Mayor Robert Garcia’s shadow looms large over Long Beach, but his path to holding the keys to The International City leads back to his time as a student at Cal State Long Beach.
Garcia, his parents and six other family members immigrated to California from Lima, Peru when he was 5. The family settled in the San Gabriel Valley. He was raised mainly by his mother and she remains an influential part of his life, even as he climbs the political ladder.
The groundbreaking politician took office as mayor in 2014 with a trio of firsts in Long Beach mayoral leaders attached to his name: first openly gay mayor; first Latino mayor and youngest mayor to take office. But before he was any of those things, he was a student at CSULB.
As a child, his main exposure to university life came via family trips to Long Beach’s Mother’s Beach. The campus flashed by through the car windows and stuck with Garcia.
“You have to exit the freeway off the 405 and you go into 7th street and Long Beach State is on the right. When we drove by it, that’s all I knew about universities. And on occasion, we would drive through the campus,” Garcia said.
Still, he knew that one day he would be part of that university life. After graduating from Covina High School in 1995, he knew he would continue his education.
“It was never an option to not go to college. I don’t think I even received much encouragement from counselors or anyone to go to school, but I was driven through my family and through my mother who said, ‘You’re going to go. You’re going to college’. ”
Those beach trips influenced his application process and following high school he began his undergraduate studies at CSULB. Garcia wanted the full college experience and followed through with his desire to live on campus despite his mother’s concerns. He remains proud that his first Long Beach address was the Q building at the Parkside College dorms.
Shortly after arriving on campus he joined the Delta Chi fraternity, which he credits with helping him overcome his shyness. And it was his experience in student government that marked his first foray into politics.
“I got involved in my fraternity. I got involved in my student government. I got to know the campus. I started to get involved in other things around the city,“ Garcia said. “It really opened my eyes to this bigger concept of citizenship, getting involved and giving back.”
Looking back now, the path Garcia laid out for himself seems pre-planned and meticulous, but at the time he had no aspirations for higher office. It was through representing the student body as an elected officer of Associated Students, Inc. that kicked off his political journey.
“When I ran for student president on campus and I won, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this. I might be good at this,’” Garcia said. “I think that was the first time I seriously thought about that as something that could be in my future.”
He went on to graduate with his undergraduate degree in Communications Studies in 2002. He then went on to USC and earned his master’s degree before returning to The Beach and earning an Ed.D. in Educational Policy.
Even as he continues to thrive in local politics, he still credits his time at CSULB with setting him on the path towards success.
“I was a good student. I thought I wanted to go into education professionally. I was involved on campus. But I had no idea that I was going to become mayor of Long Beach one day. That just was not anywhere in my thinking,” Garcia said. “I reflect on that and I think I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for my experience at the university.”
These days, it is not uncommon to see the mayor at his alma mater. This past May he participated in multiple commencement ceremonies, including the College of Education, College of the Arts and the Chicano/Latino cultural graduation.