Just three hours before Astrid Tuminez would take to the stage at UVU’s Scholarship Ball in October 2018 and be introduced to nearly 1,000 donors, community leaders and influencers, she was at Provo Beach hosting her son’s 9-year-old birthday party. Her youngest of three children had been transplanted from Singapore to Provo, and Astrid wanted to foster friendships for the son who loves science and wants his mom to massage him each night before bed.
As Astrid changed hats from mother to academic leader on that Saturday afternoon, she headed to UVU for a walk-through of the evening’s events. When she saw the podium, she knew she couldn’t stand behind it. At 4-feet-11, she didn’t want to be hidden during her first chance to share her soul with a new audience.
“I saw the open performance square out in front and knew I wanted to share my message there,” she says.
That night, she waltzed onto the center stage and told stories while showing the six PowerPoint slides she had created herself. With no notes but a heart full of anticipation, she shared her story and vision for building on the foundation left by Matt Holland.
Astrid brings to UVU her global background in business, academics and economics, but she started her presidency by doing very little talking during her 100-day listening tour around the campus and the state, all while documenting her positivity and good news on Twitter and in dynamic one-on-one conversations.
Astrid heard about the UVU presidency position from a friend who lived above her in New York City and now taught at the Orem campus. The thought of leading the school she originally thought of as UVSC wouldn’t leave Astrid’s mind. She applied a day before the deadline, and then on February 14, 2018, after her Valentine’s date in Singapore, she got a phone call from the Utah Commissioner of Education asking to meet with her in person.
With her executive position in Microsoft, she traveled about 60 percent of the time which meant she had to get creative to find a 36-hour window where she could fly to Orem to interview.
“It all still felt hypothetical at this point,” she says. “I knew I was in some ways a strange candidate for the job. The selection committee — which included faculty, students, regents, donors and trustees — tried to understand what kind of organism was in front of them. Through their questions about inclusion, diversity and technology, I began to see the wide variety of experiences in my life were relevant and useful in one place. And that place was UVU.”
With an elite resume with bullet points like Harvard, Council of Foreign Relations and Microsoft, the interview discussion turned to whether Astrid was truly interested in the position.
“I responded that even though I had worked and studied at elite institutions and organizations, my mind is not elitist,” she says. “I went from a village in the slums, to Harvard and beyond. I’ve never lived in a bubble. UVU was a natural match for me.”
After her interview and before returning to Singapore, she visited Taste on University Avenue in Provo to buy 20 bars of dark chocolate. While she was there, she got a call that she was a finalist. When she returned to Singapore she said, “Honey, this opportunity is starting to look real.”
She was worried how her two sons still at home would handle the transition. She and her 16-year-old son talked through the job opportunity on their trip to see the Northern Lights.
“That was one of many hard conversations we had about the move,” she says. Now as a Timpview student, her older son joined the wrestling team with no prior experience in the sport. Although he lost his first several matches, at the time of this Utah Valley Magazine interview, he had won three straight.
“I applaud him for his abilities and willingness to work through this transition, which has been the hardest on him,” she says.
Astrid’s oldest daughter is an organic farmer and yoga instructor on the East Coast. She previously attended Columbia University but left before graduating.
“We each go through the process of finding out what success looks like for us,” she says.
Welcome to the ‘Hood
After living in New York City, Hong Kong and Singapore, the kindness in Utah Valley was almost “unnerving” for the family.
One of Astrid’s first days at the UVU helm, she opened the door to the former president’s home (where the Hollands had lived) and saw a plate of brownies.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Who did this, what is in these and how will it hurt me?’” she laughs.
She gingerly lifted the brownies and read the post-it note from her new friends and neighbors the Wynns (John Wynn became her son’s pediatrician shortly after).
After the Hollands left, the university determined to turn the president’s home into an alumni house. Astrid, her husband Jeffrey Tolk, and their sons began searching for their own rooftop. After a few pursuits led to dead-ends, they decided to move into the Provo home they had purchased in 2011.
“About eight years ago, we were both working around the clock and doing 10,000 things at once. We had moved seven times in 13 years,” Astrid says. “I turned to my husband and brought up the hypothetical situation of where we would live if we wanted to stop doing everything and go sit still somewhere for a year.”
