Aaron Burgess: Journey to the Top
By Dianne Anderson
Years after Aaron Burgess worked his way up to Executive Director at CSU San Bernardino Santos Manuel Student Union, there are more than a few occasions to remind him of how he started out.
In the 1980’s, working the late shift as a janitor at CSUSB through several upper management promotions where he now oversees multi-million projects, did not come without some special moments.
“One person on campus, every time they talked to me it was about trash cans. I’m like, really? I’ve known you eight years, and you’re still talking trash cans?” he laughs. “He was a good guy, but there was nothing more he could see in me.”
That kind of perceptive barrier is what he hopes to break down over time, especially for young Black men on campus, who need someone that looks like them in leadership positions.
When he started, he counted himself fortunate to land a job with benefits. He was a proud janitor for the campus, but not a lot of confidence at first. Higher education was still a foreign concept, he said, unattainable in his skewed sense of the world as an African American man, just as the world sometimes has a skewed sense of Black men.
Even so, he watched construction and management from the sidelines and believed he could do better than those in some decision-making positions.
“But I never thought I’d have the opportunity,” he said. “I never saw a clear path. There were people in place.”
In unexpected ways, he gained first-hand knowledge during the first expansion of Santos Manuel Student Union building basically by being a sponge. Out of curiosity, he would visit in the trailer with the general contractor, asking about foundation development, the plumbing, electrical. He never applied for a position. People noticed that he knew things, what the building was made of, what was behind the walls. The position came to him.
“No one ever asked if I knew, but there were times when it came up,” he said. “I said okay, this is what you need to do. I just thought it was knowledge I acquired from the love of being here on campus.”
He agreed to take whatever job they gave, grateful for the opportunities. Ten years in, he went from custodian to manager to maintenance custodian in charge of all facility repairs. When an operations manager position opened to oversee all maintenance staff, he recalls sitting in his car before the board of directors vote, thinking that he’d not done anything like it before. He had never been in that room where they met, except to clean and straighten up after meetings.
They voted for his promotion, and he moved up to personnel management as the next construction project started. By 2006, the facility opened and someone else suggested he assume the position of associate director of operations. With that $20 million project, he realized the big financial picture of running a multi-million dollar corporation.
Someone inadvertently left an annual audit, and when he brought it back, they told him they didn’t want it, that it was just a copy. To him, it was much more.
“It was really gold,” he said. “It took me a while to understand what was in this book.”
He learned project costs, what goes on inside the walls, in the ground. He learned the building from the inside out. By 2015, he was appointed as the executive director to fill a vacant position. He was called to a meeting under the new leadership.
“They didn’t know my past. They saw me as Associate Director,” he said, adding that he was upfront about it, that he didn’t have a degree but he had knowledge. The only question they asked was could he get the degree. His answer: A resounding yes.
“So, I’m going down the road of sitting at these little bitty tables and classes of people less than half my age,” he said. “I was in online classes, I was in classes at lunchtime, I was taking classes at night.”
In less than three year’s time, he earned two degrees, an undergraduate and a masters degree, all while juggling a full load as then interim executive director.
Burgess now oversees an $88 million expansion project that breaks ground in 2019, and set to open in 2021. The 110,000 square foot three-story building will have bowling alleys, a conference center to seat over 2,000, food service operations, a bookstore, among other things. The top floor is the student success floor.
In the past few years, he opened and oversees several affinity centers in the building, including the Pan-African Center, a Latin-x center, the First People’s center, and the Asian Pacific Islander center. He also oversees rental and leased space, and a conference center that hosts about 70 events a week.
He runs the Student Recreation & Wellness Center with many outdoor excursion programs, as well two smaller operations at the Palm Desert Campus – the Rancho Mirage student center and fitness center, serving about 1,000 students there.
As for upper management, he feels the early experiences played a big role in shaping his style. The journey has led him to give everyone within his reach a voice, regardless of job title.
In public meetings where he hosts about 250 employees, he always gives credit and recognition to those with recommendations on how to make the corporation and the campus a better place.
He remembers how tough his job was back in the day, much tougher than running multi-million dollar projects today.
“People that work here are in the role that I was in 30 years ago,” he said. “We go to lunch or coffee, I sit down and listen. Every individual, regardless of their role, they hold that as the most important thing to them. You have to treat it with the same respect.”