September 24, 2019


President A. Gabriel Esteban: Tracing the Path from Manila to DePaul

Dr. Esteban’s early life experiences in the Philippines influenced his journey to the presidency of DePaul. From his years growing up in the suburbs of Manila to his days facing tear gas as a student activist, Dr. Esteban shares the moments that changed his life—and how they connect him to today’s undergraduates. He also discusses the last time he played basketball, his favorite Chicago restaurants and how faith guides his approach to leadership.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Hello, everyone. I’m Linda Blakley, Vice President of DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communications. Welcome to the debut episode of DePaul Download, a podcast exploring the people and initiatives that set DePaul, the nation’s largest Catholic university, apart from the rest.

Through this podcast, you’ll discover what DePaul’s faculty experts have to say about the pressing issues of the day. You’ll learn about trendsetting programs we offer our students. You’ll also hear from our president, Dr. Gabriel Esteban, on the challenges facing higher education and DePaul’s response to our guiding question: what must be done?

In this first episode, we sit down with Dr. Esteban to learn more about his life and the path that led him to become DePaul’s 12th president.

So, here we go. Dr. Esteban, thank you for being DePaul Download’s inaugural guest. Our goal is that through our conversation today, listeners will have a better understanding of just how you answer the following question: how did you get to where you are today as leader of the private university known for being Catholic, Vincentian, and urban?

So, let’s get started, shall we?

You have already shared some recollections of growing up in the suburbs of Manila. I would like to ask you more about your early life. Looking back, what were the moments in those years that set you on the path you ultimately pursued, leading to your being named the first lay president of DePaul University?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Let me go way back. Growing up, I was always the youngest in my class, usually by one or two years, which meant that I tended to be also the shortest in my class. I was also overweight and by third grade, I was wearing glasses. I also spoke with a slight accent because between the ages four to six, my dad pursued graduate work here in the U.S. So, we lived in Seattle, Wash. So, when I went back to Manila, my mom told me that teachers like, wanted me to always say things in class because I had this accent. In other words, I was different.

Because of my difference, I was not part of the so-called ‘in group’ throughout most of my early life, so I learned to become friends with individuals who were also very different. So, you learn to respect people for who they were, but it also forced me to become more of a listener, getting to know people, and also become a little more maybe introvert during this period.

But being a listener, learning to respect people for who they are, proved to be very helpful and it was a great lesson growing up.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Indeed, there are good lessons to learn early on. So, was there one pivotal moment that stands out? An experience that changed your life?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I will point to three. I mean, there are numerous moments which I can look back, and I will just mention three moments which I believe changed my life. First was when I was a student activist at my alma mater as a freshman in college, and there I was involved in the movement for free elections. We protested against the dictatorship of Marcos.

And one of the things I learned as you march as we did all of our protests and march across campus and to the different sites, one thing which struck me was that all of the leaders, so-called leaders of the protest, they would be standing, marching way in the back, and it is the young people like me who were leading the charge. And I thought to myself, if you are a leader, why are you leading from behind? What gives? Maybe because who got hit by tear gas, who got arrested, it was the people in front.

So, I thought is this a good sign of leadership? So, that was a question and I started to question that.

The second moment was when I worked in the private sector and in the private sector, I worked as an investment analyst for the largest consumer goods company in the Philippines. So, I analyzed different projects for this company and I remember making a presentation to the senior leadership at the company and the rate of return of this project was not where it should be based on internal guidelines.

And I remember still now, listening to the senior vice president saying, ‘we’re still going to do it.’ Why? We are doing it for strategic reasons, not because the rate of return is what it is. We’re doing it because we’re going to be first to market. We’re doing it because we have to look at it from a system standpoint. So, that was very helpful in thinking.

But I guess if I was to look at the most pivotal moment, it was probably meeting my wife, Jo, because in college I was a little – how would I put this? I enjoyed things other than going to school. I enjoyed hanging out with my friends. I enjoyed doing the protests. So, there were a lot of extracurricular activities I was involved in.

And my wife was always the – she was always the A student. So, what she helped me do is she helped me redirect my passion for sports. I was big into basketball and all of these other things and redirected towards more academic and also work.

