EL CAJON It was during her undergraduate years at American University in the nation’s capital that Dr. Sunita Cooke, Grossmont College’s new president, found her calling as an educator.
A biology major, she graduated in 1985 with a minor in education, envisioning a future as a science instructor. She interspersed teaching with her graduate studies, student-teaching a high-school biology class and working as a teaching assistant while pursuing her doctorate at Georgetown University.
From 1991-1995, while completing her post-doctoral work at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center as a research biologist, she taught part-time at universities in Houston. Her introduction to community college came in 1995 as a founding faculty member of Montgomery College, part of the North Harris Montgomery Community College District, or NHMCCD, north of Houston.
“My husband helped me make the decision to accept the job at Montgomery College,” she said. “He was a graduate of Santa Monica College and spoke warmly and fondly of the experience offered to community college students in California.”
Not only was Cooke’s husband, Paul, a community college alum, in 2002 the political science instructor became a founding faculty member of Cy-Fair Community College, one of NHMCCD’s five colleges, where this year he received the faculty excellence award.
It didn’t take long for Cooke to share her husband’s zeal for community college and to become “committed” to its mission of making higher education accessible to all.
“I am really motivated by the chance to create opportunities for people to achieve beyond their wildest dreams,” she said. “Many of our community college students come to us without knowing what they truly are capable of accomplishing.”
Cooke capped the last three years of her 10-year teaching career at Montgomery College as dean of the college’s natural sciences and health professions programs, a post she held from June 2002 to January 2005. Her next rung up the career ladder was as associate vice chancellor, workforce development for 45,000-student NHMCCD, the post she left to accept the Grossmont College presidency.
Just this year, Cooke spearheaded a successful campaign to obtain a $1.6 million Skills Development Fund grant from the Texas Workforce Commission. With the funding, NHMCCD provided training to upgrade job skills of 850 employees representing 12 businesses in the manufacturing industry.
A good fit for Grossmont College
In recommending Cooke for the Grossmont College presidency, Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Chancellor Omero Suarez highlighted her science background, in particular her training at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, ranked among the nation’s top two cancer hospitals in U.S. News & World Report’s annual “America’s Best Hospitals” survey. Cooke focused her research at the center on the role that cell recognition and adhesion play on cancer cell metastasis.
“Her science background will fit extremely well with Grossmont College and this region,” Suarez said. “She has taught biology, microbiology and biotechnology at universities and community colleges for more than 13 years. Her doctorate from Georgetown University is in biology and her 10 years in the North Harris Montgomery Community College District followed post-doctoral work at one of the world’s most respected cancer centers, renowned for its groundbreaking research and treatment of cancer.”
The American dream
Science and medicine have had a lifelong influence on Cooke, shaping her childhood and her educational and professional pursuits in later years.
Born in Lucknow, India in 1963, Cooke immigrated to the United States at age 5 with her family, a move that resulted from a nursing shortage that led Dallas-based Parkland Memorial Hospital to recruit Cooke’s mother. Her father, an English literature instructor at Lucknow Christian College, put his career on hold for the year her mother was committed to working at Parkland Memorial.
“We arrived at New York and made our way to Dallas, Texas,” Cooke said. “Due to Indian immigration laws, we came with $8 per person in our pockets and what we could carry in luggage…Our first home was at a YMCA camp outside Dallas and some of our newest friends in the U.S. were in charge of that camp.”
From Dallas, the family moved to Missouri, where Cooke’s father was hired to teach at the University of Missouri. It was also in Missouri, where his second career as a minister took root, when he began working part-time as an education minister. From Missouri, the family relocated to rural Pennsylvania, where her father had been recruited to lead his first parish.
With a mother who’s a retired nurse, an older brother who’s a chemical engineer in Rochester, N.Y., and an older sister who’s a physician in Palm Springs, science runs deep in Cooke’s family. Her father, the lone non-scientist in the immediate family, retired from the Methodist ministry in 1998 and remains active in his church and in community volunteerism. He and his wife live in Palm Springs.
Cooke said she was probably genetically predisposed to an interest in science, but not wanting to compete with her sister and brother, who both excelled in the subject, she began her first year as an undergraduate as a pre-law major. It was, however, counter to her true disposition as a scientist, and a year later, she returned to study biology, chemistry and physics.
“It was like going home,” she said. “While I loved being in DC and being involved in politics and learning a great deal through exciting real-life experiences, my brain worked in a more scientific and mathematical way…”
The new president describes leadership style as “open and collaborative”
Cooke said she sought a move to California and applied for the Grossmont College presidency because of the college’s strong student focus and the commitment and dedication of employees to the college and the surrounding community.
“I am looking forward to working with the talented and energized faculty and staff at Grossmont College,” she said. “It is clear that they are strongly committed to student success.
“The focus on providing the best possible experience for the students, the role of the college in the community, and the sense that all employees enjoy and are committed to working at the college and supporting the surrounding community played a central role in my decision to pursue this opportunity at Grossmont College.”
Cooke also credits the college for its “excellent reputation” for academic and student achievement, as well as its wide variety of programs and services well known throughout the nation. Graduates of its cardiovascular technology program, for example, are regularly recruited for jobs at the renowned Mayo Clinic. The college’s forensic technology program is one of the few degree programs in the country to offer hands-on instruction in areas such as investigative photography and identification technology.
As for what she brings to the college, Cooke describes her leadership style as “open and collaborative,” which inspires others to work together toward a common goal.
“What really shines through is my caring for people and creating opportunities for them to grow and develop, whether they are students, employees or community members,” she said. “My passion for helping students and the community is only matched by my firm belief that the faculty, staff, and administrators are the essence and core of who we are as a college.