Dr. Julieta Garcia at her home Tuesday in Brownsville. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

BROWNSVILLE — Dr. Julieta V. Garcia used her power of persuasion to painstakingly create a university the people of South Texas could call home, only to dissolve it decades later to create a more powerful institution of higher learning.

Garcia stared down death, doubters and detractors on her way to becoming the first Latina president of a college or university in the United States, but it is her dedication to creating educational opportunities at home that has earned her a spot on The Monitor’s three-part series honoring women’s right to vote and its 100-year legacy of empowerment.

Garcia is no stranger to accolades, having first served as president of Texas Southmost College, and then creating the former University of Texas at Brownsville, where she spent another 22 years as president of both institutions through a partnership known as UTB/TSC.

Time magazine named her one of the Top 100 College Presidents in the nation in 2009, and Fortune magazine recognized her as one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2014.

“She is a phenomenally powerful and persuasive speaker,” said Dr. William F. Strong, a communications professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who once served as one of five vice presidents working under Garcia’s leadership at UTB/TSC. “I always say she is ethos personified because she has all the elements of great ethos: she’s a person of great intelligence, she has great concern for the community… and then she has charisma.”

He and former University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa credit her with spearheading one of the two legacy institutions that consolidated and became what is now UTRGV.

“I give Julieta all the credit in the world for UTRGV (and) for all UT has been able to accomplish these past 10 years down there,” Ciagarroa said last week. “Her belief in the physics department at UT Brownsville ultimately had a role in recruiting SpaceX.”

And while she didn’t do it single-handedly, she did lead the effort, taking an active role in recruiting support for all of her endeavors not only from the community, but legislators and charitable organizations, as well.

IN HER PARENTS’ HONOR

Garcia grew up in Brownsville alongside two brothers. Her parents both graduated from high school, but neither had the means nor opportunity to attend college, having grown up during the Great Depression.

Her mother graduated as salutatorian from Harlingen High School, where she was one of only two Latinas in her class to graduate and the only one accepted into the National Honors Society. To this day, Garcia keeps a copy of her mother’s yearbook.

Her father, who was from Monterrey, Mexico, lost his father at a young age, so upon finishing high school, he was thrust into a world of responsibility, caring for his mother and younger siblings. Still, he worked his way up from janitor to office manager at Pan American World Airways.

“And so they lived their life yearning, really, for the opportunity to go to college and often were saddened by the fact that they had not been able to do that,” Garcia said about her parents. “And so they wanted to make sure that all three of us, my brothers and I, all went to college.”

They put aside $10 per month to create a college fund for them, but then the unimaginable happened.

“Our mother passed away when I was 9, and so our world shifted dramatically at that point,” Garcia said. “But we had this wonderful father. We were very fortunate to have someone like him that said, ‘You know, you’re the stronger for this. You survived the worst thing that could happen to you — your mother’s death — and so you will be strong throughout your life because nothing worse can ever happen to you again.’ So in a way, he imbued us with a sacred pledge that we could survive anything and kind of launched us on our way.”

Garcia married young and had two babies while in school, but her husband, which was her older brother’s good friend, helped and challenged her to not only finish college, but also obtain her master’s and doctorate degrees.

“And so our lives together — we’ve been married for 51 years — has always aimed at, perhaps now in retrospect, fulfilling the dream that my parents had. And that was to make sure the kids in the Rio Grande Valley never have to be unfulfilled in that regard — that they will always have a place here (where) they can go to school,” she said.

And not just any school.

“But a good school — a very high quality, affordable, major university here — was the goal,” she said. “And so, how to achieve (that) was what I spent my career trying to accomplish.”

BECOMING PRESIDENT

After obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Houston, Garcia began teaching at the University of Texas-Pan American. But traveling from Brownsville to Edinburg every day became tedious because at the time, the expressway that now connects the upper and lower Rio Grande Valley, did not exist. Her former high school principal, however, was serving as president of Texas Southmost College, and he offered her a position there.

A few years later, Garcia received the opportunity to go back for her doctorate degree via the Ford Foundation, a global organization of which she would eventually become a board member.

“That was fantastic because it paid for my college education,” she said about the fellowship.

After completing her doctorate degree at the University of Texas at Austin, Garcia once again returned to Brownsville to teach at Texas Southmost College, working her way up to academic dean.

“Ten years after I had returned, the presidency was open, and so I applied,” she said. “It was a longshot, but I was ready — I thought I was ready.”

At 37 years old, she was much younger than the presidents of those days, who were usually in their 50s.

“And they were mostly men in the state of Texas. There were no women community college presidents at all when I became president,” she said about 1986.

