Kristen Soares

Kristen Soares is the fourth president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. As president, Soares works in partnership with leaders around the state to shape policy for California’s independent colleges and universities. Soares serves as the chief spokesperson for the Independent California College and University sector, comprised of over 80 California independent, nonprofit institutions, all dedicated to the public good. Under her leadership, to advance new policy initiatives to address the needs of today’s students, the Association adopted its first formal agreement with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to adopt the Associate Degree for Transfer pathway, a groundbreaking program to improve community college transfer for students. Soares serves on several boards including: the California Education Round Table; the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) State Executives Council; the NAICU committee on Student Aid Policy; the Board of Trustees for the California Museum; the Better Together California Teacher Summit Steering Committee; the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Higher Education Center; and chairs the California Intersegmental Coordinating Council.

Soares has extensive background in higher education, policy, administration, and governmental advocacy. Before coming to AICCU, Soares spent nearly twenty-five years at the University of Southern California (USC). She served as the senior associate vice president for government relations and civic engagement, where she provided strategic direction and leadership for USC’s government and community relations offices in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.

Soares is a graduate of the University of Southern California where she earned a Bachelor of Science in public administration.


Susan Cotton
Executive Manager 

Susan joined AICCU in January 2016. Susan is responsible for administrative support, and AICCU financial operations. AICCU also functions as the fiscal agent for several entities and Susan is responsible for administrating their funds.

Cotton comes to AICCU from Ascension Resource Group, a longtime business partner of AICCU. At Ascension she oversaw benefits administration for Ascension’s clients, including systems and interface development with carrier and payroll systems and was responsible for the development and management of tools to enhance Ascension’s benefit practices.

Cotton majored in Marketing and Management at University of Arkansas and is a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, Executive Program.


Amber Gonzalez
Executive Assistant 

Amber Gonzalez has been the Executive Assistant to the President at AICCU since 2014. She not only assists the president, but the entire AICCU team. Gonzalez wears many hats and enjoys the fast pace office environment. Gonzalez is the lead on the AICCU Annual Meeting and is the liaison for AICCU Executive Committee. Before finding her home with AICCU, she provided administrative support to Environment California, Fund for the Public Interest, and managed the office of California Paint Recycling, an environmentally friendly local paint recycling company.



Alex Graves
Vice President for Government Relations 

Alex joined AICCU in January of 2019. As Vice President for Government Relations, he is the chief lobbyist and is responsible for legislative advocacy and public policy leadership in support of independent higher education. Graves serves as the liaison between AICCU and the Governor’s Office, the California Legislature, California Student Aid Commission, and others public bodies.

Prior to joining AICCU, he worked as the Legislative Advocate at the California State University Office of Advocacy & State Relations, and previously as the Legislative Assistant at the Alzheimer’s Association. In addition, he worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy.

Graves received his B.A. in Politics from Occidental College, and his Master’s in Public Policy & Administration from Sacramento State University.


Danyelle Okamoto
Director of Communications & Strategic Initiatives 

Danyelle joined AICCU in July of 2009. As Director of Communications and Strategic Initiatives she is responsible for the development, management and implementation of comprehensive marketing, branding, strategic initiatives, and research projects that advances the strategic goals of AICCU. Okamoto works with national and state associations and agencies that include, but are not limited to, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities State Executives (NAICUSE), and the California ICC Transfer Days/College Nights Subcommittee. Prior to her role as Director of Communications and Strategic Initiatives, Okamoto served as Director of Research & Publications, where she was responsible for data collection and analysis of member colleges and universities, developing formats and data for use in publications, advocacy efforts, media, and testimony.

Okamoto earned her Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of the Pacific and a Master of Science in Higher Education Administration from Drexel University.


Susan Reyes
Legislative Coordinator 

Susan joined AICCU in March of 2019. As Legislative Coordinator, she plays a key role in advancing AICCU’s government relations and public policy initiatives under the direction of the chief lobbyist. Susan is responsible for coordinating AICCU’s Day in the Capitol, legislative staff briefings, and VIP campus tours, among other duties. Susan is passionate about the multi-facet work AICCU does in advocacy, branding of the independent higher education sector, stakeholder engagement, and developing collaborative approaches that serve all California students.

Reyes brings with her over a decade of legislative experience, both in the Assembly and the Senate in district offices and the State Capitol. Her capabilities range from policy analysis, negotiation with policymakers and regulators, high quality event planning from conception to execution, relationship development, public speaking, as well as translation and interpretation in Spanish.

Reyes’ educational journey began at Mt. San Antonio College, then transferred to the University of Southern California where she graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Public Policy, Management & Planning. Thereafter, she completed the prestigious Riordan MBA Fellows Program, the Water Leaders Program, and chaired the Annual Adelante Mujer Latina Conference in Pasadena.


Randy Tarnowski
Director of Research 

Randy joined AICCU in May 2019. As Director of Research, he develops the organizational research agenda and leads the collection and analysis of institutional data to produce clear and actionable reports for association stakeholders and policymakers. He is also responsible for the development and management of the AICCU longitudinal data system.

Before joining AICCU, Tarnowski served as a Research Associate at School-to-School International, where he worked with a wide range of educational stakeholders to conduct impact evaluations in over 20 countries throughout Africa and Asia. He has also worked as administrator at the Korean-American Educational Commission in Seoul, where he managed the Fulbright fellowship between South Korean and United States research recipients. He was also an analytics consultant with the Foundation for Students Rising Above, where he provided insight into the College2Careers online hub, a platform for high school students to receive guidance for applying to and navigating higher education institutions.

Tarnowski received his Bachelor of Arts degrees in International Studies and Communication from the University of Tampa and a Master’s in Education from Harvard University.


Thomas Vu
Vice President for Policy 

Thomas Vu joined AICCU in January 2014. As Vice President for Policy, he develops and manages the execution of AICCU’s agenda on state and federal policy. This includes outreach and engagement responsibilities between federal and state policymakers; providing original policy development; and cultivating and managing the internal and external stakeholders required for successful policy development and implementation. He conducts policy analysis, develops policy recommendations, and drafts reports, articles, and regulatory comments.

Vu’s career has been spent in government relations and public policy. Prior to joining AICCU, he worked at the California Chamber of Commerce as a policy advocate with a portfolio that included transportation and infrastructure, workers’ compensation, and international relations and trade. Vu was the legislative director for the California Special Districts Association, where he lobbied on local government-related policy issues and managed the department. He also has policy experience in healthcare, land use, and economic development.

Vu graduated from UC San Diego with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and Economics, and a minor in Literature. He has a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Southern California.