Curry Malott and Milagros Peña, Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 2004.

Theologies and Liberation in Peru: The Role of Ideas in Social Movements, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.


American Sociological Association
Latin American Studies Association
American Academy of Religion