Koester’s globe-trekking past leads her to CSUN

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CSUN President Jolene Koester loves to travel. She has been all over the world, but still has many places she’d like to see, including Iceland, Chile, Argentina, Egypt, Israel, Africa and Antarctica. In the foreseeable future, she and her husband are planning a hiking trip through Patagonia in South America.

Some of her favorite places she has traveled to include Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city in Peru, Buddhist temples in Bangkok, Thailand and the Taj Mahal in India.

“There are certain cities that have magic,” she said, regarding Istanbul, Paris, London, Beijing, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. “They show that previous civilizations were intelligent, sophisticated and capable, and that we ought not get too smug about our own technological advancements.”

Koester’s extensive traveling may come as a surprise to those who do not know the small-framed, bespectacled former provost of CSU Sacramento, but to her friends and co-workers who met her when she first began her presidency here at CSUN, her energy and curiosity behind her are just part of the intellect and persona that Koester is known for.

Koester began her globe-trekking as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, where on exchange, she spent a year studying at India’s Osmania University. Koester said she chose to study in India because of the two programs open to her; English was the language of instruction only in India.

“I didn’t speak Spanish,” she said, explaining why she chose India.

Despite the fact that most of her classes were taught in English, she managed to gain some understanding of the many native languages spoken around her.

“I got to a point where I could understand a lot,” she said.”I feel very comfortable in India. It has a special place in my heart.”

The fact that Koester is a world traveler and leads a diverse and metropolitan university belies her humble beginnings.

She is the oldest of five children who grew up in a small farming town of about 250 people in the Midwest.

“It was very stable,” Koester said of her childhood in Plato, Minnesota. “Children ran free. The town was our playground.”

Koester grew up in a German home, and she is also competent in the language. As the eldest, she was responsible for caring for her three younger sisters and brother.

Koester said her life began to change dramatically when she entered the seventh grade in a town several miles away from her home.

“I became very involved in speech and debate activities,” she said. “It was through speech and debate that the world really started to take shape. I was reading books about domestic issue and international issues.”

Koester said her debate coach would sometimes take her and her fellow students to a university library to research issues.

Koester was the first in her immediate family to finish high school and attend college.

“I grew up in a really small town, and both my parents grew up on farms,” she said. “When my parents grew up, high school was not an expectation for everyone.”

Both her parents, however, encouraged her educational pursuit.

“My parents showed a lot of interest in and support for my education,” she said. “They taught me that school was important, and that it was critical that I go to college.”

Koester said that after finishing high school, higher education came to her naturally.

“I was always very curious, from day one,” she said. “I was a pain to every adult around.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota, she went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for her master’s degree, and then went onto earn a doctorate in speech communication back at the University of Minnesota.

Koester said her love of learning directly influenced her decision to enter the field of public education as her profession.

“My passion for what we do at CSUN comes directly from the recognition that college changed my life,” she said. “Without higher education, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I had.”

Although her initial intention was to work in an office of international education at a university, Koester was continuously promoted higher and higher through the educational ranks after starting off her career as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. She spent the majority of her career in the CSU system, first at CSU Sacramento, starting in 1983 as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies before becoming provost in 1996. In 2000, she was chosen to become CSUN’s fourth president.

During her time at CSUN, she has made a very positive impression on some of the people she works with.

“She’s wonderful to work with,” said Claire Cavarallo, chief of staff for the president’s office. “She’s very energetic, very caring. She sincerely cares about her staff members, the students and faculty. She is also very smart and a skilled leader.”

Cavarallo said one of Koester’s gifts is her ability to simultaneously see minute details, and the big picture in any situation.

“She doesn’t get lost in details. She sees the university as a whole and knows where we’re going. She really leads,” Cavarallo said.

Koester has made some considerable accomplishments and changes during her tenure here, many of which can be readily seen or felt by students, faculty and staff on campus.

“I’m very proud of how beautiful this campus is,” she said. “I’m proud of the degree to which people take notice of the appearance of the campus.”

She said the campus’ appearance is due to the hard work of a large number of people, and that there are plans for further developments in the future as the campus continues to grow.

Cavarallo said Koester has been key in creating a sense of community on campus.

“There are places like the Sierra Center and soon the new University Student Union project where students, staff and faculty can congregate. There are also two new parking structures,” she said. “This is the first time in my 23 years here that parking is not a problem on this campus.”

Cavarallo noted that these changes have come as a result of Koester’s goal of making the CSUN campus more “user friendly.”

Koester has also initiated plans to build the San Fernando Valley’s first large-scale performing arts center. The new Valley Performing Arts Center will seat 1,600 and will be a major venue for performing arts in Southern California, said John Chandler, university spokesperson.

“It should be completed by the end of the decade,” he said. “It will be KCSN (radio’s) new home, and it will provide an opportunity for students to work, intern, as well as perform there.”

“It’s something that will be very positive not only for CSUN, but for the region and the community as a whole,” Chandler said.

Koester said she is happy about efforts that have resulted in the improvement of graduation rates at the university, and of her success in raising and securing private funding for CSUN. She is also proud of her role in enhancing the image of the university in the community, and the campus’ current and planned clean energy policies.

But mostly, she said, “I am proud of the students here, who manage to work and lead full lives while completing their degrees.”

Among Koester’s favorite aspects of working at CSUN, the university’s mission stands out to her.

“We are committed to serving the needs of this region. We care about what goes on here (in the community),” she said.

She also has a deep appreciation for the diversity of the students on campus.

“When you go out during class time and see thousands of students that are so diverse – that’s what we’re all about,” she said. “This is the world. There is no isolation from the real world here; you’re in it.”

Koester’s days are enormously busy. She and her husband, a faculty member at San Diego State, live at University House near cam
pus, which is conceptually similar to the White House in that it is intended to be the president’s home and also a hub of public activity for university business and activities.

“I usually start between eight and nine in the morning, but sometimes seven,” she said.

During the day her schedule is packed tight with meetings, luncheons, conference calls and appointments. Most of her evenings consist of events on campus, at University House, or out in the community. She said she still finds the time, however, to connect with the campus on a personal level.

She also makes it a point to go to sporting events, theatre and dance performances, gallery openings and basically “any event that showcases student talent.”

Koester said she makes sure she sees every sports team play at least once every year.

In rare moments when Koester has time to herself, her favorite pastimes include reading and hiking. Some of her favorite books include Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

“I love movies, though I rarely get to see them,” she said. She said she truly enjoys her work and for that reason, she sees it as a hobby of sorts.

A personal goal of hers is to “continue to do exercise,” which she said she rarely has time for.

“I spend about three hours every week walking on the campus, where I try to stop and talk with students, departments, and staff,” Koester said.

Bethania Palma can be reached at bethania.palma.45@csun.edu.