Juan E. Mestas served as Chancellor of the University of Michigan-Flint from September 1999 to January 2007. He is known for his work to establish the first residence hall, which helped change the energy of UM-Flint campus life. Under Chancellor Mestas, the university first began to actively recruit international students. He was there for the openings of the Early Childhood Development Center and the Urban Health and Wellness Center in 2002. Chancellor Mestas also led the university through its first strategic plan and its first significant capital campaign, which raised over $40 million for the university. He recently announced his retirement and plans to return to California.
What drew you to UM-Flint and what were your initial impressions of the university?
Like I said at the farewell party, my friend Tendaji Ganges called me the night before my interview for the Chancellor’s position and asked if we could have dinner together. I said, “yes, of course.” So he asked me what kind of food I wanted to eat, and I said: “Let’s walk down the main street, and when we find a restaurant we like, we go in.” He couldn’t stop laughing. Then he picked me up and took me to downtown Flint. We walked from the freeway to the river. I was astonished. Almost every store was abandoned. There were wooden boards on every window. There was nobody on the streets: no cars, no bicycles, no people, no police. Only two restaurants were open: Halo Burger and Churchill’s. Tendaji asked me, “Do you want to live here?” I answered, from the bottom of my heart, “no.” I had lived in big cities all my life. The idea of moving to Flint was not very appealing. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It was not Flint, the city. It was Flint, the challenge. I loved the challenge of Flint. And I have learned to love the city of Flint. I really love this city…except in winter, of course.
What would you say were your most significant accomplishments as Chancellor?
That is for others to consider. I like the dorms, and it was not easy to convince those who could make it happen to make it happen. But the Regents’ decision was unanimous, and today we have our dorms full all the time, so, yes, I am proud of them.
From your perspective, how has the relationship between the university and the city evolved?
The city and the university are small enough to depend on each other. We have to work closely together. Downtown now is alive all day, and there are students on campus and on the street. We, the university and the people of Flint, owe tremendous gratitude to the C.S. Mott Foundation. They are the main sponsors of just about everything good in this city. I believe that our new Chancellor understands that and is doing everything she can to work closely with them and with the city government and with the city people. This city has tremendous potential, and the university can help it realize it.
What will you miss most about Flint?
Everything! My friends, first of all. Walking down the street, and saying “hi” to strangers. The wonderful Flint Cultural Center. Walking up and down the street. I love Flint!
What are you most looking forward to about your move to California?
I live in Gilroy, “the Garlic capital of the world.” In the afternoons, I walk out of my house and smell the delicious scent of the garlic in the fields. My house is a half hour from San Jose and an hour and fifteen minutes from San Francisco. It never snows. Even in the summer, the heat is bearable. And I have friends there. My next door neighbors are a couple of former students. I am the godfather of their oldest son. I love them, and they love me. What more could I ask for?
What advice or encouragement would you give to UM-Flint students who want to contribute to the advancement of this university and this city?
My first advice to them is that they be the best students they can be. Get good grades! That is their primary responsibility. My second advice would be that they appreciate the university and its people, and the city and its people. If you notice the good things that people do, life is more enjoyable than if you just notice the bad things. My third advice is that they use the city: walk down Saginaw Street, go to university activities, go to the Flint Cultural Center, meet people, enjoy life!
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