DePaul’s president and his wife mark their first year at the university
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If you find yourself along the stretch of Lake Michigan that borders Lincoln Park, you may spot a couple walking briskly along the lakefront path. A. Gabriel Esteban, PhD, DePaul’s 12th president, and his wife, Josephine, are avid walkers. Since moving to Lincoln Park in 2017, when Dr. Esteban assumed his duties as DePaul’s first lay president, the Estebans take every opportunity to get some exercise and explore their neighborhood.
The road to DePaul has been long and interesting for the Estebans. It all started in their native country—the Philippines.
The Early Years
Mrs. Esteban grew up in Manila with her parents, five other siblings and a house full of dogs. Dr. Esteban, the eldest of three, was raised in a suburb of Manila, although it’s not the type of suburb you’d find in the United States. “Where I grew up, it was such a remote place,” Dr. Esteban explains. “We used to go hiking. We used to fish in the creek close to where we lived. We had fruit trees. I used to plant vegetables in our backyard, and I had neighbors who raised hogs and chickens.”
“I remember our lives were fairly structured growing up,” he continues. “Always on Sundays, we were expected to go to church with family. Meals were supposed to be with family. You were supposed to sit down at dinner.”
Like most of the Filipino population, they also attended May festivals centered on the Blessed Virgin Mary, an important figure in the matriarchal society, as well as flowers and the harvest. “You have the image of the Virgin Mary as the lead in the procession,” Mrs. Esteban recalls, “and there are beauty queens representing each town.”
The Philippines is a lush country with beautiful, white-sand beaches and a rich cultural heritage the Estebans cherish, but neither of their families were affluent.
“We were considered, I guess, middle income, but being middle income in a poor country doesn’t mean a whole lot. Looking back on our lives when we were younger, we really didn’t have a lot,” Dr. Esteban says. “But it was not an issue because it was all about the relationships we had.”
The Esteban romance began 39 years ago in the math club at the University of the Philippines (UP), where she was studying economics and he was studying math. His sociable nature often made him the life of the party. He remembers his undergraduate years fondly: “I really enjoyed college. I knew how to have fun.”
“He partied way too much!” Mrs. Esteban teases.
Those days weren’t all carefree, however. At the time, the Philippines was ruled by Ferdinand Marcos, a dictator who held power for 21 years. As a freshman in college, Dr. Esteban and his close friends joined the anti-Marcos movement while at UP. “We used to rally against the policies of Marcos as well as on other national issues. There was also a national movement for free elections in the Philippines, so we were involved in that as poll watchers, even though we couldn’t vote yet.”
Eventually, Marcos was forced from power in 1986 and fled the country to escape a serious reckoning. “I developed very strong feelings about freedom of speech and expression, having lived under a dictatorship,” Dr. Esteban says. “People rail against either end of the political spectrum. You know what? It’s better to have that than to not have the ability to have that discussion or have the discussion controlled by the government.”
The Working World
Once out of college, the pair found themselves working at businesses across the street from each other. “Our paychecks came once a month. They used to pay us in cash, which is kind of scary in a way,” says Dr. Esteban. “There was one restaurant we used to go to, a fried chicken place. We’d go there every month, once a month, and that’s where we would celebrate getting our paychecks.”
“We’d blow out all our paychecks. No saving for any of us,” Mrs. Esteban adds with a laugh.
Dr. Esteban, who earned his MBA at UP and obtained another master’s degree in Japanese business studies from Chaminade University in Honolulu and a doctorate in business administration from the University of California, Irvine, was well-prepared for the business career he pursued for a number of years. But it is perhaps ironic that he ended up following in his father’s footsteps by going into teaching, though his father might not have seen it that way.
“I learned about this long after the fact, but he thought I should be an MD,” Dr. Esteban says. “I think he wanted me to be a doctor because he never did practice medicine full time except for one year. He taught gross anatomy and histology at UP’s College of Medicine. The only time he would practice was in charity clinics he ran on the weekends.”
“When I was eight or nine years old, he’d invite me to his office and take me up to the gross anatomy lab. I think part of it was just for me to be exposed. So growing up, I used to see cadavers galore. I blame that for my interest in zombie movies,” Dr. Esteban jokes.
Coming to the United States
Education brought the Estebans to the United States, and they stayed to pursue the American Dream. Dr. Esteban held teaching and administrative positions at the University of Houston–Victoria, Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Mrs. Esteban, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from UP, earned an MBA from the University of California, Riverside, while her husband was working on his doctorate and held senior marketing analytics positions at companies in the Little Rock area. It was in Conway where the couple raised their only child, Ysabella.
The Estebans are proud of their Filipino and Catholic identity and wanted to ensure that their daughter embraced her heritage as much as they do. These values formed their bedrock as they negotiated the culture of the mostly white, Protestant town in which they lived.
“She’s a wonderful kid,” Mrs. Esteban says, “but it was challenging to raise her as an Asian-American in Arkansas because there weren’t a lot of Asians in Arkansas.”
Of course, they wanted Ysabella to have the best education possible. “She went to public school from kindergarten through high school,” Mrs. Esteban continues. “One reason we sent her to public school was to expose her to different people, different income levels, and public schools in the South where we lived seem to be more equipped in terms of technology and facilities than the Catholic schools. There were not that many Catholics in the South; the senior class of the Catholic school in Conway had maybe 30 students.”