Within a few weeks, she had found a house in Provo’s Stonegate near her sister. They purchased the home and rented it out for several years while they were living in Singapore. Although Astrid officially put on her UVU scarf in September, it was Thanksgiving week before the family unpacked their boxes.
“The manic side of my personality came out, and around the clock we unpacked 600 boxes along with the help of family and friends,” she says. “The kindness I’ve encountered has been astounding.”
Where are the subways and taxis?
After living in Asia for 13 years — and also calling New York City, Cambridge and Moscow home — Astrid knew she was facing a huge transition by bringing her family to full-time residency in Utah. “They say these kinds of moves are as stressful as death and divorce. But this hasn’t had the gloom and sorrow of either of those. Both Timpview and Edgemont (where her sons attend) have been so welcoming and kind. I can’t even describe how important that has been to me.”
Even though it’s been full of kindness, it hasn’t been without difficulty. Her son recently needed a ride home from school, had a dead phone, and had never been without easy access to public transportation. He walked miles by himself to his aunt’s house.
“We’re all figuring out how to function,” Astrid says. “I’m still getting comfortable driving a car.”
While this sub-5-foot giant leads with confidence, it’s been a journey of stepping stones to develop that part of her personality. When she and her siblings were first being taught and loved by nuns in the slums of the Philippines, Astrid had almost no confidence. One of the first words they tried to teach her was “sister,” but she could only get as far as S-I-S.
“When the tide was low, we would use sticks and write in the sand,” she remembers. “And it bothered me that I couldn’t spell the word because I had seen ‘sisters’ before — and I had five of them.”
She could soon spell the word and many more.
“When I discovered how to read, my brain exploded,” she says. “All of a sudden, I was exposed to a library of books that took me places I had never known before.”
She remembers giggling at Dr. Seuss.
“I had endless happiness reading about creatures that didn’t exist in real life, and his rhymes are unbelievable,” she says.
(To this day, Astrid has a family tradition of asking family members to name “Thing 1” and “Thing 2” about their days before they go to bed.)
In third grade, Astrid learned she had the IQ of a college student.
“I had no idea what an IQ was, but it built my confidence to know that others had confidence in me,” she says.
She describes her native Philippines as being socio-economically stratified, which created what she calls “snobbiness.” But she didn’t have a maid. She didn’t have pretty clothes. In a culture where brands were paramount, she was keenly aware she didn’t have any Gregg leather in her closet. In fact, she didn’t have a closet. The differences became more apparent when the nuns moved Astrid to a regular school.
“Being around the rich kids made my confidence plummet again,” she recalls.
Then her sixth grade teacher took an interest in Astrid, who was fascinated with the woman’s shoes and matching purses.
“She was well-dressed, taught English and literature, and put together concerts,” Astrid says. The teacher asked the young learner to lead the speech festival and direct plays. Astrid’s confidence recovered.
The next step in her journey — and her first step into the state she now calls home — was coming to BYU as a freshman and convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I was not ugly, but I was very plain, thin, short and dark-skinned,” she says matter-of-factly. “In the Philippines, if you are thin it means you don’t eat well — and white skin is preferred. I didn’t think I was pretty by any stretch. But at BYU, I was being told I was pretty and that my skin was beautiful. I would see fellow students trying to get sun and wondered why they would do that when their skin would get darker, which to me meant uglier.”
The attention Astrid received as a Cougar escalated her self-esteem.
“I felt I had finally landed in the right place where nobody minded my flat nose and brown skin!” she says. “I like to think I’m beyond the silliness of beauty, but it did feel good to get attention and be told I was pretty.”
The rest of Astrid’s confidence came through maturity and through “the doing.”
While she is known as a strong,
extemporaneous speaker now, she remembers being so nervous to give her first talk at Harvard that she thought she would pass out.
“Fears are our biggest blockers,” she believes. “If we can develop the ability to tell ourselves a different story, we gain confidence by doing things that scare us.”
A Matter of Life and Death
While Astrid used to be scared of death, she began to think about the topic fondly at age 27 when her father died.
“Up until that point, death was hypothetical,but I saw my father pass away and that changed everything,” Astrid says.
She outlined some of her thoughts in her chapter of “Silent Notes Taken,” a book of essays by Mormon New Yorkers. She describes herself as a “fairly serious student” of Buddhism, and her zen master taught her these five remembrances. She thinks of them every morning and repeats them easily.
