We had the good fortune of connecting with Darshana Patel and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Darshana, the decisions we make often shape our story in profound ways. What was one of the most difficult decisions you’ve had to make?
There have been many challenging, high-stakes decisions in my lifetime and I’m just 46! Before 2020, I would have said choosing to put my six-figure career on hold to raise my three daughters and serve my community was the most difficult decision I had made. This year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I can firmly say that deciding the educational fate of over 36,500 students, about 5000 employees, and all of the families they belong to has been the most difficult decision in my lifetime to date. As an elected school board member for Poway Unified School District, I certainly didn’t have the authority to make this decision on my own or in a vacuum. Since we are public education, we have Federal and State regulations, education codes, and employment laws to follow, plus trying to meet the diverse needs of our families. This decision had to be made under constantly changing state and local guidance and increasing scientific and medical knowledge – sometimes in conflicting ways – while considering the needs of our students and families. This is a classic Wicked Problem. A wicked problem is a social policy problem that is challenging or impossible to “solve” due to incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. The concept was introduced by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973 in the context of community planning. As for our situation with public schools in the time of COVID-19, well, this wicked problem will be with us for a while.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I love learning and challenging myself in diverse settings. My experiences have given me a unique breadth and depth of knowledge that I use to turn my effort into positive outcomes. Part of what makes a good public servant is the right blend of technical knowledge, approach, and outlook. My journey to becoming a public education advocate and elected official was not planned, but it was driven by a desire to help my community, put my analytical skills to work, plus a combination of determination and resilience. Let me give you some background. I look back on my childhood and remember a happy home, however, we moved around a lot, lived through several rounds of no income, and my mom unexpectedly passed away shortly after my 14th birthday. I had to grow up quickly and establish my priorities. While I was torn between pursuing a career in law (because my mom said I could be President of the US based on the way I cared so much about justice) and becoming a scientist. In the end, Biochemistry won out and I was determined to face all of the challenges necessary to earn my Ph.D. I was successful because I developed a skill where I could eliminate dead ends quickly and learned how to effectively work in teams. Throughout these years, I also studied a year abroad, was a representative to the Graduate Student Council, and became financially independent. None of this was easy – and luckily taking the easy road was never appealing to me. Of course, there were rejections and set backs along the way, but in time, I was able to see these experiences as part of path and not as detours. So, here I am today – a civic-minded scientist and collaborative problem-solver trying to do some good in this world though my work as an elected official, a School Board Member. I tell my own three daughters that we all have a special place in this world and we are here to do some good. I’d like to think I am a living example for them, and all of the students I serve in my community.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
We are very fortunate living in San Diego. We have easy access to beaches, mountains, cities, and farms. The beauty of San Diego is found in both nature and architecture. I have a few favorite spots I love to share with my friends and family when they visit. If they are first time visitors to San Diego, I would of course include Balboa Park for its iconic architecture, historical significance and beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden. A lunch break at The Prado on their outdoor lower level courtyard would provide lovely ambiance and a more cozy dining experience. For first time visitors, I would also include a drive over the Coronado Bridge to visit the Hotel Del and spend the afternoon on the white sandy beaches – most likely Central Beach – until sunset. If not a first time visitor, then a hike in Torrey Pines State Park and a visit to the beach below. Beach visits are really an essential part of a visit to San Diego. It’s not all beaches for me, though. One of my favorite regional spots is the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. For my novice hiker friends, I would just do an early morning Oasis hike, but for those who are in for an adventure, a hike through the badlands makes for more interesting views, excellent photography opportunities, and a test of endurance. I love some of the local history San Diego has to offer. If my friends had similar interest, I would start another day’s adventure with a trip to Julian to a tour with the Julian Mining Company. The tours through the mines are a genuine snapshot in time, where veins of gold can still be detected and the hardships that miners faced become real. No trip to Julian would be complete without sampling some Julian apple pie made by the Julian Pie Company – the apple-peach crumble is my personal favorite. That day, we would take a route back via Escondido to have dinner at Cordiano Winery. This winery has a beautiful estate up in Highland Valley. The restaurant has a beautiful outdoor seating deck, a casual atmosphere, and one of the most breathtaking views – a must see experience for those who love to watch the sunset with a glass of wine, delicious Italian food, and the company of friends. Not every day has to include a roadtrip. I am fortunate to live in the San Diego community called Rancho Peñasquitos. Right in my backyard is our own treasure, Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve. I would start a morning hike from the Rancho Penasquitos Adobe, the second oldest residence in the County and the ranch itself was the recipient of the first Mexican land grant in San Diego County. The walk through the preserve takes you along a little creek which was part of the original Pony Express where you’ll even find a bridge named Carson’s Crossing. The reward for this hike is a modest yet beautiful little waterfall nestled in between large boulders, which makes for some adventurous climbing. This is where I show some bias – if my visitors were here during the school year, I would try to fit in a performance by one of our five high school performing arts groups. our high schools have award winning music (including marching band) and theater groups. Having lived in the bay area and being a patron of the arts, I know that our high school students put on high quality performances. These performances showcase the diverse talents of our students and highlight the character of our community as one that values public education.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I am surrounded by a group of strong female community volunteers who support and inspire me on a regular basis. Some of them I met during my days on the Rancho Peñasquitos Town Council, others I served with on our Park Village Elementary School PTA and Foundation. They are a group of extraordinarily selfless, intelligent, resourceful and compassionate leaders. They bring with them a wealth and diverse set of life experiences that is tapped into for the benefit of our entire community.