To instill their Catholic values in Ysabella, the Estebans engaged her in fundraising activities for the local church and school, and they performed perpetual adoration as a family. “We made sure that she meditated in front of the altar—no phones, nothing. Just pure meditation and prayer,” Mrs. Esteban says about their weekly prayers in front of the enshrined Eucharist in church.
“We also exposed her to other civic organizations, like the local women’s shelter,” she continues. “The three of us participated in building a house for Habitat for Humanity. And during Christmastime, we donated presents to needy families because we wanted her to see that even if the United States is a rich country, not everyone is well-off.”
In 2007, Dr. Esteban became provost and chief academic officer at Seton Hall University, the largest Catholic university in New Jersey, situated 14 miles from New York City. Ysabella enrolled as an undergraduate at the university, and Mrs. Esteban continued her career in marketing analytics for a marketing and advertising agency.
When Seton Hall’s president of 15 years, Monsignor Robert Sheeran, S.T.D., stepped down in 2010, the university had a difficult time finding a priest to fill the position as required by its bylaws. The board created an exception, and Dr. Esteban, who had impressed the university community with his academic leadership, business acumen and strong Catholic faith, became the interim president. Six months later, he was named president, the first nonordained person to hold that position since the bylaws were changed in the ’80s.
At Seton Hall, Dr. Esteban learned just what it takes to run a large university. He recalls how the former president of Stanford University described the role, likening it to serving as “mayor of a city because you have all these different constituents you have to serve,” Dr. Esteban explains. “At the same time, he commented that you are running a professional sports team or two. Then, you are running a hospitality business because of the residence halls, and you have dining. And, in some instances, you are running your own police force. At the same time you are trying to raise money. These are [all in addition to] the main reason why you exist, which is education.” When Dr. Esteban became the first lay president of DePaul, he added two sizeable campuses to that mix.
Dr. Esteban says that the mission he advanced at his previous institutions is even more central to DePaul’s identity. “The focus on students, helping the underserved and first-generation students succeed—that’s very, very clear at DePaul.”
Mrs. Esteban agrees: “My observation is that DePaul is very intense with their mission. We walk the walk.”
Their Kind of Town
The DePaul community has greeted the Estebans with enthusiasm. “Chicago has been very welcoming, very warm. It’s been an easier adjustment than I thought,” Dr. Esteban says.
Their lives have been a whirlwind of work-related events, from hosting the Vincentians, Daughters of Charity and supporters of the university at their home to attending volleyball matches, men’s and women’s basketball games, and an occasional School of Music concert. The Estebans also enjoy volunteering at their new parish, St. Vincent de Paul Church, and sold hot dogs at the church’s booth at the Sheffield Music Festival and Garden Walk.
When they’re not involved with DePaul activities, the Estebans continue to explore their new hometown. Despite their being regular visitors to Chicago over the years, the city still manages to surprise them. “The biggest surprise was how beautiful it is during the summertime, because we’ve always only come here in early spring,” says Mrs. Esteban. They enjoy strolling to the Green City Market to shop and taking their 13-year-old rescue dog, Maximus, for walks in Oz Park and around the neighborhood. “Lincoln Park is stunning and interesting, and it’s very walkable. But Chicago as a whole is very walkable,” Dr. Esteban says.
Although they dine out frequently, the seasoned home chefs tend to avoid Filipino restaurants. Mrs. Esteban says, “Both of us cook, and we know how a dish is supposed to taste.” She enjoys preparing common Filipino dishes, like those made with lechon (roasted pork). “Gabriel makes a mean oxtail stew,” Mrs. Esteban brags. “It’s really delicious!”
The Estebans took up golf as a family at the urging of their daughter. “Golf can be very relaxing. I like to walk the course if I can. The problem is I only get to play maybe once or twice a year,” Dr. Esteban says. Mrs. Esteban appreciates being close to nature on the golf course, “and you kind of just compete with yourself.” They also began traveling with Ysabella.
“To be able to see places which we only read about was really big. Growing up, only wealthy individuals got to travel overseas or play golf, for that matter,” Dr. Esteban says. “I remember the first time we went to Paris, just seeing the paintings which I remember they would put on those overhead projectors in our Western civ and humanities classes in college.”
Mrs. Esteban considers seeing the Swiss Alps a peak experience, even though she is afraid of heights. Judging the cable cars to be too scary, Mrs. Esteban decided they should take the train. “I just made sure that Ysabella was by the window, then Gabriel, and then I was right by the aisle where I could just peek a little bit out the window and see how beautiful it is,” she recalls. “It was early spring, so the mountaintops were still snow-capped. It was postcard beautiful!”
The Estebans love that they now live in the same city as Ysabella, a pediatrician, and her husband, Matthew Sugimoto, an internist. “It is so refreshing to have them for dinner and then just chat a little bit and not be so stressed out,” Mrs. Esteban remarks. “When we were living in New Jersey, we had to fly to Chicago just to see them.”
As the Estebans settle into their new roles, they reflect on the journey that led them to DePaul. “You live trying to plan for the future knowing that the future is unknowable,” Dr. Esteban reflects. “When we were younger, we used to pray for specific things, pray for what we wanted. Then we realized what you really have to do is do the work that needs to be done, pray for what’s best and take it as God’s will.”
The Estebans have lived in many places and worked hard to achieve better lives for themselves and others. There have been bumps along the way, but those only serve to make the satisfactions that much better. In the end, Dr. Esteban says, “Higher education and the largesse of others through scholarships have allowed us to take advantage of the numerous opportunities in the United States. We have been blessed in countless ways.”