Juliet V. Garcia became the first female Mexican-American president of a United States college or university in 1986, when she was named president of Texas Southmost College, and later the University of Texas at Brownsville. The Galerstein Gender Center invited Garcia, former senior advisor to the chancellor of the University of Texas System, to speak at UTD on March 21 in honor of Women’s History Month. The Mercury sat down with Garcia to talk about her career and thoughts about Women’s History Month.
What does it mean to you to be the first Mexican-American woman to serve as president of a U.S. university?
We didn’t know that was the case for a few years until some reporter did some research, so it was a surprise. At the time, it was a community college, and there were 50 community colleges in the state of Texas by then, so I became the girl in that good old boys’ club. And then nationally, I think there might’ve been about 5 percent of women as college presidents in the U.S. When I started getting introduced that way, I kept waiting for someone to say, “No, there was someone else,” and then they could never come up with someone else. I didn’t earn anything as the first one. It just so happened that history took us down that road.
You were named as one of Time magazine’s Top 10 College Presidents in 2009 and Fortune magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2014. What was it like to be recognized with these honors?
I’ve got a funny story about this one. The 50 greatest leaders, including the pope. I have five grandkids and they were very proud, so they bought me a cake, and I was No. 27 on the list so it said, “Twenty-seventh in the world.” We were together, two of the grandbabies and I, working in the yard, and they were hungry. I took them to get a burger, and we go to this nice burger place and place our orders. And we sit down, and people get served and we’re not getting served. My grandson goes to see what’s wrong and he tells me that they’ve lost our order. I said, “What do you mean, they lost our order?” and he said, “I guess they didn’t know you’re number 27.”
You said that your mother passed away when you were young. What was it like to grow up in this family situation?
The positive part of it was that I grew up with boys. I think that prepared me for the life that I was to lead professionally, because I’m not intimidated by boys, I’ve never questioned whether I should have a voice equal to them. You learn how to fight and make up and go back to play. You can’t hold grudges because these are the only guys you can play with. All of those things were very helpful to me. I was a debater at the college level. If you have a man and a woman together as a team, you had to debate in the men’s division. I debated men, and in retrospect, father and I couldn’t have been better prepared in any applied way than growing up with brothers and a father then debating men in college. That’s what I ended up doing for the rest of my life: testifying and advocating for our university. I think that we made the best of a very difficult situation.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
I think it’s an acknowledgement of the important role that women play in this society, and it’s an honorific moment. As someone said, “When is men’s history month?” And the response was, “Every other month of the year.” So it is fitting that we take a special month out of the year to nod towards those women who have been important in our lives or who have provided such an important role in our country. In our world, absolutely. It is so special to read stories of the next generation of young women who are taking their place. It does us all good. Not men, not women, but all of us, to pause and think on it.
Who are your heroes?
I have many. In our family, the women were very much in charge of the business of life. So maybe it’s a more matriarchal environment that I grew up in, even though our mother passed away when we were young, so I was raised with my brothers and father. But the roles of women in our families have always been very important roles. All the women in my family, to me, are heroines, for surviving some very difficult times in their lives. And then there’s several that I have known through the years. Irma Rangel: she was the first Latina to be elected to the House of Representatives in the state of Texas. And she became the chair of a higher-ed committee in Austin. Boy, did I like going before her committee when I was a chair. She was an attorney and could play with the boys, and didn’t get a lot of credit, but did a lot of important work. One of the things she did was to install the top 10 percent rule. It’s controversial, but she did it because she felt that she had to fling open doors of opportunity for people. She is one of my heroes.
When students and faculty look at your life, what do you want them to learn?
That they don’t remember the 27. Now that I’m older with my white hair, it’s funny; people don’t recognize me because I’ve had jet-black hair all my life. All they recognize is my voice, which hasn’t changed. But people will say, “Oh, I hadn’t heard that voice in so long,” because I’d been away from the university. And they’ll say, “Can I just give you a hug? Thank you, thank you.” You want to be remembered, not for the accolades, but because someone was kind to you or you were kind to them. I’ve had people come up to me and say, “If I could ever help you with anything, in any way, you call me. I always will.” Remember the kindness of people you work with. We spend most of our lives at work; it really is a family, too. I didn’t understand that until I lived it. I thought family was only the blood relatives that you have, but your family is often the university. You know everything about them, the good days and the bad days. You celebrate with them and mourn with them. To be remembered for kindness.