And it helped me realize that as I move forward, that the one thing I promise myself is, because I decided to make my vocation to work in higher ed, where I assume at least half of the people I work with are smarter than me and I don’t know which half that is, I always thought that I will always outwork everyone else because I cannot control what God gave me in terms of my talent. I can control how much work I put into something. So, that served me well and that I learned from my wife. We dated for a while before we got married, so.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m glad she was an early part of your life. Are there other people whom you admire that have shaped your perspective?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I would have to say my late father. He was a man of great integrity. He always did what he thought was the right thing to do no matter what the consequences might be. To him also, it was always about the family. So, to him, family came first. His faith was also very important. So, it was what I thought was a basic thing. And growing up in a poor country, you realize that it is the basic things which are the most important. It is about relationships. It is about family. It is about your faith and doing the things which are important in life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I would like to switch gears for a moment. You earned your under graduate degree in math and an MBA at the University of the Philippines and you were on campus at a time of political unrest. What experiences during those years helped you to connect with today’s undergrads?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: As a youngster, I would have to say I was immature when I went to college. What you realize is that I was – I realized in hindsight – I was very idealistic and I coupled that with activism, which is what I see in our youngsters today which is great because this is the time to explore those two things, idealism and activism.

One of the things, though, I learned as I got older, was I learned to temper my idealism with pragmatism and that came with maturity. It is okay to be idealistic but you also have to be pragmatic and where I lived during the time I was growing up, there were some who were calling for revolts and this and that, which is a very nice, idealistic way to change, but it is also very, very challenging. I mean, revolution is never, I think, the answer. But learning to temper that idealism with pragmatism.

And the other insight I got was if you really want to affect change, it is best done within the system. So, you become part of the system without giving up your idealism and I think that is where I see sometimes leaders fail. They forget about the idealism of their youth and they let the pragmatism take over entirely.

So, if there is one message to our students of today, never let that flame of idealism die but learn to control and temper it as you move throughout your career.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It sounds as if idealism and activism are almost timeless aspects of campus life. There are several more topics I am hoping to explore so let’s move on a bit.

This is not your first time at the rodeo, having held senior leadership positions at several universities before becoming provost and later president of Seton Hall University. Having experienced leadership at public, private, and Catholic universities, what would you say sets DePaul apart from the other schools you’ve served?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things which struck me at DePaul when I interviewed and I met with students, faculty, staff, board members, was this commitment to the mission, and I thought, ‘this is different.’ And I thought, ‘how will this be lived out on campus?’ And that is one thing which struck me in my time here at DePaul. DePaul lives out its mission in more ways than one and it is unique in that aspect.

I have shared accreditation teams, different situations to different accrediting bodies and I have yet to see any situation even come close to what DePaul does in terms of its fidelity to its mission and that is not just in our faculty but also in our staff, our students, and in our alumni.

One of the things that struck me as Jo and I have gone out to meet with alumni groups is the fact that we have alumni groups across the country who still do Vincentian Service Days. How many institutions can say that, where they get together around the mission of the institution? Typically, it is about homecoming, football, or basketball and we do the basketball but we also do the mission. That just shows you how different DePaul is.

And talking to the board, their commitment to that mission is unwavering faculty, staff. The type of faculty/staff we are able to draw to DePaul, it is fascinating and hats off to the Vincentians who help imbue that mission at DePaul.

LINDA BLAKLEY: You know that, like many schools, we have athletics as a part of our branding and you mentioned earlier that you played basketball in your youth. Do you still play? And how are your views of DePaul’s basketball programs informed by the fact that you were a player and still love the game?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I shoot hoops once in a while. The last time I played five on five or even three on three was in my 30s, and I’ll digress with a short story as to why I gave up playing hoops.

I was playing with a group of faculty members and staff, which included our football coach, and I was about to take a jump from three-point area, and as I was jumping up in the air, I saw our football coach headed straight for me and I thought, ‘he is going to hit me with his elbow.’ So, I had to make a decision whether to try and evade him or try and make the shot.

And guess which I went for? After my tooth flew out, that was the last time I played basketball. I thought, ‘I am getting too old for this.’ But that just shows you, I was very competitive in basketball and I hated losing. So, being able to translate that competitiveness to something else was very helpful.

