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Rosa González discusses her lifetime of triumph over turmoils


If the "What Matters to Me and Why" lecture series is ever extended to a two-hour event, organizers will no doubt ask Rosa González, the director of the university's Diversity and Access Office, for a return engagement.

González enthralled an audience at Memorial Church last week with a life story beset by turmoil, tragedy and, ultimately, triumph. Her only problem was that she ran out of time just as she started recounting her time at Stanford, where she said she had to work with a reluctant administration to make the university compliant with federal disability laws.

If you walked away with one impression of González, it's that she is a fighter -- someone who challenged her conservative parents for her independence, battled a degenerative eye condition for 26 years, took on the California State Bar and changed a culture at the university on behalf of the disabled.

"I've never been able to keep my mouth shut," González said in response to a question about her motivations. "It's a challenge not to just be angry and act up but to find what you can really do to change something."

González came to Stanford in 1995 as the associate director of the Office for Multicultural Development and went on to become the university's compliance officer for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. She was named director of the office in 2001, which later was renamed the Diversity and Access Office. González, 45, earned a bachelor's degree in history from Santa Clara University and her law degree from Hastings College of the Law.

Although she ran out of time to explain the "why" part of what matters to her, the "what" provided many of the answers. González said her family, her faith and her work matter most to her, and she blended the three influences into an abbreviated version of her life story.

Her maternal grandparents, Mercedes and Julian Sanchez, had a profound influence on her, she said. The young married couple from Palo Alto in Jalisco, Mexico, became an immigrant success story and went out of their way to repay the acts of kindness they received with acts of kindness toward others in their community, González said. She has tried to emulate that same generosity and selflessness throughout her life, she said.

One of the first setbacks she experienced came at the age of 9, when her request to become an altar server was rebuffed by the monsignor at her Catholic church because of her sex.

"That was really my first crisis of fairness and equity, of something not making sense," González said. "When you feel in your heart that it wasn't a good answer."

She asserted her independence as a young adult when she convinced her parents to let her attend Santa Clara University despite their reluctance to let her live by herself. Her thirst for culture and travel led to a decision to study abroad in Spain for a semester during her junior year, in 1978.

Two weeks before she was to leave for her trip, a casual visit to the doctor's office to check out what she thought was eyestrain led to a diagnosis of macular degeneration in her left eye. She was told the condition would only get worse, and she was advised not to go on the trip. She decided to ignore the advice and go.

"At the age of 20, I was given what I thought was a death sentence that I would lose my vision," González said. "It made me want to see everything."

Her semester in Spain turned into a year so González could hitchhike around Europe. She earned her bachelor's degree in history shortly after her return and volunteered to be a teacher in East Los Angeles.

At age 27, González decided to go to law school at Hastings, partly due to technological advances that accommodated her eye problems. It was there that she met the university's director of student services, who pulled strings for González and did everything she could to ensure that her disability was accommodated.

That same director pushed González to file a complaint with the Department of Justice against the California State Bar when officials refused to allow her to use a special computer to take the three-day test over five days because of eyestrain. She won the case and endured the grueling five-day testing marathon, convinced she had failed under the stress. She passed.

"To this day, I remember sobbing with the lights out because I had passed," González said.

After a year and a half spent fighting cases in court for an Orange County law firm, González decided to try a different career path and accepted a job offer at Stanford in 1995 as the associate director of the Office for Multicultural Development. Her responsibilities also included coordinating the university's compliance efforts with a federal disability law, and she said she was quickly confronted with how much work Stanford needed to do to adhere to the law.

She said she found herself outraged when she saw disabled students crawling up stairs to get to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Resource Center, and she felt uncomfortable when she had to toe the company line when meeting with students who came to her with angry petitions. She knew then that she would have to work even harder to get a slow-moving administration to quickly come up to compliance, she recalled.

"I was outraged that anybody would have to live like that and go to school that way," González said. "I knew I needed to stay working in this area. I realized that with all the inequities I saw."

Nine years later, González said she can look back with pride on her work in making Stanford a more accessible place for people with disabilities with the help and prodding of many others.

As she wrapped up her speech, González' eyes welled with tears as she came to her own realization that she needed to properly thank the people who helped her succeed.

"A lot of those people, I never really went back and told them what they did for me," González said. "I need to honor them and tell them how much they made a difference."

Diversity and Access Office