April 05, 2004
CONTACT: Mike Stepanovich, 661/664-2456 or mstepanovich@csub.edu

He’s like a benevolent uncle, organizing activities for his students, gently prodding them, providing an understanding ear when they have problems. Rey Cuesta is all that and more. As coordinator of the STAAR program at California State University, Bakersfield, Cuesta deals with some 450 students with a myriad of needs, hopes and aspirations.

“We have a select group of students who work with the STAAR program,” Cuesta said. “We take them through advising and counseling, both personal and academic. We make sure their English, math and other needs are taken care of. We stay with them until they graduate. We do a lot of activities, such as cultural enrichment stuff, potlucks, open houses. We show them around. My job is to make sure they get academic service first. No. 2 is to do academic enrichment events – bowling, workshops, fieldtrips to leadership conferences, teacher conferences. So my whole goal is to keep students active, involved and getting good grades.”

STAAR is an acronym for Student Achievement, Academic and Retention, a federally funded program committed to providing services to 450 first-generation low-income or physically and/or learning disabled students. The program provides several support activities for participating students, including assistance in math, reading and writing, financial-aid assistance, and career planning. It also sponsors social activities designed to integrate the students into university life, such as graduate school field trips, a quarterly bowling night, ice cream/pizza socials, and academic/personal enrichment workshops.

Ensuring students who have no college traditions in their families to continue on to degree completion is the goal of the program. Among the tools to do that is ensuring students become part of the university’s social strata. “One of my first priorities when I came here was to have a fun student activities club,” Cuesta said. “We get them to interact with other students, clubs, and fundraisers on campus. At the end of the year we plan a trip; the students decide where want to go, and that’s their reward.”

In his 17 years at CSUB, Cuesta has also organized the Trio Prep Club, a federally funded program that helps with students’ academics. He’s also founded a Chi Alpha Epsilon chapter at CSUB, a national honor society within the STAAR program. He recently stepped down as advisor to Theta Sigma Chi, a Latina sorority.

Aware that cultural identity is a strong component of self-esteem, and thus a key to helping first-generation students, Cuesta 10 years ago established a Ballet Folklorico group on campus, Mexica Tiahui. He also launched a mariachi band last year comprised of students, Cuicatli.

If it seems like Cuesta is going the extra mile to ensure students’ success, it may have something to do with his own background. He wants to emulate the people who inspired him.

“I’m from Mexico, but I grew up in Calexico in the Imperial Valley,” he said. “I was involved in athletics, but I always hung around with the wrong crowd, the troublemakers. But I had very good support, people looking out for me. In high school a lot of people took a liking to me. It helped that my sister was a good student at Calexico High School.

“My high school counselor, Sergio Lopez, inspired me to go on. He’s now one of my best friends and a counselor at Imperial Valley College. He led me to Imperial Valley College, the local community college, and after a couple of years to get my grades up, off I went to Chico State. I think of those as my growing years.”

At Chico State, he said, “I worked through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), affirmative action, and Trio programs – I was always active and trying to get students involved in political events. So many things happened in Chico, it was very eye opening for me. Working with the programs, with other students, not only doing academic events like setting up study sessions with the clubs, but also the programs themselves offered a lot of cultural things. I think that’s what helped me. I graduated from Chico State with bachelor of arts in psychology with an emphasis in bilingual counseling.”

He chose psychology, he said, because “I was planning to go into counseling. Sergio saw me interact with students and encouraged me. He said this is what you need to do, you need to become a counselor. That’s what got me interested in working with students I relate well and easily with people.”

After graduating, he began working on a master’s degree in psychology, but he also started applying for positions at various campuses. “CSUB was only place that gave me a second interview, and 17 years later I’m still here.” Plus he’s also now a CSUB alumnus. “I finished my masters in educational administration here.” His next step, he said, is entering CSUB’s joint doctoral program with the University of the Pacific in educational administration.

He also got married about a year and a half ago. “I’ve been involved in so many things in the community. That’s how I met my wife. I’ve known her 12 years. We’re both so involved, that’s what brought us together.”

Cuesta has enjoyed his career at CSUB. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the people work with in the STAAR program – my boss, Donald Towns; the staff, Monique (Idoux) and Cathy (Pyle). They’ve made it easy for me to do so many things. I’ve worked with lots of people on campus; it’s incredible the support I’ve gotten from the campus in doing my job.”

And he loves working with the students. “The students – they keep coming back for more, they want to learn. I get to be part of their lives, get them going in the right direction. The thank-you is the big reward. ‘Each one teach one is the theory: I help them and they help another person. I went through this at Chico, learning all this stuff. It’s been great coming here and seeing the students going through the same thing. It’s like I’m still in school. The excitement the students get, that’s the drive.

“I’ve been very fortunate, my position, working with the STAAR program, making it a success. It’s been a very powerful experience, and it seems like it just keeps getting better. … The students, they’re the ones make it grow, making it attractive to other students.”