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From Orchards to Educational Leadership

November 01, 2020 - 6 minute read

Dr. Reyes Gauna

Dr. Reyes Gauna, Ed.D. ’18, grew up working in the orchards near Lodi, picking cherries and other fruit alongside his parents who were emigrants from Mexico. Recently, Gauna earned his doctorate in education from Concordia University Irvine and now serves as a public school district superintendent near Stockton. His inspiring story has been featured on CBS News and many local news outlets.

“I feel that I have been blessed with divine intervention,” Gauna says. “The Lord is my Savior and my guiding light and has put people in my path who put their hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I see potential you may not see. Here’s what you have to do.’”

As the son of immigrants who didn’t speak English, Gauna often felt vulnerable at school and did his best to shrink back and stay out of trouble.

“The best way to defend yourself was to be quiet even when other people were wrong,” he recalls thinking. “I’m nothing like that now, but I was a young, timid, shy child. Only later did I realize I had a voice.”

While elementary school was lonely for him, Gauna befriended a school custodian and found “common peace hanging out” with her, he says. In high school, his social disconnectedness led him to graduate early “because I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere.”

By that time he was working multiple jobs, including managing a local Burger King at age 16.

He took some college courses and explored careers, but nothing clicked until he got a job as a school custodian, like his old friend.

“When I was a janitor, I remember visiting classrooms and I would pretend I was teaching,” Gauna told CBS News in a September 2019 feature.

The best way to defend yourself was to be quiet even when others were wrong. Only later did I realize I had a voice.

While Gauna was serving as a campus safety monitor in north Stockton, the school principal noticed how well he interacted with people. One day, the principal asked to have lunch together. He inquired about Gauna’s ambitions and strongly encouraged him to become a teacher. A week later, Gauna began taking classes to earn his teaching credential. Soon, he was teaching bilingual elementary school classes and found that most of his students were first-generation immigrants like he was.

“Parents kept pulling their students out to translate for them,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I want to teach these parents to speak English.’”

Dr. Reyes Gauna

Dr. Reyes Gauna

So through a district adult education program in Stockton, he created evening classes for parents whose first languages included Vietnamese, Italian and Spanish. By word of mouth the classes grew from 15 parents to 60. Gauna taught them conversational English using real-world scenarios.

“Parents began telling me they went to the pharmacist and their daughter didn’t have to help them,” he says proudly.

But teaching wasn’t all he felt called to do.

“I wanted to reach the whole school population,” he says, so he earned a master’s degree in  counseling and became a K-12 counselor for several years. Then the Lord’s hand guided him again.

“My superintendent put me into an aspiring administrators program, and I fell in love with administration,” Gauna says.

He became an assistant principal of a high school, then a K-8 principal, then a high school principal. One day, a colleague asked him, “Is it your goal to be a superintendent?”

“It has a nice ring to it,” Gauna replied. “Have you considered doing a doctorate?” the friend asked.

“I put together a committee of people and asked if anyone was into it with me,” Gauna says now. “Fifteen said yes. We interviewed every university possible to see what would be the best fit for our team. One person said, ‘There’s a wonderful university that’s faith-based that you should consider: Concordia University Irvine.’”

Within a short time, a team from CUI flew into Stockton to meet with the group of potential students.

“We had lunch, and what I loved about Concordia Irvine was the spiritual aspect, the fact that they flew in to meet with us, and that they had a wholehearted investment in the programs and in the students,” Gauna says. “It was the right people at the right time. I just felt it was genuine.”

Going through Concordia's program was one of the most amazing things that's ever happened to me. It's not a program where you get in and get out. It's an ongoing system of support.

He led his informal cohort of 16 through what he calls “a true success story.” The doctoral program’s Washington, D.C., trip (which Gauna later taught for Concordia) was a high point, as was the program’s China trip which “transformed the way my colleagues saw education,” he says.

“The courses I did through Concordia helped me look at education through a different lens,” Gauna says.

He graduated in 2018, as did most of the other 16 people in the group.

“Going through Concordia’s program was one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me,” Gauna says. “The graduation was so memorable and special. Concordia also helped me develop friendships where we’re helping each other. It’s not a program where you get in and get out. It’s an ongoing system of support.”

After serving as assistant superintendent in a school district with 40,000 students, Gauna now leads Byron Union School District outside Stockton with three schools and one charter school. He mentors and encourages people just as he was encouraged to dream bigger.

“People sat me down to say what they saw in me that I didn’t see in myself,” he says. “I do that all the time. I pull someone aside and say, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ I pose the question that was posed to me and guide them in that direction. That’s how I pay it forward. Every day I look for people who need someone to put a hand on their shoulder and say, ‘Have you considered this?’ I really feel the Lord puts people in my path that he wants me to talk to. I find myself praying, ‘God, help this person to leave my office with the same thing I did. Give me the words.’”

Gauna is a very involved superintendent day-to-day.

“I believe a true educator lives in the kids’ environment,” he says. “My priority is to be in the schools with my staff. On Fridays I go listen to my students play jazz. Last night I was a surprise judge at a talent show. Tonight I’m speaking to our staff. I try to be in classrooms. I tell students my life story. I walk around the campus and talk to people. My slogan is ‘Beautiful people.’ They all hear me say, ‘Good morning, beautiful people.’ They think, ‘Someone thinks I’m beautiful.’”

In addition to leading the D.C. study trip for CUI’s doctoral program, Gauna recently taught a class in the program. He and his wife have three children, all athletes.

“If my journey serves to inspire, I will share it,” he says. “Today’s youth think that barriers are designed to shut them down, but they’re designed to see how resilient you are and for you to move forward and use those barriers to catapult you in your mission in life.”

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