“You dress in a suit, you never go wrong.”
Dr. Mary Okada says that advice from her mother has served her well. Throughout Mary’s professional career, her mom has been her biggest cheerleader. “When people comment to her about how well I’m doing, or about how the college has grown, my mom will tell them, ‘My daughter has worked for everything that she has.’ And to hear that from a mother is very encouraging and inspiring. You don’t really know how much influence a person has on you unless you really sit to reflect,” she muses.
In her smart black suit, one would never guess that the president of the Guam Community College grew up on a ranch in Santa Rita. Mary moved to Guam in 1971. As a child, she learned to husk coconut, pluck chickens, and take care of the pigs. Her grandmother was a baker, and her grandfather was a fisherman who set shrimp traps in the stream. Mary leans forward and says, “I used to sew my own clothes, way back when. My grandmother and mom taught us how to sew by pattern. We went to Mt. Carmel, and we never bought uniforms off the shelf. We bought the material and we made our own jumpers. That’s how it was for us.”
She adds that she wants her daughters to understand that that’s a way of life for many people. “If they understand that, then they can appreciate it was hard for us back then. And we worked hard to get [to] where we are now.”
Her mother, Dolores Perez Quan, was a single mom of five, who managed to put all of her children through private school. The work ethic she inspired among her children became an important tool for Mary throughout her professional career.
In 2007, Mary became the first female president and CEO of GCC. During her term the campus has grown exponentially. “I think the biggest accomplishment we have here at GCC is that we really operate as a team. We’re all together when we know we’re struggling in certain areas, and we work together to resolve those particular challenges and to turn them into opportunities so that we’re able to continue to support our students,” she reveals.
She has also shared her expertise on the national level, having been appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. She says her time on the commission has been valuable because it has helped bridge the divide between the islands and Washington. “I think what it has done is open up the eyes to what really exists in the Pacific, and how the Pacific not only has unique challenges but exciting opportunities that can be further explored,” she says.
No matter how far she travels, Mary says she is happiest at home, and home is wherever her family is. “Here in Mangilao, with my mom down in Santa Rita, with my brother at his place, or my sister, or where family gets together, to me that’s my space called home,” she says.
She and her husband Dave have two daughters, Tyeara and Kimie. Tyeara lives with her husband Michael in San Diego, while Kimie is a freshman at Notre Dame High School. When Tyeara was born, Mary was a single mom, entering the workforce and finishing college. With Kimie, Mary and Dave were established in their careers and moved back to Guam from Virginia to be close to family. “The main reason why we stayed was because Mama Okada was still alive and my mom is still alive, and we wanted Kimie to grow up with family. It brought us back home because of moms. Moms were here.”
Mary lights up when she talks about her girls. “The two are very different, but they kind of complement each other. Tyeara, you give her a book and she’ll sit in the corner and not move. Kimie, on the other hand, is my adventure child.”
Besides her family, Mary’s other great love is probably shoes. “It’s no secret. People know I have a shoe fetish. I do like all kinds of shoes.” The President’s Parade of Shoes has become an annual fundraiser for the GCC Foundation. Pairs collected on her travels led to a fun event with friends, with Mary displaying 20 to 30 pairs of unique shoes. “I love shoes. Because it’s a different character when you have different shoes on. And it’s not just the traditional pumps. Some shoes I have are really fun and fancy. Sometimes you just gotta mix it up so that you’re not the same all the time.”
In addition to being an accomplished educator, President Okada is also head-over-heels for heels
Above all else, Mary credits her loved ones for how accomplished she has become. “The strength that you get from your family and friends is always a part of your success.”
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