As I watched DePaul’s basketball, I will watch men’s and women’s basketball. I will watch volleyball. I will do soccer here and there and so on. As I watch it, I was telling, Jo knows that I try and keep my mouth shut and she knows the reason I cover my mouth is so I don’t say something which someone might try and read my lips.

And I don’t envy our coaches because I coached kids at one time and there are times, especially when I see our team shoot free throws, where I want to volunteer to shoot the free throws for them. But it is challenging me, very challenging for me to sit and watch games. So, I am there. I appreciate the good job they do but what I appreciate even more is the fact that our athletes, our student athletes, I am very proud of the fact that last year the average GPA cumulative was over 3.0 and that included men’s basketball. So, we have won 40 percent of the academic awards in the BIG EAST I think in the last five years and that is more than anyone else. So, I am proud of that. I am proud of what we have been able to do.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I imagine that in addition to basketball, you have a soft spot in your heart for the Philippines. So, how often do you and Mrs. Esteban get to visit your home in the Philippines and what do you miss most?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: We go home one to two times a year. We typically will try and go home in December and maybe – December, January maybe in the summer depending on our schedule but these are quick trips. We’ll be on the ground maybe five days, four or five days.

And what I miss the most, and I know my mom won’t be able to hear this; both our moms still live in the Philippines so we go there to visit them but what I really miss the most is the food. It is the tropical fruits and we had a group of trustees go with us last January. I was there for a meeting of the Vincentian presidents and they got to taste firsthand the tropical fruits.

It is the fruits, it is the food. Those are the things I miss most. Obviously, we miss both of our moms. We both have – Jo and I still have siblings there. But it is the food. It is – that is primarily it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, speaking of food, even before moving to Chicago, you visited often and now that you have settled in the city, as a professed foodie, you likely have a list of favorite restaurants. What are the top three and why have they settled at the top of your list?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I am not endorsing any place and the challenging thing for me and my wife is that we all like all sorts of foods. So, I will just pick by category. It will make my life easier. We really enjoy going for Peking duck. We like to go to Sun Wah on Broadway near Argyle, which I think is the best Peking duck I have had – we have had. That includes our stint in the East Coast, West Coast. We were in – we have been to Hong Kong a few times. And even the duck in Beijing, which we have had a few times.

If I was going for Indonesian food, I would go to Rickshaw Republic and we have gotten to know the owner. He is a nice guy. Athenian Room if we just want a quick Greek in Lincoln Park.

Italian, we tend to favor Osteria Via Stato. It has special meaning because our daughter had her wedding reception there. So, it depends on the type of food we’re in the mood for and it is more than that, but good food is good food.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Sounds as if you have discovered some surprisingly satisfying eateries. What have you discovered about DePaul that was a surprise to you?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things that surprised me about DePaul was that – actually the strength of our academic programs. I didn’t realize how highly ranked our academic programs were until eight months into DePaul, which was kind of interesting. Here I am, a candidate for president, yet no one told me about all of these different programs and how strong they were, from theatre, music, entrepreneurship and so on.

I asked about it, actually, and I said, ‘so why aren’t we telling the world about the strength of our academic programs?’ And I was told it is not the Vincentian thing to do, which is, I realize that, but if we don’t talk about our strengths, who else is going to talk about it? Our competition won’t say, ‘oh, you should go to DePaul because you know why? Their game design program is ranked higher than us. They are a better game design program than us. Or they are better entrepreneurship, better law school than us in this area, better this or that.’

Our competition won’t volunteer that information. We worked hard. Our faculty, staff and our alumni work hard, so we should be proud of it. And when I visit alumni groups, I bring it up also with our alumni and it is surprising also. A number of them also don’t know about the strength of our academic programs.

So, every time we go out, we talk about it. If you go now to our webpage, we have it. It rotates and it just points some of the strengths. We have small giveaways at alumni events, which just list some of the strengths of some of our programs.

I think it is important that we say this is who we are. You get a quality education at DePaul because one narrative I think is false and I want to change is people believe – there is a segment of the population who believes that if you have quality programs, then you can’t do our mission. Right? I mean, I hear this, that you serve your mission students, first generation and so on, immigrants and so on, marginalized groups.

