The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Susan Castillo Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

June 17, 2014


Susan Castillo was born in 1951 in East Los Angeles and grew up in southern California with her large extended family. Her grandparents were first generation immigrants to the United States from Mexico and her father was a deputy sheriff. Castillo's mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade and spent much of her life working in a factory, an example that Castillo later cited as primary in her own advocacy of education as a route to opportunity.

After completing high school, Castillo attended community college in southern California for a short period before dropping out. Later, in the mid-1970s, Castillo moved to Oregon and found secretarial work in support of OSU's Affirmative Action Director, Pearl Spears Gray. Gray became a mentor figure for Castillo and encouraged her to return to school. Castillo eventually enrolled full-time at Oregon State, becoming involved with the broadcast communications program and the student-run radio and television stations on campus. She graduated in 1981 with a BA in communications.

Her undergraduate work concluded, Castillo was hired by KVAL-TV in Eugene, Oregon as an on-air news reporter. She developed into an award winning journalist, and eventually covered the state legislature for the station. This acquaintance with politics led to her running for a position as a State Senator, in the mid-1990s. A Democrat, Castillo was sworn into the Senate in 1997, filling a vacant seat for Lane County. She remained in the Senate until 2002.

Susan Castillo is the first Hispanic woman elected to Oregon's state legislature. During her time in Salem, education, the environment and womens rights were among her main focuses. In 1997, her first year as a legislator, Castillo sponsored a successful bill that required Oregon insurers to provide equal prescription coverage for women's contraceptives. She later sponsored bills focusing on immigrant and farmworker rights, the tracking of pesticides, and voter registration. From 1999 to 2001 she was the assistant leader of the Senate Democrats. She also served on several committees including the Governor's Advisory Committee on DUII, the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs, the Advisory Committee on Agricultural Labor, Health and Human Services Committees, and the Transportation Committee.

In 2003, following her departure from the Senate, Castillo was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in the Oregon Department of Education, a position that she held until 2012. In assuming this post, Castillo once again broke new ground as the first Hispanic woman to be elected to a statewide office in Oregon. As superintendent, Castillo advocated for students of color and low-income families. She also supported Head Start funding, all-day Kindergarten, and ESOL programs; was involved in creating the state's Common Core Standards; worked to create more rigorous high school diploma requirements; and supported the Oregon virtual school district, an online distance education program. In 2004, Castillo was named one of the "100 Most Influential Hispanics" by Hispanic Business magazine.

In 2012, having resigned from her position as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Castillo became the western regional vice president for Project Lead the Way, a non-profit organization which works to create hands-on curricula in science, technology, engineering, and math. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, Paul Machu.