Waded Cruzado learned the values that guide her as Montana State University's 12th president at her grandmother's kitchen table, in the presence of a blind nun, and in the history of her home, Puerto Rico.
Cruzado was born and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, home of the commonwealth's land grant university. The oldest of four children, she grew up in a house shared by her parents, two aunts and her maternal grandmother.
None of the adults in her home had gone to college--her mother was a housewife, her father worked for a coffee company--but they all valued education and were determined that she would have more than they and would excel at the opportunities given her.
"I think it is a universal feeling that you want your children to have a better life," said Cruzado, who has two children of her own, both in college. "All parents aspire to give their children better than they had, and a vehicle to do that is education."
Her grandmother took the lead in Cruzado's education, teaching her to read at age 3. In the mornings, Cruzado would help her grandmother ready the rice and beans for the family. Then, with the pots simmering in the background, they would sit at the kitchen table and work through an elementary primer.
"She taught me the stories of Rosa, Peppin and their dog, Lobo, and cat, Mota," Cruzado said. "It was like turning on a light bulb."
These lessons with her grandmother nourished one of Cruzado's root values: Students flourish when they have personal engagement with faculty and staff. From this value, she has set her sights on helping more of MSU's students stay in school.
"About 28 percent of our incoming, full-time freshmen drop out after their first year. That's about 640 students from last fall's class," Cruzado said. "Many of these students drop out for reasons beyond our control, but there is a sizable group that might stay if they had more individual engagement with faculty and staff on campus. We're going to look at ways to make that happen."
When it came time for school, Cruzado's parents sent her to an all-girl, private, parochial school, for which her grandmother may have prepared her too well.
"After the lessons from my grandmother, I found school boring and I got into trouble there," Cruzado said.
As punishment, she was sent to Sor Maria Felish, a blind nun who sewed the school uniforms flawlessly by touch and memory. Cruzado was given the task of reading novels aloud while the nun worked with needle and thread.
"Reading to the sister contributed to my love of literature," Cruzado said.
Her family had sent her to a private school convinced it was the best path for her future. For Cruzado, college was not an alternative, it was inevitable--her entire graduating class went on to university.
"My family communicated a very high expectation about my education," Cruzado said. "I loved these people and they believed in me. Those two things helped me achieve what I did."
She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in comparative literature from the University of Puerto Rico in 1982 and went on to earn a master's in Spanish and a doctorate in the humanities from the University of Texas at Arlington. She moved quickly up the ranks of academe, becoming dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez at the age of 39. By 47, she was executive vice president and provost of New Mexico State University, later serving as interim president before coming to MSU.
Her studies gave her a career, but it wasn't until later in her life she understood what else they had provided. Cruzado's maternal grandmother had died of breast cancer at the age of 84, then her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 64.
"My mother felt anguish; felt she was being shortchanged 20 years of her life," Cruzado said.
"Once, when trying to comfort her she surprised me with this retort: 'Easy for you to say, you have a PhD.'
"My jaw fell. In her mind, my education had given me the tools to understand life and cope with its obstacles. I had never appreciated my education in this way, but now I do," Cruzado said.
For Cruzado, this is one of the important missions of the land grant university: to provide students with at least a few tools to cope with adversity and appreciate the world and their place in it.
The history of her family, and of Puerto Rico itself, helped her understand another of the land grant's important missions: education for a career.
"Puerto Rico was very poor prior to the establishment of a land grant university. Its economy was mostly based on agriculture and that was limited because of its mountainous interior and being regularly battered by hurricanes," Cruzado said.
"When the land grant university was established in 1911 that was a decisive moment," Cruzado said. "The university started to prepare the scientists, engineers and business people who would have the capacity to transform the economic landscape of the island."
Cruzado knows this history of the land grant university by heart. To her, it is an inspirational story and a good reminder of the mission of a place like MSU, the state's only land grant university.
"In the middle of the Civil War, our country's leaders imagined a brighter future for its citizens--a higher education system for the sons and daughters of the working class," she said.
The Morrill Act, as it came to be known, was championed by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the act allowed revenue from the sale of federal lands to be used for the establishment of universities across the nation. Today there are more than 100 land grant colleges and universities offering the nation's citizens education for the "pursuits and professions of life."
"I hear echoes of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' from the Declaration of Independence when I read the Morrill Act," Cruzado said. "Congress and the president saw the Morrill Act as a way to strengthen our democracy by empowering the nation's citizens."
Much of that empowerment comes from education that allows for economic and social mobility, Cruzado said.
"When you put education in the hands of the sons and daughters of the working class, you give them the power to pursue their aspirations and to participate more fully in their families, their careers, their communities and their nation," Cruzado said. "Without it, people become frustrated, hopeless and sometimes even violent."
These are the words of the daughter of a housewife and coffee company worker who is now a university president, whose children aspire to be a lawyer and a college professor.
"For me, the mission of the land grant university is not an abstraction," Cruzado said. "I am a product of the land grant system. I believe deeply in what it stands for and what it can accomplish. We are here for the sons and daughters of the working class--by taking care of them, we will take care of our nation."