Garcia credits two women who were serving on the TSC board at the time, including longtime Trustee Mary Rose Cardenas, with helping her obtain the post.

“(They) had faith that I could do it, and they convinced, I think, the other guys to give me a chance,” she said. “So, certainly in Texas, it was uphill. I mean, I would go meet with 51 other community college presidents and they were all men. And they weren’t rude, but they just didn’t know what to do with a woman or with a Latina. So we did not become buddies. I had to kind of make my own path with them.”

It didn’t take long for her to realize she was treated differently because she was a woman. Her first year as TSC president, she received a call from one of the other male presidents who was obviously having a hard time trying to find the right words.

“And he was stuttering, and it was funny that he was so nervous, and so finally, he spit it out, and he said that the presidents usually meet during the summer and during the winter. And at their summer meeting, they would meet somewhere where they could play golf together the day before their meeting,” Garcia recalled. “And so, stutter, stutter, stutter, he said, ‘So, I’m calling to see if your husband is coming to the meeting with you so that he can play golf with us.’”

Garcia can’t help but laugh about it now, but at the time, it certainly took her aback.

“And this is one of the better presidents, right? He was a smart one. And I thought, ‘Well, don’t insult him the way he’s insulted you.’ And so I said, ‘I thank you for the invitation, but it’s not our custom to travel together. I have children, and one of us stays home while the other one is gone. That’s our rule. So I’ll tell him that you invited him. I appreciate it. And I’ll see you at the meeting.’

“So it was little things like that that said, you know, you’re different and we know it.”

Sometimes, she’d go to a meeting and not rent a car just to save money for the college, thinking she could hitch a ride with one of the other presidents.

“Well, I got left in the parking lot three or four times until I figured out I better rent my own car,” she said.

Five years into serving as TSC president, Garcia and Cardenas made it their mission to establish a university in Brownsville.

“They are the ones who went to Austin and sold them on getting UT down here,” said Strong, who would eventually be in charge of growing the new university’s endowment.

The pair was initially met with some resistance and told there were long-range plans to invest in the area, but Cardenas insisted the Rio Grande Valley could not afford to lose another generation.

“We don’t have time to wait for your master plan,” Cardenas reportedly told one of the regents.

“And they came down, they visited and heard a compelling argument, and it wasn’t quite so easy as it sounds, but eventually we convinced them, and they agreed to help us try to do that,” Garcia said. “Ann Richards was governor at the time of Texas, and she was paying attention to the border. So the idea caught wind.”

In 1991, Garcia was asked to lead the university and college as president through what became a 20-year partnership between both institutions known as UTB/TSC.

Dr. Julieta Garcia at her home Tuesday in Brownsville. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

A PLACE TO CALL HOME

Garcia spent the next 22 years growing the campus from about 55 acres to approximately 350, and it was all done with one purpose in mind: to bring much-needed resources to an area that had been historically underserved and overlooked.

“So I became a full-time advocate for expansion of resources in our community. I was up every two years with state legislators, with our chancellor, or with donors — whoever I could find — trying to raise money to build a campus, to hire faculty, to enlarge the library, to build a new library, science buildings, rec center, whatever it was…. All the things that are basic in other places we did not have,” she said. “And I hated it. I mean, I had been to UT Austin. I had been in their 26 libraries, and we had one, and it just felt so wrong.”

In every effort she undertook, Garcia searched for the right ambiance to maximize the students’ potential.

“I believe that a sense of place is very important — that you create more, you can think better and more creatively and innovatively, if you’re in a beautiful environment,” Garcia said. “And so we tried to create that on campus.”

Built next to the historic Fort Brown, the college and university shared a campus.

“We simply built the university on top of the community college. We shared a campus, we shared faculty, we shared all kinds of resources because resources were very scarce,” Garcia said. “So we took cues from the old buildings, and we said let’s compliment them; let’s not try to build a modern campus; let’s try to dig deep into our roots and build something that feels like it’s always been here.”

So the new buildings were designed with Mexican-American roots in mind.

“And so when you come to our campus, you feel like it’s that hacienda that you think you should have grown up in, that none of us grew up in, right? But it’s the students’ home, and it’s the faculty’s home,” Garcia said.

For Strong, who served as vice president for institutional advancement from 2000-2005, the campus’ beauty became a selling point for the university. After all, his principal job was to find money from donors, foundations and others to keep the university moving forward.

