Dr. Zulma R. Toro’s name has appeared in numerous publications since it was announced last fall that she was to be the first Latino woman president of Central Connecticut State University. Her tenure begins this month, and while it is well known that she is passionate about education and that she has a hugely academic background, what is a little less known is that she is a nature loving, Chihuahua owning, camping hobbyist, who has had to work extremely hard, overcoming numerous adversaries, to get where she is today.
Toro’s path to this historic pinnacle of her career was blazed with a great deal of dedication and tenacity. The position she will be leaving at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs and Provost came with a great deal of responsibility — she oversaw 500 full-time faculty members and approximately 12,000 undergraduate and graduate students (according to the UALR website).
But Toro is no stranger to challenging situations or to overcoming diversity. When she first began her academic career, pursuing industrial engineering, she faced exceptional challenges as a Latino female in a traditionally male dominated field. She recalls meeting with an advisor at the University of Puerto Rico who told her: “It won’t be easy.”
This wasn’t the first time Toro heard less than encouraging words. Growing up with a father who had very strong opinions of education, telling her and her sister (her only sibling) that education was the only thing he would ever give them; instilling in her the belief that “[education] can transform life, that it is the most effective mechanism for social mobility.”
Watching her father pursue his own goals helped mold the determined woman she is today. “I remember it like it was yesterday, “said Toro. “I was five-years-old when my father got his license to practice law and that had a great impact on me. Watching him go after what he wanted and become successful.”
She also saw her mother pursue her own dreams, returning to college to get her degree while Toro was no older than high school age. However, when it came time to decide what direction Toro herself would take in life , she and her father had conflicting ideas.
When Toro told her father she wanted to be a lawyer as well, he withdrew support, believing she should consider being a medical doctor instead. “He told me that if that is what I wanted to do then I would have to do it on my own, and that he would not help me do it.”
This didn’t deter her. She had an uncle who had studied engineering and who had become a lawyer, and, trying to find a back door to law that would not upset her father, she set her sights on engineering.
Initially she considered civil engineering (the same as her uncle), but quickly realized in her first semester it wasn’t for her. A closer look at the various engineering degree programs led her to conclude that she was more suited for industrial engineering. “I realized that industrial engineering is the only engineering, basically, that considers the human body explicitly. And that caught my attention and I got interested. I wanted to deal with the human side of systems as well.”
After completing her degree in industrial engineering in 1982 in Puerto Rico, she went on to earn a master’s degree in industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan in 1983, and then she received her PhD from Georgia Tech in 1988. “I think that background is technical, but includes the human element of system and processes and what we do, this half allows me and half equips me to be in leadership positions and be successful in these positions.”
She explains that to be a leader “you need to really understand how to relate to people. You have to be the leader sometimes and sometimes you have to be the follower, and you have to know how you can bring the people along with you, because as a leader you cannot achieve anything unless the people really embrace the vision and are part of the team, feel that they are contributing, and that they are as important as you are in achieving the goals. So, I think my educational academic background has helped me quite a bit in what I have done in higher education.”
The immensity of her new role and what it means to be a Latino woman in this role is not lost on her and she is acutely aware of different perceptions that could come into play. But then again, she is well equipped to rise to the challenge and shatter any preconceived or even misconceived perceptions of Latino women in leadership roles.
“It is challenging,” Toro concedes, “because, on one hand, as a Latino you are very passionate about things; there are specific issues that you are very passionate about. For example, providing access to higher education to the masses, I believe in that. I am passionate about that. And some people feel uncomfortable when a Latina female with an accent, like the one I have, is delivering a passionate message about something. That is a challenge. In other incidences, people have perceptions, they have in their minds a specific profile of a Latino female, and if you don’t fit that profile you might make them uncomfortable.”
She also addresses the challenges of being, for many years, in a male dominated field like engineering. “Again, it’s about — despite those challenges — how you affect and how you can work with people to accomplish the goals you have. It’s very important that despite the way you are treated you treat everyone else with respect. At the same time you have to be very well-informed about many topics, no matter what topics come your way you need to be well informed so you can speak to the issues, and always speak to the issues not to the personalities. I think that is very important. If you allow personalities to get in the situation things can degenerate quickly. But you have to work really hard and demonstrate to people that you are knowledgeable about what you are talking about, and that you are capable of preforming the work and what you are presenting to them is a well-informed data-driven in some incidences, argument.”
Toro clearly demonstrated that she is well-informed and has all the qualities to be successful in her new role at Central. For, after searching for seven months and considering 69 candidates, Toro outshined all others, and Central came to the conclusion that she would was the right candidate to lead them into the future. Though this new future led by Toro almost didn’t come to pass, as she her application was received at the twilight of the process. She applied on August 11th, the deadline was the 15th.
What Central, and the communities that Central serves, almost missed out on is a passionate Latino woman with a proven dedication to creating pathways to higher education. “I believe that if we are going to make a difference in the lives of Latino students and provide them access to higher education we need to start early in their schools to show them that there is a path to higher education and have them get ready for college. You cannot get ready for college overnight.”
Toro explains that she believes an importance should be placed on developing the confidence, the knowledge that is needed for college, and sometimes those programs aren’t part of a regular curriculum. It has to be after school, or weekend programs. It has to be in addition to the normal curriculum.
“Another challenge that Hispanic students have,” she continues, “and it’s a blessing and it’s a challenge, is family. We are pretty much attached to our family. We feel responsible to our families, and sometimes we let go of opportunities to attend college because we have immediate responsibility of taking care of our family. We have to show the Latino youth that you can do both, that you don’t have to sacrifice your long-term goals because of your short-term responsibilities.”
Toro says that there is quite a bit of work to be done in terms of Latinos, but says: “I think [families] can be a support system for our Latino youth and can be instrumental in seeing college as a real opportunity for them, and in encouraging them to pursue college. And I think that is one of the things that attracted me to Central: the opportunity to impact the lives of so many individuals that have not been afforded higher education opportunities. So I think there is a lot of work we can do at Central to lift up the citizens of the state of Connecticut.”
Toro says she feels blessed to have this opportunity and while she was named to the position last fall, she began prepping for her new position immediately. Meetings are being scheduled where she looks forward to learning about where Central is as an institution of higher education, what the trends are, and “what are the things that we can use to bring the community to the university.”
Toro says she looks forward to building strong relationships with the communities Central serves, and the opportunity to impact and make a difference in the lives of students, faculty, and the staff, the community in general.
While Toro has resided in Arkansas for many years, she is no stranger to Connecticut. She was the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of New Haven from 2001 to 2005. She will have numerous friends to reunite with once back in Connecticut and family is only a plane ride away, and with many family members still in Puerto Rico their flights will be much shorter now that she will be back on the East Coast. There are two four-legged companions she plans to bring with her as well: Taco and Salsa, her two Chihuahuas will be making the journey with her and these vicious guard dogs as sure to keep her safe along the way.
Toro will be the 13th president at Central, succeeding Jack Miller who is retiring, with an expected annual salary of $289,500.