There is this hidden dig that maybe your academic programs aren’t where it should be but no. Our academic programs are stronger than most across the board. And we are proud of the fact of who we serve. We are proud of our students.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, in trying to learn more about who you are before you arrived on campus, I spoke with someone who described you as being humble and devout. How does your faith guide your approach to leadership?

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: A long time ago, my wife and I used to pray for certain things. You pray for this outcome. You pray for that. You pray for – you hope your child and so on. And I learned a long time ago that you shouldn’t pray that way. We learned a long time ago, you may not want what you get if you pray for it.

We learned a long time ago, you do your best and then you have faith that the path being opened to you is what the Good Lord has in store for you. And that has changed. It has made my life a whole lot easier, our lives a lot simpler. It has changed our outlook on a whole lot of things.

Meaning I don’t fret as much as I used to. I put 150 percent into something and try to analyze every decision you make. Then you make the call and you watch what happens. You let things unfold. That piece at knowing that you have done everything you can and things will take a natural course. I thought that that was a very helpful lesson.

I also learned a long time ago from my late father and other people I admired that you just treat everyone the way you want to be treated and that is – that makes life a whole lot easier. I mean, the whole notion of being humble. I lived a blessed life. I mean, if you had told me when I was growing up that I would end up where I am, I would laugh and one of my closest friends growing up lives in DC. And every time we get together we talk about the good old days when we were causing all sorts of trouble in our neighborhood. We were next-door neighbors. We would go fishing. We would do all of these things because we lived way out in the suburbs in Manila.

And we talk about where we ended up because when we were at 12, 13, 14, you are growing up in a poor country and your family is lower middle, going to the U.S. was something rich people did, right? I had friends who went shopping in Switzerland. We never, except for the time when my late father got a scholarship to study abroad, we really didn’t go on vacation. Never did have any trips abroad.

So, yeah. So, every day is a blessing is the way I look at it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: That leads me to one last question for today. In your role here at DePaul, how are you working to answer the question ‘what must be done?’

DR. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: Well, the great thing about the strategic plan is it lays out for us. It has all of these goals, strategies to answer the question ‘what must be done?’ And I was actually just working recently on my – how I did in response to goals because with the board, I set goals at the beginning of the academic year. Then at the end, I look at where we are in comparison to what I said I would try and do. And as I go down the list, I thought, ‘oh, I can check this off, I can check this.’

Because, for example, one of the things on – on my list of things to do was develop scholarship programs for Catholic high school graduates, which was in the strategic plan and also for mission kids, mission students and so on.

Well, we announced two scholarship programs last November, one targeted towards graduates of Catholic high schools in the state of Illinois, which is $20,000 a year assuming they meet certain standards and are admitted and a similar, a mirror program for graduates of Chicago public school, also $20,000 assuming they meet certain targets. And that is a nod to our Catholic, Vincentian, urban roots.

We have the program with Harold Washington, which allows for seamless transfer. We have a program with Harper College and we are working on another program, which we hope to announce soon, with another City College of Chicago, and that is the neat thing about the strategic plan, being able to implement that helps answer that question, ‘what must be done?’ And as we go through, we will have to come up with new things which we need to do because I hate to sit still.

We are also doing a pilot program targeted towards first-generation college-going students where we bring them in. We start with 25 of them and their parent or guardian early and work with them to help them understand what it means to go to college and hopefully be able to set them up with faculty and/or staff mentors.

So, we will do it on a pilot basis first. And again, it is an answer to the question ‘what must be done?’ These are the students we serve and if we accept them, our goal should be for them to walk across the stage. If we accept them, that means we believe that they have the capacity to graduate.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Dr. Esteban, for being here. I learned a lot today and I know our listeners will too. We look forward to having you back soon. I hope you will promise to come back.

I am Linda Blakley, and thank you, listeners, for joining us on the first episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communications.

Now that you’ve heard from us, we want to hear from you. If you have feedback for us, questions you’d like to ask Dr. Esteban, or ideas for future episodes, reach out to us at depauldownload@depaul.edu. Check back for future episodes featuring DePaul’s faculty experts and more discussions with our president, Dr. Esteban.​