In 1957, when professor emeritus Julian Nava started teaching at San Fernando Valley State College, he was a rare sight. He was Hispanic in an institution with only 12 Hispanic students. Nava grew up in the “barrio” of East Los Angeles, served in the U.S. Naval Air Corps, studied at East Los Angeles Community College, earned his bachelor’s at Pomona College and received a doctorate at Harvard University. He broke down many racial barriers and went on to have an extraordinary 43-year career at Cal State Northridge.
“I was intrigued by the opportunity to help form a nascent academic institution,” said Nava, who, prior to joining the faculty at Northridge taught humanities at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.
“I was in Los Angeles dealing with an illness in my family when I received a job offer from professor Ray Rydel,” he recalled. Nava joined the Department of History as the Latin American specialist.
He was back on campus recently for Founders Day. He helped dedicate the Ralph Prator Fountain, which honored the first president of San Fernando Valley State College.
A distinguished statesman, Nava has enjoyed a career of both teaching and community service. He was the first Mexican-American elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board in 1967. He was also appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1980 by President Carter, the first Mexican-American to hold that position.
Nava recalled the thrill of helping establish the Department of Chicana/o Studies at Cal State Northridge in 1968.
“I worked with professor Rudy Acuña,” Nava said. “We had two months to create the curriculum for 10 courses. We met our deadline and the committee gave all 10 courses their approval.”
Nava currently volunteers with Encuentros Leadership, an organization dedicated to encouraging young Hispanic men and women to complete their high school education and attend college.
“We find many high school students drop-out to help support their families,” said Nava, who also just completed handbooks written in English and Spanish for students, teachers and parents. The handbooks, which explain how to assist your child in writing their family history, are currently being field-tested at schools in South Pasadena and Vista.
An inveterate traveler, Nava is currently planning a trip to Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and has recently visited such far flung destinations as Patagonia, Argentina and Lhasa, Tibet.
He also enjoys spending time with his grandchildren. Nava smiled as he recalled being asked by one of his grandchildren why he didn’t fall off the face of the earth, at the bottom of the earth in lower Patagonia. The emeritus professor was delighted when another grandchild demonstrated his superior knowledge of physics by replying “gravity held him on.”