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MCSC spotlights Sandra Peña Switzer for Hispanic Heritage Month

By Jim Katzaman | | October 2, 2012

QUANTICO, Va.   — Diversity at Marine Corps Systems Command (MCSC) starts near the top with Sandra Peña Switzer, Deputy Chief Management Officer (CMO) and Department Head for the Strategic Management and Performance Department (SMPD). Both of her parents are Mexican-American as well as her entire lineage whose surnames include Lopez, Barraza and Perea – a cornucopia of ancestry that epitomizes National Hispanic Heritage Month.


She noted that diversity is important at MCSC because, “We live in a global environment. The world is actually getting smaller in terms of our reach into a very rich and accomplished talent pool. This talent pool is one of the biggest advantages of having an employment recruitment policy that values diversity. An increasingly diverse talent pool would open our aperture into the realm of the possible in order for the Command to stay at the top of our game and the employer of choice in meeting the needs of our warfighters.”

Indeed, Switzer added, diversity offers a strategic advantage for the Command.

“Diversity can have a direct relationship to the productivity of the organization,” she said. “If the workforce feels included in the organization, they will want to stay there and keep producing at high levels. Therefore, costs for recruitment are kept down and productivity and continuity to the team is maintained or even increased.”

Her notions about hard work and patriotism were imprinted at an early age. Her mother was born in Los Angeles, but Sandra’s grandparents came from the Mexico state of Chihuahua or Durango. When her mother was about 5 years old, her father moved the family to Mexico during the Depression to become a small-town sheriff.

“Times must have been hard there also,” Switzer said, “because I can remember my mother telling me stories that she had to pick cotton when she was only 6 years old.”

Unfortunately, her grandmother became ill and died during this time in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, her grandfather moved the family back to Los Angeles. Because her grandfather still had to raise four small children as a single parent, he pulled his two oldest daughters out of school to cook, clean and take care of the smaller siblings while he worked. As a result, Switzer’s mother had only about a third-grade education.

Switzer’s father was born in Albuquerque, N.M. His parents were several generations in New Mexico and “claimed” more of a direct lineage from Spain. Her grandfather was both a farmer and a boiler maker for the railroad.

“When my father had just turned 15 years old,” she said, “the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He managed to convince my grandparents to sign a document that claimed he was 18 years old so he could join the Army Air Corps – which they did, even though he was the youngest of three children and the only son. They were proud of him and supported him going off to war, which he did for the entire war in the South Pacific as a tail gunner in a B-24 Liberator.”

According to Switzer, after the war, her father moved himself and his parents to Los Angeles where he met her mother.

“She didn’t speak much English, so he had to brush up on his Spanish after not speaking it for five years – but that didn’t deter him,” Switzer said. “The rest is history. However, my father did insist that only English be spoken in the home so that we children did not grow up with an accent. He also moved us out of Los Angeles when I was only 1 year old into a new suburb in Los Angeles County to provide a better community, schools and neighborhood for us to grow up in.”

Switzer believes it is essential to celebrate Hispanic heritage and the heritage of other people.

“People of Hispanic origin now make up the Nation's largest ethnic minority and the number continues to grow,” she said. “Hispanics constitute 16.7 percent (52 million) of the Nation's total population. However, they only make up about 8.1 percent of the civilian Defense Department workforce and 11 percent of the military workforce.”

According to the Deputy CMO, there are still many opportunities for the Command and the military to target and reach into this untapped talent pool, whether it’s Hispanic or people of other heritages.

“Regular interaction with people from different countries or backgrounds can help gain a better understanding and tolerance of these differences,” Switzer said. “And an excellent way to move in this direction is what the Command is taking on now: scheduling events to celebrate different cultures and holidays, which can help to boost morale and create a better team bond among diverse employees.”

She added that her parents always told her and her siblings, “If you work hard, you will get ahead.” They also keep tight connections with their extended family.

“Families of Hispanic origin stay close and forever form a close bond with each other,” Switzer said. “My entire extended family – parent, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews – all live in Southern California less than an hour away from each other. They still get together for holidays and birthdays. I’m the only one who is far away. But either I manage to visit there once a year or at least one family comes out to visit. My extended family remains a strong support group for me which, to me, is typical of Hispanic families.”

The result, she has found, is a comfortable blend of exuberance and assurance.

“You have to be confident, but not cocky,” she said, “and you have to be able to come across that you know your stuff. Sometimes it’s just being forward leaning, and sometimes it’s good to take some risks.”