Mary Castro became the First Lady at Fresno State in 2013 when her husband, Joseph I. Castro, was selected as the university’s eighth president. It is a role that she embraces with great zeal. Indeed, she is one of the busiest and most high-profile women in the city.
We asked her to answer 10 questions that would allow Valley residents to get to know her and the Castro family a little better. Her answers reveal a woman deeply committed to advancing education, helping students achieve their dreams and teaming with her husband to make Fresno State the crown jewel of the California State University system.
She has a great sense of humor, too.
1. We understand that a job at a Hanford Burger King played a big part in your life. Tell us about it.
Working at Burger King during my senior year of high school came about out of necessity. I was attending Riverdale Christian Academy and needed to cover the expenses of my tuition and uniforms. My father was recovering from an injury that caused him to miss work. My mother and I worked in his place at the dairy for four months to save his position. He recovered enough to return to work but we were still catching up financially. I loved attending RCA. The only way I was going to be able to finish high school there and help my parents was to get another job. I was already cleaning two houses on a weekly basis and doing home care on call during the weekends.
Payday was exciting because I would keep enough for gas to get back and forth to school for the next two weeks, pay school expenses and give the rest to my parents. I was proud to contribute to my family on that level. I made new friends from different backgrounds. One of those friends being Joe Castro. We still keep in touch. 🙂
2. Why do you hug each of the graduates who are announced at the Chicano/Latino, African American and LGBT+ Commencement Celebrations?
During the end of the academic year celebrations, President Castro and I host a variety of banquets for different groups. One dinner made a deep impression on me. While we were hosting the banquet for the Renaissance Scholars program some of the students indicated that they would not have any relatives attending commencement to support them. The circumstances varied from loved ones living out of state or country to having lost parents and grandparents. I found the idea of them crossing the stage alone heartbreaking.
I was invited to join the platform party for one commencement in 2014, the Chicano/Latino celebration. Seeing the first graduate step up on the stage stirred my heart in such a way that I asked Dean Luz Gonzalez if I could hug him. It wasn’t premeditated. I felt as proud of that student as I did when our son, Isaac graduated from U.C. Berkeley. I knew many had overcome great challenges to get their degrees. The least I could do was gift them with a hug from someone who was truly proud of them. I hugged 860 students that night. I didn’t know what impact it would have or if I would ever be invited to attend another commencement. Students and their families reached out to me through letters, social media and personal conversations to show their appreciation for the hugs.
The following year students started asking me if I was going to hug again. I participate in the ceremonies I am invited to attend. The hugging happens all year long now. I hug them when they visit the Fresno State Student Cupboard, in elevator rides and at events. When they open their arms I am ready to embrace them because I believe in them.
3. You are a radio talk-show host. What station is your program on and what kind of show do you host?
I co-host “First Lady’s Focus” on KFSR 90.7 FM with Program Director Julie Logan. The show runs on Sundays at 10 a.m. You are also able to listen online or via podcast at KFSR.org. I had never hosted a show before. I thought they were inviting me to be a guest. Once it was made clear that they were interested in having me as one of the hosts, I knew it would be a fun way to share the personal stories of people who love Fresno State. Many of them had shared why their experiences on our campus were meaningful to them during short conversations with me at receptions and events. I found them to be very interesting. It’s exciting to share their positive interviews with the community.
4. What are the challenges of being a university president’s wife and also the mother of a first-grader?
The role of a university president’s spouse is not clearly defined. I was not given a job description, title or salary. The first time someone referred to me as the First Lady I considered it a great honor. I wanted it to stand for something positive. I believed that it came with a certain level of responsibility. My focus has been on finding ways to support, inspire and celebrate students and the campus. President Castro and I grew up in this area. We believe in our students. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in their journey to success.
Having a first-grader keeps me in touch with what the K-12 system looks like today. I volunteer when possible. He loves school and Fresno State. We have been careful with how much exposure Jess has had during public events. Date nights and special outings are ways that Joe and I stay connected to our children. We are fortunate to have all of them in Fresno. We cherish our time together.
5. In a cow-milking contest, who would win – you or your husband?
Is this a trick question? There are a few challenges where I might have the upper hand, this would be one of them.
6. You are very passionate about the March Match-Up, which benefits the Fresno Student Cupboard. Where does this passion come from?
I am extremely committed to the work that has been done on our campus to address food insecurity. Working closely with campus leaders on developing programs that meet this need for our students is definitely a pride point. We are getting ready to celebrate the third anniversary of the opening of the Student Cupboard in November. The March Match-Up campaign is how we generate the majority of our funding for the program. Bringing the community together to support our students is very rewarding. The students are grateful. We can all be a part of helping them to reach their academic goals.
My passion comes from knowing on a personal level what it feels like when you are given support in the spirit of love. President Castro and I would visit home while he was attending college. Things were tough. Our mothers and grandmothers would go through their cupboards and assemble a care package for us to take. We named it the cupboard for this reason. I want every student who utilizes the Student Cupboard to know that it exists because we believe in them.
7. A couple of years ago, you co-founded the Maya Angelou Book Club at Fresno State. What are members reading this year?
Dr. Francine Oputa and I co-founded the Year of Maya Angelou Book Club at Fresno State in March of 2015 as a way to share Dr. Angelou’s work and to give people an opportunity to get to know each other outside of work. Our group consists of staff, alumni, administrators, and students. Each year we focus on a theme or author. The second year was a Year of Journeys. We are currently enjoying a Year of Isabel Allende. President Castro and I met her in February. I was star struck.
8. What are your Top 5 favorite books of all time?
Before moving back to Fresno I was reading a book every day or every other day. Consuming books is more my style. I still prefer holding a book in my hand over an electronic version. Packing for vacation is always a challenge. I love variety. My favorite genre is autobiographies. Historical fiction would be a close second. I can’t give you a Top 5 because that feels like you’re asking me to name my favorite child. I will tell you the first book that made a lasting impression on me was, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I was 9 years old. The story was so captivating that I kept renewing it from the library for at least six months.
9. Your husband loves driving his Jeep. Does he ever take it off-road? If he does, on a scale of 1-10, assess his 4-wheel drive skills.
We love driving Jeeps. My admiration for Jeeps started as a young girl. One of my uncles had one that we would pile into and take off-road in Laton and around the river beds. One of my favorite Hotwheels was a Jeep. Joe and I rented a black convertible Jeep during our honeymoon. We had so much fun that owning one became a goal. We have been an all Jeep family for several years. Joe has never taken his Wrangler off-road, but I have every confidence that he would be a great 4-wheel driver.
10. What is your favorite vacation spot?
Hawaii is our go-to place. We also enjoyed our time in Greece and the Azore Islands. There are many beautiful places yet to be seen. My favorite spot is next to Joe.