If not for a serendipitous meeting in Costa Rica, Maria Toyoda might not be the new dean of Suffolk’s College of Arts & Sciences.

Eighteen months ago, Toyoda, then an associate dean for interdisciplinary studies and global initiatives for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University, was in the Central American nation checking on a study-abroad program when she struck up a conversation with two Suffolk students, also studying abroad and working at a home for disabled adults. Though the interaction lasted about 20 minutes, it had a profound impact on Toyoda.

“I really admired the positive way they interacted with everybody, but also how they spoke about their experiences. They were articulate and clear-eyed about the place, and they were very grateful to be able to experience this sort of thing,” she says. “Oftentimes, coming from private schools, you often encounter students who don’t know much about how the rest of the world lives or see opportunities to work in a community as an obligation—but not these students.”

That brief encounter piqued Toyoda’s curiosity. She returned to her room and, despite a spotty Wi-Fi connection, spent an hour reading Suffolk’s website. “The impression I got is that [there’s] an excellent faculty that cares a lot about the students,” she says. “I found that very attractive.” A year later, when Toyoda discovered the University had launched a nationwide search to replace longtime CAS dean Kenneth Greenberg, she applied for the position. What stood out in her letter of interest was her recollection of meeting those Suffolk students in Costa Rica, says Provost Marisa Kelly.

“There’s lot of great candidates out there looking to make that move to be a dean of a college of arts and sciences, but you don’t often have a candidate that seeks you out because of an experience of that sort,” she says. “That was really striking to the entire search committee.” Kelly adds that Toyoda also impressed the committee as “a strategic thinker with what I would characterize as strong collaborative leadership abilities. What I mean is someone who wants to collaborate with faculty, staff, and students, particularly in the College of Arts & Sciences, but in the broader Suffolk community as well, in working to move CAS forward.”

Toyoda becomes Suffolk’s eighth CAS dean on July 1.

Adele Lindenmyer, Villanova’s dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has known and worked with Toyoda for the past decade. What Toyoda brings to Suffolk, Lindenmyer says, “is a great diversity of experience.” At Villanova, Toyoda had also served as chair of its political science department, the founding director of the Program for East Asian Studies, and an associate professor of political science.

“Being an associate dean for interdisciplinary studies and global initiatives has provided her with experience in developing and administering study-abroad programs, responding to opportunities to create interdisciplinary programs or courses,” Lindenmyer says. “She’s deeply knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities that faculty face, and is a partner in identifying areas of improvement and as a constructive problem solver.”

Of her own leadership style, Toyoda says, “I’m supportive, but also a catalyzer. I think it’s important to allow people to be creative, and creativity is something I like to see fostered working in groups. I like to work as part of a team, and I like to be inclusive. I want to be open to many different points of view and various perspectives. Diversity of thoughts, ideas, and opinions is the best way of getting to solutions.”

College of Arts & Sciences Dean Maria ToyodaGrowing up in Miami, Toyoda never imagined a career in higher education. In high school, she excelled in biology and math, and earned her bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford University. She considered attending medical school, but two factors changed her mind. “I didn’t do as well as I might have done in classes like physics, and physics has always been the traditional great filter [for potential medical students]. But part of my difficulty also is that I have a hard time distinguishing between left and right,” she jokes. “So I can’t imagine the disasters I would have caused if I had gone into medicine. I think the world is way better off that I got filtered out.”

Nor did she have any interest in her parents’ “crazy” profession—show business. “That’s how they came to the States; they emigrated from Japan. My father was a jazz singer and musician, and my mother was a stage manager and a talent scout,” Toyoda says. “My father even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice.” But there was “no possibility” of following in her parents’ footsteps. “I appreciate the arts, but I can’t carry a tune, and I can’t dance.”

Instead, with an interest in politics, she earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University. After grad school, Toyoda returned to Stanford, working in its Institute for International Studies. When Toyoda was hired as an assistant professor of political science at Villanova, Lindenmyer was told by a senior colleague that Toyoda was “the best hire Villanova’s department of political science had ever made.”

Robert Allison, professor and chair of Suffolk’s department of history and search committee member, was just as impressed.

“When we asked her what she would do as dean, she turned to all of us and said, ‘The main thing I’m going to need is the support of all of you,’” he recalls. “She looked around the table and addressed each of us by name, and it really was a moment of pulling together. We all recognize the real challenges we all have ahead of us, and that we do need someone who is able to bring us together.” Allison was also swayed by what he calls Toyoda’s “commitment to the liberal arts.” In recent years, the perceived value of a liberal arts education has become something of a punch line, but Toyoda maintains it remains a vital component in shaping the next generation.

“We try to develop good citizens, we try to educate the whole person and, as individuals, discover what is truth and beauty, and what is good. Those things are natural attributes of a liberal arts education,” she says. “But I also want to make the case that liberal arts education is a foundation for the jobs of the future, jobs we don’t even know yet. A liberal arts graduate with a grounding in not just critical thinking, but creative thinking, is someone who will be prepared for not just the first job out of college but the one after that, and the one after that.”

Such forward thinking makes Toyoda an ideal CAS dean for Suffolk, Kelly says. “She has great people skills. I think that she will be very well positioned to lead in the context of change and excite faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and students. She has the strategic thinking ability to do that.”

Toyoda is already somewhat familiar with New England—her husband, a software engineer and entrepreneur, is from Newport, Rhode Island, and his mother is a Bostonian. Now Toyoda relishes joining the Suffolk community, learning about the University, and leading CAS toward an innovative, dynamic future.

“I’m looking forward to getting down to business. I’m looking forward to finding opportunities to let people know what a great place [Suffolk] is,” she says. “I see that as one of my goals: to make sure everyone knows where Suffolk is, what Suffolk is, and what it stands for.”