Leading in Love: Fresno State's First Lady
Ser amor” is tattooed on her right forearm, Portuguese for “Be love.” She’s one of the busiest volunteers in the Central Valley. And her favorite pastime is board games with family.
Her name is Mary Castro and she is officially known as the First Lady of Fresno State, supporting President Joseph I. Castro’s goals and initiatives.
Unofficially, she’s known for her hugs.
“It’s kind of a running joke across campus,” Castro said. “You’ll get people saying ‘She will be hugging you while you’re here.’”
Such warmth is rooted in the small town of Laton, about 20 miles south of Fresno, where Mary Borges Castro was born into a farming family.
“My mom went into labor with me while my dad was milking cows late at night,” she said.
The simplicity of the rural lifestyle molded her as an individual and shaped her values, especially as they pertained to helping others.
“We would share things,” Castro said of the tight-knit community. “If someone had milk … nectarines … you bartered and traded.”
She fondly remembers her grandmother, Josephine Borges, hosting many family gatherings at her home. It was a time for fellowship and eating together.
“I once thought everyone had that,” Castro said.
Castro went to high school at Riverdale Christian Academy, where she was involved in a number of activities including speech and debate, volleyball, music and theater. She worked part-time to pay for her tuition. She also helped her parents with household expenses.
While working at Burger King her senior year, she met a young man who was in his first year at UC Berkeley. Joe Castro encouraged her to continue her education, which she did, enrolling in Dominican College in San Rafael and studying musical theater.
Mary and Joe married and spent the next several years supporting and working alongside each other at University of California campuses, where Joe held positions of increasing responsibility.
“We were willing to go where the positions were,” she said, “but our goal was always to come back here and serve our own community.”
That opportunity presented itself in mid-2013 when Joseph I. Castro became president of Fresno State, succeeding John D. Welty. It wasn’t long afterward when Mary Castro began identifying meaningful ways to engage with the campus and larger communities.
“What first came to our attention was that many of our students go through food insecurity” – skipping meals during the day because they don’t have the resources to buy them, Castro said.
In response, she led the effort to establish The Student Cupboard, a pantry on campus where current students can receive free food and hygiene products. It was important to Castro that the resource be structured in a way that preserves their dignity, so all that’s asked of them is where the resources are going and how many are in their household.
The desire to help students in need was also behind The Catered Cupboard. Castro got the idea while attending a catered campus event during her first semester at Fresno State. She noticed hungry students peering in through the windows.
“When I saw them, I said ‘Come on in,’” Castro recalled.
Students who sign up for the Catered Cupboard receive a push notification on their mobile devices, indicating where they can go and eat the untouched portions of food left over from catered staff luncheons and events. It’s first-come, first-served, said Castro, and any Fresno State student can get the notifications.
“You’ll find that I’m a person who asks ‘Why?’ or ‘How can I invite the students?’” Castro said.
In November 2013, Castro was approached by Julie Logan, program director for KFSR, the non-commercial public radio station operated on campus. What Castro thought was a one-time request to appear on a segment was actually a request for Castro to have her own weekly program.
“As a radio programmer, I immediately recognized an opportunity for both KFSR and Fresno State,” Logan said. “Mrs. Castro is in a unique position of having her finger on the pulse of the university.”
After some brainstorming sessions with Shirley Armbruster of the university’s communications office, Castro recognized that the show could be a way to tell the stories of individuals committed to the campus. First Lady’s Focus airs Sundays at 10 a.m. and will enter its second year in January.
Lynnette Zelezny, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, was an early guest.
“She’s able to make people feel so comfortable,” Zelezny said. “And Mary is tireless. She’s largely at every Fresno State function to help our campus.”
Many of those functions are held at University House, the official residence of Fresno State presidents and their families. It was the site of KFSR Fest, the first-ever summer benefit concert series to support the campus radio station, and is where the Castros host an annual reception coinciding with Christmas Tree Lane. More recently they opened their home to a barbecue for new faculty and their families.
“We enjoyed meats prepared by our meat processing facility by students on our campus, ping pong tables and a bounce house,” Castro said.
Castro believes that inviting faculty members’ families to campus functions is important. When a faculty member is newly hired or returns for another academic year, the entire family is affected, she said. It’s fitting to start the year with all of them attending.
“She wants to address people in the context of the family,” Zelezny said. “It’s a powerful message she’s sending.”
As chair of the psychology department, Zelezny worked closely with Castro on the establishment of the Autism Center @ Fresno State. She said Castro played a key role in sealing the university’s partnership with Valley Children’s Hospital, a relationship that led to the opening of a satellite autism center at the Madera medical facility in July.
“It was because of Mary’s passion that we were able to expand,” Zelezny said.
Castro seems to derive particular joy from watching students accomplish their personal and academic goals. Two weeks before the 2014 Latino Commencement Celebration, Castro talked to students who would be receiving awards and other special honors. A few told her that their parents would not be in attendance because they lived too far away, needed to honor other commitments or had passed away.
Castro was determined to make a difference somehow.
On the day of the commencement ceremony, she asked the dean if she could hug the first student who took to the stage.
“I felt overwhelmed with joy for them,” Castro recalled. “I couldn’t hug just one!”
Since then, she has hugged hundreds of graduating students.
“They shake the hand of the president,” Zelezny said, “[but] I’ve seen some of the students jump into her arms. “I think they need it, the encouragement.”
Said Castro, “It’s personal, and it matters that they know we care.” •
Andrew Veihmeyer was news editor of the campus newspaper while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in communication at Fresno State. Most recently, he has worked as a marketing intern for several companies and nonprofits in the Central Valley.