OREM — In 1983, a young Astrid Tuminez stepped foot on Brigham Young University, looking for a fresh start to her college studies.
As a 15-year-old, she went to college at the University of the Philippines, taking what she calls a tour of majors, first chemical engineering then pre-med.
Her medical studies went well until she was told "I was to find a cat, put the cat to sleep and dissect the cat. I told the professor, 'I don't really want to do this,'" she said.
So she cast about for alternatives. At the time, two of her sisters were living in Utah, another in California. While living in the Philippines, her family met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was also also how she heard of Utah.
She applied to and was accepted by BYU, where she discovered a knack for languages, double majoring in Russian literature and international relations. Next came graduate school at Harvard University on scholarship followed by a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She's held leadership positions in corporations, universities and helped broker peace negotiations, working internationally and in the United States.
Thirty-five years after starting her college studies at BYU, she's back in Utah, this time as the new president of Utah Valley University.
Tuminez assumes the presidency after serving as regional director for corporate, external and legal affairs in Southeast Asia for Microsoft. Accepting the job meant moving 8,750 miles across the globe from Singapore with her husband, Jeffrey Tolk, and their sons, ages 16 and 8. Their daughter, 22, lives and works in North Carolina.
"We are still awaiting our containers, but overall (it's been) really positive. I joke about how good it feels to have a Costco card, but that's true. People have been very welcoming, kind and friendly. It makes the transition easier when you know you're coming into a community that welcomes you and supports the reason why I've come here," she said.
The couple's sons are "well-settled" in their respective schools, the older son attending Timpview High School and their youngest in a French dual-immersion program at Edgemont Elementary School.
While she sometimes wishes her family had a little more time to acclimate, "I think multitasking is just a reality of life. Every day I look at these mountains and it just takes my breath away. I can't believe that I live here," she said.
Given her credentials and the breadth of her professional experiences, becoming the president of a public university in small Western state might seem an unexpected next step in her career.
"As exciting and varied and fairy tale-like my career has been, I've really been blessed and lucky with all sorts of opportunities around the world. But when I looked at what I want to do next, what I wanted to do with my time, I thought there was no better place than a university where I could bring the totality of my interests, passions, skills, competencies and life experiences. It seem to me the university was the best place for it," she said.
A friend in Utah encouraged her to consider applying for the opening at UVU and "the more I looked, the more excited I felt. The mission really resonated with me, working with all sorts of students, traditional and nontraditional, and looking toward their success in life, student success in learning and in life, to tell students 'Come as you, whatever phase you're in in your education journey,' " she said.
Tuminez, who was raised in the slums of the Philippines, was 5 years old when Catholic nuns offered her and her siblings a chance to go to school, which changed the trajectory of her life, she said in a previous interview.
"That's what makes it so exciting for me to be in a university like UVU," she said when she was named UVU's seventh president in April.
She was also attracted by UVU's model of engaged learning, she said.
"It is an unpretentious approach to education. Yes, we value very much the academic and theoretical, but when we teach here at UVU, we teach with a view to bring students to a realization how things pan out in real life. It's sort of a pragmatic approach. It's engaged learning, and that is what it really is. It engages the student, but by the time they leave, our ambition is that they are prepared. These things appealed to me very much," she said
Tuminez said she "loves university settings" and remains very attached to each of her alma maters. She counts BYU professor Gary Browning, who taught Russian, as a lifetime mentor.
She has family in Utah, Nevada and California. Friends from college and graduate school live here, too, so she feels very much at home here, she said.
Tuminez said she had no initiative to roll out on Day 1, although given her background in tech, she has an eye on using technology "to do more cheaper and faster, not to be haphazard but to do more better and faster."
For now, she is intent on listening and learning as much as she can about UVU.
"I would love to visit every single campus, college and department, learn as many names as possible, talk to as many people as possible because I think an institution as large as this requires that the president feel the pulse and is able to empathize with dreams and aspirations as well as the challenges, and understand what our resources are and where we want to take the university collectively," Tuminez said.
There are other, more practical things to get used to, such as driving a car. There was no need in Singapore or many of the large cities where she's lived and worked throughout her professional career, she said.
"One of the very biggest surprises is how nice people are. I've worked in big cities and in New York City, you don't say hello to your neighbor. You avoid eye contact. I know the second week at president's house, someone dropped off brownies and I just thought 'They really do this here?'"
Friday evening, someone dropped off hamburgers and French fries "because I think they heard my in-laws were staying with me because of the fire. So that's a very pleasant surprise. My husband referred to it as 'being in the community of kindness.'"
Tuminez's improbable journey from poverty to the presidency of Utah's largest public university started with a dream, she said. She learned of a place called New York City from a book she read when she was 10 and set a goal of living there, according to UVU Magazine.3 comments on this story
She got there. She's also lived and worked in Hong Kong and Moscow, putting to use her diverse language skills. She speaks English, Filipino/Tagalog, Ilongo, Russian and French fluently and has a working knowledge of Spanish.
On the hallway outside her office, where portraits of the respective presidents of the institutions hang, there is small brass plaque beneath her photograph that speaks to the power of those dreams and her aspirations for Utah Valley University:
"Nobody can stop you from dreaming. To believe in what is possible, whatever the hurdles and challenges are — that's the culture I'd like UVU to have."