The words are uncanny in their timelessness; written as they were 20 years ago about Alfredo Gonzáles, associate provost, dean for international and multicultural education, and adjunct associate professor of social work.
How does that old adage go? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The sagacious saying fortunately rings true about the nature and mission of one of Hope’s top administrators, but it regrettably does the same for the current state of race and political relations in this country.
Here’s what was penned about Gonzáles (by this same writer) for News from Hope College in February of 1996:
Assistant Provost Alfredo Gonzáles has a motto, an axiom, a credo. It is as inspiring as it is catchy. And though he hasn’t spoken these words exactly, he does live them, promote them, and adhere to them every day. You see, Al Gonzáles’ life-guiding principle is this:
“Build bridges, not walls.”
It sounds appealing enough. It sounds obvious. But in a decade when racial and cultural tensions are deemed to be as rubberband tight as they were three decades ago, it’s not as easy and obvious as it sounds. Yet, Gonzáles is insistent—in his words and in his actions—about staying true to this mission for his community’s sake and for Hope’s sake.
“Separation appears to be the norm in our society,” said the soft-spoken but assertive Gonzáles. “We are fast becoming even more divided along lines of race, culture, ethnicity, class and political difference. Publicly we say we want community, but when it comes time to act on community goals, our individualism triumphs over the ideal of true community.”
Sigh. If only it were not still so.
But then Gonzáles added:
“The splintering of society will cease only when all of us—rich and poor, black and white, factory owner and worker, student and teacher—realize that there is a better way in which we can truly construct community. In such a community there is respect for difference and acknowledgement that each member can add value, vitality and vision.”
Then as now and for a total of 37 years at Hope, Gonzáles has been ever optimistic, ever vigilant, ever striving to create the kind of community where bridges are the norm and not the exception. In fact, assembling cohesiveness and a way across cultural expanses surely will be called Gonzáles’ Hope legacy due to his “winsome and constructive voice in calling the campus to a vision of the Beloved Community,” says Provost Richard Ray. “Alfredo wants everyone in our college to flourish and has worked very hard for this for a very long time. Indeed, few at Hope have done so much for so many for so long.”
Arriving at Hope 1979 to direct the college’s TRiO Upward Bound Program, Gonzáles came by way of a number of personal and professional experiences that informed and shaped his early, strong sense of empathy and work ethic. The second oldest of five children born to migrant parents, Texas-born Fred and Mexico-born Consuelo, Gonzáles spent much of his early life travelling to farms between Texas and Michigan. When his parents settled the family for good in South Haven, Michigan, when he was 17, the forward-looking Gonzáles continued to symbolically and laboriously journey—by working at a foundry, a lumberyard, finishing high school at the age of 20, serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, and becoming an itinerate freelance photographer there, all by the age of 24. Each experience, rich as they were in hard work and soul-searching, gave Gonzáles a fuller perspective on life that few 20-somethings had in the 1960s.
Once back in the States after being honorably discharged from the Army with a Presidential Commendation Medal in 1971, Gonzáles ended up in Holland and went to work for the city’s Human Relations Commission and city manager for seven years, addressing issues of fairness in housing and employment. And while he advocated for others, he worked on a personal dream that showed he would advocate for himself: Gonzáles earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University in public administration, the first in his family to do so.
When he came to Hope, Gonzáles’ career peripateticism would continue, albeit now in one place and still without ennui. After working in Upward Bound for five years, he was named the director of minority student affairs in 1984, then assistant dean of multicultural life in 1986, then assistant provost in 1990, onto associate provost in 2001, and to both associate provost and dean of international education and multicultural life in 2006. With every promotion and in each role, Gonzáles—sensitive, empathic, eager to listen and learn—was recognized for being that master ambassador that he is, both on and off campus.
“Alfredo’s personal story has inspired many students of color to survive and excel in college,” says Provost Emeritus Jacob E. Nyenhuis, “and his thoughtful encouragement of faculty and staff colleagues of color has enabled them to flourish in an environment that isn’t always as welcoming as it should be… He has also established many connections to leaders and scholars across the country and around the world, thereby advancing the interests and reputation of the college.”
Gonzáles’ bright office in the Martha Miller Center, filled with domestic and international high-quality art, reflects both the buoyant and concerned spirit of a man whose life work has been to prioritize mutuality and a visible respect for differences. Chinese watercolor, Mexican oil painting, a Russian Orthodox icon, a Hope student original, and a black-and-white photo of MLK and LBJ together are displayed on his walls with great aesthetic care. So are numerous artistic gifts on his bookshelves, given to him by many former faculty and students alike. One—a carved wooden turtle—still has a note neatly tucked inside. “Thank you for all you have done for me. I would not be in higher education if it were not for people like you paving the way for me.” Signed Daisy Hernandez, Hope Class of 2013.
“Despite our issues, or maybe just my issues, being in the minority which sometimes weighs heavily on me,” says Gonzáles, “I believe I understand the needs of our minority students and faculty because I have walked through some of their same issues before. So, I mentor and encourage. My deep and abiding love for Hope students makes that easy to do.”
Besides his preference to work relationally, Gonzáles also has been pleased to oversee the college’s Critical Issues Symposium (CIS) for more than three decades. A day-and-a-half set aside each year to explore some of the most pressing issues of our times, CIS—focusing on topics such as Islam, race in America, immigration, and economic inequality—is “not always the easiest thing to do because invariably Hope becomes a microcosm for society at large,” notes Gonzáles. “That is to say, you have certain, various voices that want to move a conversation in a particular, ideological way. But the disarming part about Critical Issues is not the endorsement of the right or the left, but the exploration of as many perspectives as one can get. This helps students see that there are many entries into difficult conversations.”
And thus, he takes another brick out of another wall and places it in another bridge.
Now, with retirement a few weeks away, Gonzáles “sees” it a bit like the wind. “You know it’s there. You know it’s coming, but don’t quite know how to grasp it,” he muses.
He’ll spend more time with his wife, Maria, and see daughters, Abbie ’03 and Sarah ’04, and his grandson Teddy more often, too, no doubt. He’ll also golf “and maybe get a little better,” he laughs. Yet, the man, whose email signature line proclaims a goal of “Growing Hope in the World,” wants nothing more than to be of use, to be hope in the world himself.
“I don’t know what exactly it is yet, but I want to do something for others in some significant way,” he concludes. “To alleviate or minimize or heal the wounds of the world. Whatever that is, I’ll do my best.”