Milagros Peña

College President Researches and Practices Cross-Cultural Leadership

Milagros Peña
Higher Education Leader, Author, Sociologist
1994 Fulbright-Hays/García Robles Research Award to Mexico

Headshot of Milagros Peña in front of Purchase College sign

Dr. Milagros “Milly” Peña practices the lessons learned from her education in New York and her research in Latina leadership. As president of Purchase College, State University of New York, she leads one of the most ethnically diverse liberal arts colleges in the United States. She is an ardent advocate for cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural scholarship.

Peña says she was drawn to Purchase for its distinctive strength in the liberal arts and fine arts. She also applauds the diverse and inclusive community that values individuality and fully embraces its motto, ‘think wide open.’ She values institutions such as Purchase, “where excellence and exploration are encouraged as one journeys to fulfill one’s potential.”

When the SUNY Board of Trustees appointed Peña as the sixth president of Purchase College in 2020, she became the first Hispanic woman ever to lead a SUNY institution.

Peña’s grandmothers left the Dominican Republic at the end of World War II and made their way to create new lives in New York City’s Washington Heights. They worked long days in the garment district to support their families. “They always instilled in me that we were now in a place where I was going to have opportunities that were never available to women, at least in my family. So I was always very mindful of that,” Peña told Purchase Magazine.

Peña was the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and attend college. As part of her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American Literature, Education, and Religion at Iona College, she had the opportunity to study abroad in Mexico. Peña observes that “study abroad really changes how you think about history, about art, the way you experience another culture.”

Peña went on to earn a master’s degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York, and then a master’s degree and a doctorate in sociology from Stony Brook University. Through her master’s and doctorate research, Peña has contributed to cross-cultural intellectual inquiry in both sociology and theology. She is also a notable women’s studies scholar who has advocated for the internationalization of women’s studies programs. In her career as both an academic and an administrator, she is committed to equity, diversity, inclusion, and community engagement.

As part of her second major research project, she received a Fulbright-Hays/García Robles Research Award to study nongovernment organizations (NGOs) run by women and devoted to advancing women’s well-being that had proliferated in Mexico and along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border over the previous twenty-five years.

“As a Fulbright recipient, my international research provided me with a whole new outlook and a deep appreciation which enriched me both professionally and personally,” said Peña. "Without the Fulbright award, I would not have been able to conduct the level of research I did nor would I have had the level of professional exchange that I did. With the research I conducted, I not only published a book and several articles, I was also able to garner professional and personal relationships with colleagues I met and exchanged ideas with while in México.”

The book that she authored based on that research, Latina Activists Across Borders: Grassroots Women’s Organizing in Mexico and Texas (Duke University Press, 2007) was awarded the 2008 Distinguished Book Award by the Latino/a section of the American Sociological Association. Her research found that the activists in various locations invested in their causes at the personal level, and found local connections across racial, religious, and class lines through their work. Interestingly, she found that they only selectively collaborated with international organizations if there was a resonance with their work at the local level.

Peña has also authored or co-authored four additional books and over forty journal articles, book chapters, and reports on Latino and Latina leadership development and faith traditions, and she has developed courses integrating what she learned into her teaching. 

Peña’s work as an administrative leader mirrors the themes in her research, leading and expanding centers for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida and serving as a dean at the University of California, Riverside. There, she was known for leading efforts to increase the hiring of diverse faculty, supporting initiatives designed to connect faculty across 20 departments, and working to bring the campus and surrounding communities together.

When then-SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson introduced her as the new president of Purchase College, she said, “Dr. Peña has spent her career attracting and retaining diverse faculty members to more  accurately reflect student demographics. She also has aggressively pursued and promoted cross-disciplinary scholarship and stressed the importance of higher education institutions as community pillars.”

Purchase College is the only four-year public college in Westchester County, and it is proud of its fundamental mission of providing high quality education in the liberal arts and sciences and conservatory training in the arts to students of modest backgrounds.

Purchase College was designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by the U.S. Department of Education in 2021, and it was named as a Fulbright HSI Leader in 2022 for its engagement with the Fulbright Program. Peña said she was proud of the work the college is doing to ensure that students and faculty have opportunities for globally-focused education and cross-cultural experiences both on campus and abroad.​

Acknowledging the professional and life experiences that brought her back to her New York roots, Peña said, “As a first generation college student, I know the backgrounds of our students, the diversity of our students, and I just felt that I was coming home on so many levels.”

“As a sociologist who thinks about social justice issues, whether it’s the backgrounds we come from, food insecurity, inequality, and inequity, as a leader I look to be mindful as I’m making decisions or engaging others in collaborating on projects or programs,” she explained.

President Peña incorporates what she “learned and experienced as a Fulbright-Hays/García-Robles Mexico Research Scholarto my campus community at Purchase College, SUNY. During my tenure as President, the College has adopted the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development goals. In talking to students, I ensure that they learn that these goals are informed by policies adapted from the very type of NGOs with which I engaged."

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