Jose Antonio Vargas Makes History as First Undocumented Regularly Appointed Trustee of the California State University System

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Media Contact: 
Leezia Dhalla

The country’s largest public four-year university system, CSU serves nearly a half million students across its 23 universities, tens of thousands of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. 

LOS ANGELES, CA — In a historic appointment, Jose Antonio Vargas has been named the first undocumented person and first Filipino to serve as a regularly appointed member of the Board of Trustees for the California State University system. His 8-year term expires in 2030.

The California State Senate approved Jose’s nomination for a seat on the 25-member board on June 19 following an appointment by Governor Gavin Newsom in July 2022. As a trustee, Jose will be part of the key decision making body to adopt policies and regulations that govern the nation’s largest public four-year university system in areas such as educational policy, finance, and campus planning.

“As a proud graduate of San Francisco State — Class of 2004, before there was DACA, when the Dream Act was three years old, and when there was little vocabulary and support for undocumented students and our families — I am honored, humbled, and excited to serve this community,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, Founder and President of Define American. “The CSU does vital work of educating and preparing a truly diverse student body, which includes immigrants and undocumented students of all backgrounds, to contribute critical skills to our workforce and country. My hope is to represent the diversity of the entire student body and to showcase that a student’s immigration status is only one part of their humanity.”

Jose came to the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. As his life unfolded, he navigated school, then college and work as an undocumented person, eventually earning a degree in Political Science from San Francisco State University. After graduating, he worked as a journalist at numerous well-known publications, including The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and The San Francisco Chronicle, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize. He later revealed his undocumented status in an essay published in The New York Times.

“I am thrilled at Jose’s historic appointment and enthusiastically welcome the extraordinary professional and personal qualities he brings to the CSU Board of Trustees,” said Chair Wenda Fong, a second-generation Chinese American and the first Asian American to lead the CSU Board of Trustees. “His rich lived experience and demonstrated compassion for immigrants, undocumented students and other historically underserved student populations will undoubtedly benefit the talented and dynamically diverse students the CSU is so privileged to serve.”

The historic appointment comes just days before the 12th anniversary of Define American on June 22, the narrative change nonprofit Jose founded in 2011 with three friends to humanize media portrayals of immigrants. Twice-named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, Define American has established itself as one of the most trusted and impactful organizations in the culture change space.

“We’re extremely proud of Jose for shattering the glass ceiling and paving the way for countless others through this historic appointment to the CSU Board of Trustees,” said Define American Executive Director Rebecca Neuwirth. “Jose is continuing to blaze the trail for immigrants of all backgrounds to pursue their ambitions fiercely and to achieve what feels impossible, as Jose has shown time and time again.”

California State Senator María Elena Durazo — who in her first year as a senator spearheaded legislation expanding eligibility for state appointments to boards and commissions to non-citizens — spoke in support of Jose’s appointment to the CSU Board.

“It’s been an incredible privilege for me to serve for, and work on behalf of, immigrants. In a representative democracy where voters elect leaders to speak and vote on their behalf, non-citizens who are not yet able to vote must rely on the political will of a few to speak for their interest and needs. Appointments to state and local boards and commissions allow for immigrants like Jose Antonio Vargas to speak for themselves,” said Senator Durazo. “A Pulitzer Prize winner, Jose’s perspectives and expertise, through his journalism, will now help us in California draft better policy that improves education opportunities for all. I’m so proud to stand in support of his nomination.”

With polarization heating up and extremists continuing to scapegoat immigrant communities through mis- and disinformation, Define American has ambitious plans to expand its critical work of changing the narrative. The organization, which celebrates its 12th anniversary today, has reached more than 30 million people with the vibrant stories of immigrants who have long enriched the United States.

In addition to his historic appointment on the CSU Board of Trustees, Jose also became the first known undocumented lead producer on Broadway earlier this week after the groundbreaking musical Here Lies Love started previews. He will celebrate 30 years in the United States this August.