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Education Pioneer Takes Border School To New Level

Oct 4, 2012
Originally published on October 4, 2012 3:30 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, director Lee Daniels is known for provocative movie fare, like his award-winning 2009 effort, "Precious." His latest film, by his own account, will be remarkable to some and stomach-turning to others. It's called "The Paperboy," and we'll talk with him about it in just a few minutes.

But first, it's Hispanic Heritage Month, and that's a time we recognize the contributions of Hispanic-Americans to the country. Today, we speak with a trailblazer in education. When she became the leader of Texas Southmost College in 1986, she became the first Mexican-American woman to lead a U.S. college or university. Now the leader of the University of Texas at Brownsville, she continues to lead by example, both in her personal and professional lives. And President Juliet V. Garcia is with us now.

Madam president, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JULIET V. GARCIA: Thank you for the invitation. It's my great pleasure.

MARTIN: What got you inspired to pursue higher education? When you started out, a lot of women were pursuing bachelor's degrees, but not PhDs, and certainly not aspiring to lead colleges and universities. So what got you on that path?

GARCIA: I just loved being in the higher ed. I loved being in the college and university atmosphere. And then I discovered that I could stay there if I began to teach there. So it was a very natural path to find a job, then - first in teaching, and then in administration. So I'm home.

MARTIN: One of the things that is noteworthy about the area that you're working in in your institution is that the school is - first of all, it's literally blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. It's also - it's 95 percent Hispanic students, and 58 percent are first-generation college students. And I wanted to ask how that affects the way you do your job.

GARCIA: Well, it affects everything that we do here. It is - we're trying to prepare a pathway for students and their families who have never had that, for the most part. And so it's a family adventure for many folks here. It's a changing of the culture, and it's saying expectations are not that you would not drop out of high school. They are that you would succeed in high school as a pathway to a college degree.

MARTIN: Now, one of the ways that you have advanced this is to create this experimental partnership between Texas Southmost College...

GARCIA: Right.

MARTIN: ...a community college, and the University of Texas at Brownsville, a four-year college and, of course, which also grants graduate degrees. How did this come about? How did this idea come about?

GARCIA: The model for this partnership worked for students. That is, it provided an open entry, smooth transition through degrees that heretofore had been cumbersome for them to get to, baccalaureate, master's, doctoral degrees.

The model worked as a business model, because we have scarce resources. So it was - it allowed us to pool very scarce resources toward a common purpose. So the business model worked, kept our tuition very, very low, and then was able to formulate a beautiful - and establish a beautiful campus. The decision now to separate out now gives the university an opportunity to reinvent itself.

MARTIN: But one of the challenges then, of course, is that, you know, open admissions often mean students with educational deficits, and then they get into the four-year environment and then can't complete. And I'm wondering how you address that very real challenge.

GARCIA: Well, it is a very real challenge. But often, students themselves don't know their potential, and so you might - what we found was that you might have a student come here thinking that they could only do well in a certificate or an associate degree program. So someone coming to our school might have come for an automotive technology certificate or associate degree, found they were good in math and end up with a master's degree in mathematics.

MARTIN: And I'm speaking with Juliet Garcia. She is the president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. She became the first Mexican-American woman to become president of a college or university.

One of the things that I was curious about is opportunity for you. I mean, you were there in your early 40s, starting up a new four-year university.

GARCIA: Right.

MARTIN: You - I'm going to say - assert this, that you could have probably gone anywhere in the country with your credentials and your background, and yet you chose, essentially, to stay home. And I'm wondering about that.

GARCIA: This is home. My father was from Monterey, and so I'm first generation on his side. And my mother was from here, from the Rio Grande Valley. And my husband and I married young, and, you know, in some ways, did all the things wrong that you're not supposed to do. I was still in college when I got married, had babies very young while I was still in school.

And we had always said, though, that we would go off to go educated, but we would come back home because the community really needed for that to happen. Our families were both here, as well, and we wanted the kids to have the important roots that we thought were - had been vital for our own lives.

And so we've, you know, obviously had opportunities, and we've had long discussions as those come up. And sometimes we've been closer than others to saying, well, maybe it's time to move elsewhere and do important work. However, for us, it's always finally been determined on where you can have the most impact. And this community, we believe, still benefits from our work here together.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for talking with us. You've been generous with your time, especially for somebody juggling so many things. One thing I have to ask you about, though, is that, in the separation between...

GARCIA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Brownsville and Texas Southmost, that UT Brownsville will keep the chess team.

GARCIA: Darn right.

MARTIN: And I understand that this might be a...

GARCIA: Some things are not compromised on and negotiated away.

MARTIN: This - I understand that this is actually a very big deal, that your - this is one of only four universities that gives full scholarships for chess. How did chess get to be such a hot ticket at the University of Texas, Brownsville?

GARCIA: That is such a great story, and I'd love to have an opportunity to tell you the whole story. But it started out in the elementary schools here. And it was a young male elementary school teacher who was given the bad kids, and they kind of threw a few boys at him and said: You're the only male in our school. Do something with them. And he said, well, what am I supposed to do? And they said, I don't know, but, you know, handle it.

And he had taught his son chess, and so he decided to teach these boys, who were eight and nine years old, chess. Well, pretty soon, those guys were doing really well. And the story continues from there on. But today, thousands of kids in Brownsville, Texas, against all odds, are not only playing chess, but they are competing nationally and winning national tournaments.

So we, of course, then decided to build our own chess team at UT Brownsville. So Brownsville continues to be a major force in the chess world. So there was no compromise giving that part of it away.

MARTIN: Just to let people know, we're very big into chess on this program. In 2010, they placed second in the final four of college chess, which was hosted at UT Brownsville, which we covered. And then as of 2010, the UTB chess team features three grand masters and two international masters, just to let people know.

GARCIA: We have the loveliest team of young men and women. We also have one of the highest-ranked women's team in chess, which is a kind of a harder thing to do in the chess world. So it's a wonderful story, and a story that is not about any one team. It is a story about a decade of growth in this program.

MARTIN: I still need to know what the cheer is. It can't be, hook 'em, horns. I mean, you've got to help me out. What do we cheer when they...

GARCIA: OK. We have a new - we have a new mascot at UT Brown, so we did have to change mascots as a result of the separation. And we're now the Ocelots. And so it's something like, we play a lot, we study a lot. We are the Ocelots. So I guess we'll have to put chess in there somewhere.

MARTIN: I think we'll have to work on that. Yeah. We'll work on that for you. That's Juliet Garcia. She is president of the University of Texas, Brownsville. She was the first Mexican-American woman to run a college or university when she was named president of Texas Southmost in 1986. She was kind enough to join us from her campus in Brownsville, Texas.

President Garcia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GARCIA: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.