• I am of the nature to get old.
• I am of the nature to have ill health.
• I am of the nature to die.
• All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
• My actions are my only true belongings. When I pass away, the only things I will take with me are my habits of speech, thought and action.
“It’s very liberating and relaxing to me to process these thoughts and realize everyone is just waiting to die just like I am,” she says. “It keeps me honest and makes me evaluate the nonsense in my head. It gives me new energy to do good things and to do hard things. It helps me build others and to never give up on myself.”
Astrid describes herself as a “tiger mom” when her children are competing — whether it’s the kids who call her mom or the ones who call her president.
“My vice president Scott Cooksey worries I’ll be called for a technical foul because I just go crazy,” she laughs when describing herself at recent UVU basketball games.
Her own sport of choice is running.
Astrid’s husband invited her to run with him for their first 23 years of marriage. She never gave in and thought running sounded painful and crazy.
“I grew up in a culture where you don’t run,” she says. “When it’s hot, you put an umbrella over your head and sit still if you can.”
He took her to a reservoir in the middle of the jungle with monkeys all along the trail. She got mad throughout the long run and couldn’t wait for it to be over.
But by the end of the run — and the next few times she laced up her shoes — she had found mental strength by moving her body. She has now run several half marathons around the world (with her personal best under two hours) and one full 26-mile race — the St. George Marathon in 2010.
“I design entire lectures in my head while I run,” she says. “I don’t listen to music.”
Astrid thinks in kilometers and dedicates each one.
“I say to myself, ‘This kilometer is for my friend in the hospital, this one is for my daughter, this one is for my mother,’” she says.
I hear you
Now that Astrid has completed her 100-day listening tour, she has entered a period of quiet time to digest what she’s heard. She’s reading hundreds of pages of notes after speaking with faculty, students, donors and the community in preparation for her State of the University address at the end of January. Although she hasn’t come across any surprises, she did have three primary take-aways.
“First, there is great passion about the mission of inclusion and creating economic opportunity,” she says. “Second, we really are a diverse community. That has come across in such a granular way now that I’ve talked to hundreds. We are inclusive of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, and global vs. local exposure. I come here from having lived in a cosmopolitan world, and I’m so happy to find all of that here at UVU. My third observation is that we have work to do. We celebrate the incredible transformation from a community college to a university. And now we have the opportunity to execute even better, and the demographics in our community are in our favor.”
Astrid knows her stats and shares them easily. Utah County is No. 2 in job growth in the country and No. 6 in wage growth.
“We have cultural variables and a feeling of community along with strong values,” she says. “All of these are assets that help us continue to offer one-year certificates all the way to master’s degrees, including our recently approved programs.”
Although Astrid has changed office decor and adjusted the focus at UVU, she has nothing but respect for her predecessor.
“I am lucky to be the successor to that kind of a leader,” she says. “Matt Holland is so well-loved and respected. I felt intimidated at first and wondered if I had bit off more than I could chew. But then I realized that President Holland’s leadership strengths, abilities and generosity had set me up to succeed. I am thrilled to be here at UVU and committed to helping the students and the university succeed.”
“Every time I’ve come to Utah County in the past, I’ve gone to TASTE. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate. It’s part of my everyday routine.”
“We enjoy both the Foundry Grill and the Tree Room.”
“When I was here for one of the preliminary trips for this job, I saw a sign in the bookstore window with a line from one of my favorite poets Mary Oliver: ‘What will you do with your one and precious life?’ I loved that, and my family has spent an afternoon together in the bookstore.”
“I’ve always considered myself a pork belly snob, and Provo’s Block serves pork belly that is amazing. I’m also intrigued by the owner. I’ve never spoken to her, but I watch her and she dresses beautifully. Please tell her that.” (Done!)
WRIT AND VISION
(bookstore across from Pioneer)
“I love looking at their rare titles — both history books and Utah books. It also includes an art exhibition, which is one of the best uses of space. My brother-in-law J. Kirk Richards has displayed there.”
“One night we were jetlagged while staying at the Provo Marriott and walking around downtown at 6 a.m. At 6:30, they open to sell kolaches. I love unique, tasty, hole-in-the-wall places. Provo is charming, and these old buildings put to good use give us character.”
“Although I haven’t had time to eat there recently, I’m a fan of Communal. And I’d love more recommendations for restaurants to try.”