At her inauguration May 4 as San Jose State University’s 30th president, Mary A. Papazian brought her father and brothers to tears when she took to the podium to describe her late mother as a teacher who inspired generations of students to excel.
“A mentor strongly encouraged my mom to pursue her doctoral degree in education at Stanford,” Papazian said in her inaugural address. “But she had already met my father at UCLA, and they married young—which is what you did in those days—and my three brothers and I were born in short order. So rather than pursue her doctoral degree, my mom earned a teaching credential.”
She said her mother prepared all her students—her own children included—for college. Papazian followed through with her mother’s dream of completing a doctorate and has eclipsed it by becoming the first woman of Armenian descent to become president of a major public university.
Spartans, educational leaders, local and state officials, faith leaders and community members gathered at 9:30 a.m. on Tower Lawn for the festivities. A recording of the event is available on the SJSU website.
The ceremony started off with a procession of visiting honorees and SJSU community members decked out in a rainbow of regalia colors. Papazian was the last one to enter the ceremony, aptly dressed in robes of Spartan blue and gold.
“It is with enormous gratitude and deep humility that I embrace the opportunity to lead this storied institution,” she said.
Hundreds of people gathered on the sunny morning, with President Papazian’s husband Dennis, her two daughters, and extended family who traveled from as far as Taiwan and Switzerland, present to celebrate the momentous occasion. Papazian, who joined SJSU in July, was officially invested as university president in the moment when CSU Chancellor Timothy White placed a ceremonial gold medallion around her neck after dozens of campus and community members lauded her.
The theme for the morning’s festivities included the legacy of SJSU as the founding CSU campus and the promise that the university holds for the future, especially as a leader in the community.
Academic Senate Chair Michael Kimbarow, a professor of communicative disorders and sciences, and Mayor Sam Liccardo acknowledged the important connection between the campus and the neighboring community.
“A great city like San Jose is even greater for having a world-class university in its midst,” Liccardo said.
When Liccardo presented Papazian with a resolution from the city, he mentioned the exuberance and joy she expresses when she talks about the university. He touted the institution’s importance to driving innovation in the most technologically-advanced region in the world. He also noted the sense of community she has built since joining the campus.
“It’s more than just Mary’s 30 family members here today,” Liccardo said. “It’s Mary’s 35,000 family members.”
CSU Fullerton Mildred Garcia, who has known Papazian for many years, remarked on her accomplishments through the years.
“There are shards of glass on her shoulders because of all the glass ceilings she had to crash through to be here,” Garcia said, adding that Papazian joins 10 other female CSU presidents. “Welcome to the CSU, Sister Mary Papazian.”
Papazian weaved in personal anecdotes about her background as the daughter of immigrants, as a scholar of Renaissance literature and as a mother of two with thoughts on the university’s future during her inaugural address.
She mused about how she came to lead a university in the middle of Silicon Valley that is best known for its science, technology, engineering and math programs.
“The Renaissance was a transformative moment in human history,” she said. “And we now are in the midst of another period of transformative change.”
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and a long-time friend of Papazian’s, offered some personal reflections during the morning ceremony and lauded her commitment to education.
“It is a dedication informed by her profound empathy, moral imagination, her own lived experience and her Armenian heritage,” Pasquerella said. “She understands the link between liberal education and civic engagement….Her leadership holds a potential for the re-envisioning of the landscape of higher education because of her moral courage, intellect and commitment to the community.”
Papazian closed the ceremony with a reflection on the greatest asset of the university.
“The true greatness of San Jose State University is revealed in its people,” Papazian said during her inaugural address. “In each of you. Our people are our legacy. And they are our promise.”