“She built really beautiful buildings — and I say “she” because she was involved from the first spade to the last paintbrush,” he said. “So when I was vice president, this ended up being a money maker because I would have people come in from Washington or whoever was thinking of giving us money, and I would bring them to this little jewel that blew them away. They did not expect to see this little university on the border to be so beautiful and well-kept, and it helped us because they wanted to join our work because of what they saw.”

During his time there, Strong grew the university’s endowment from about $200,000 to about $12 million, but he didn’t do it alone.

“We had a kind of one-two punch. I would get the opportunity for the grant … and then she would go in as the queen of ethos and she would make the case to the board and bring it home,” he said about Garcia. “So, my job really was to kind of go out and seed the ground and get all the ducks in a row, so that she could go in and close.”

Her focus was always the students, he said.

Strong vividly recalls when he suggested during an executive council meeting that the university establish some minimum standards for students to meet before being accepted. Having that could be good for the credibility of the school, he said.

“And she said, ‘As long as I’m here, we’re going to have open admissions because I don’t wanna bar anyone from having an opportunity. If they can come in and they can pass, then they pass. Why do we say in advance, you’re not qualified? Let them try,’” Strong remembers Garcia replied. “She said, ‘I believe very much in open admissions because we are an institution about opportunity. This environment where we do our work, this is what students have not had — the opportunity.’

“And so this was her great strength — speaking truth to power.”

WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

Despite its strides as UTB/TSC, the institution did not qualify for a large chunk of money that other universities across the UT System were privy to, known as Permanent University Fund, or PUF. UTPA in Edinburg also didn’t qualify.

“That’s a long story, and it’s very political. You’ll get lots of versions, but the truth is that the schools south of San Antonio … none of them had access to the Permanent University Fund,” Garcia said. “So it appeared on the surface — and then it was proven in a lawsuit — that we had been disenfranchised. We had been discriminated against as a region in terms of higher education.”

So when the UT System voted to end UTB’s partnership with TSC in 2010, Garcia and others saw an opportunity to create a stronger institution that could then qualify for the much-coveted PUF monies. But it would not come without sacrifice. In order to become eligible, both UTPA and UTB would have to be dissolved and combined to form a new university.

“We had all the right people in place. We had the chairman of the board Gene Powell, who originally had been from the Valley. What are the chances you’ll get another chairman of the Board of Regents that was originally a Valley rat, as we call ourselves,” Garcia asked rhetorically. “And then Fransisco Cigarroa was our chancellor from Laredo, and then, of course, myself and then there was Pedro Reyes, who was executive vice chancellor. He was also from the Valley.

“So we had a moment in time, a little open window, and we said, if we don’t go for it now we’re never gonna get to be part of PUFF. And we threw it all in.”

Cigarroa knew what it would eventually mean for Garcia, who had been and remains to this day the only president to have ever served under the UTB/TSC flag.

“We knew there could only be one president,” he said.

So he called Garcia when he first learned about the plan.

“I said, ‘Julieta, you know this is a crazy idea. I don’t want to do it unless you support it, cause this has been your vision and this is the only way we can do it,” Cigarroa recalled last week. “And Julieta said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is more than me. This is not about me.’”

It was about the future of the Rio Grande Valley.

“We knew we’d have a new chancellor, we knew we’d have a new chairman of the board, new presidents, but we would have done the big deal: we would have made this Valley PUF-eligible forevermore — regardless of who the chancellor is or who’s president,” Garcia said. “So we decided it was worth the try and the risk, and that the gain was greater than any one of us. And I believe it was.”

In June 2013, the newly-formed University of Texas Rio Grande Valley opened its doors for the first time, spanning from Edinburg to Brownsville, under the leadership of its new and current president Guy Bailey.

Garcia took some time away from the university to teach at UT Austin, as suggested by her husband. Today, however, she finds herself back at her beloved Brownsville campus, where she teaches several communication courses.

“The first year I left the presidency, my husband said, ‘Don’t go to the university for a year.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me, my car has been going there automatically for the last 40 years,’” she said, laughing. “But he was right, you know, because you need to be able to remember that you were not it. It’s just lent to us for a short time … But now I go to campus, nobody even knows who I am. I’m the little lady with the white hair walking around, and they don’t have a clue. So, I can walk around campus now and just admire, and be part of the background, and it’s great fun.”

But there’s no denying she left an indelible mark there and across the region.

“In spite of all of the difficulties to get there, is it worth it,” she asked herself. “Absolutely. I would do it all over again without hesitation — good times and bad times — because when it all settles at the end, you can look back and say, ‘I got that college education my parents didn’t get to have, and I did something with it for my family, yes, but more importantly, for the community in which you live.’ And so it’s a good battle to engage in.”