In July, the first Mexican-American woman to serve as a college or university president in the United States, was one of 17 distinguished Americans to receive The Presidential Medal of Freedom. U.S. presidents have awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor for nearly six decades, but Garcia’s selection this year may mark the first time that a Communication professor is among an elite group of recipients that includes celebrities, politicians, and public servants.
García, a Brownsville, Texas native, received her Ph.D. in Communication and linguistics from The University of Texas, Austin. In her 30-year career as a multi-award-winning educator and higher education leader, García pioneered a partnership that helped transform Texas Southmost College, a community college, into the University of Texas, Brownsville (now the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley). In 1986, she assumed the presidency, serving for 22 years. When she stepped down, Garcia returned to the classroom where her career in the field began. Today, she teaches Communication to undergraduate and graduate students at The University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, a Hispanic serving institution.
“I’ve always believed that educating the next generation of citizens was our primary mission because once educated, they would help nurture, defend, and sustain the democracy of the United States. I believe that now more than ever,” Garcia said.
1. First, congratulations on receiving the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. So, how does it feel to receive this tremendous national honor and recognition?
Thank you so much. It feels a bit surreal. At the White House ceremony, I was in high cotton, as they say. I was seated with the attorney for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I was with the woman who helped organize the freedom riders during the civil rights movement and many other very noble and good people. It was very humbling and a great honor.
I was outside gardening, and I missed two calls from the White House. When I came in, a young lady from the White House called and told me that I missed a call from the president. I thought this must be a joke. She said, “‘No, it's real. President Biden wanted to tell you personally that you had been selected.’” The news was quite a shock. And, for the first time in my life, I was speechless. Then, my husband said, “‘Tell her you're honored.’”
2. What most influenced a Mexican-American girl growing up in Brownsville, Texas, to pursue academic degrees in the humanities—first in English and later graduate degrees in classical rhetoric, linguistics, and Communication?
Well, I grew up the daughter of a mother who read and was very smart and who married a man named Romeo. When I came along, she decided her son would be named Romeo and her daughter would be named Juliet. In my house, we knew how important it was to read and appreciate literature and go to college. Our parents did not get to go to college, but they knew that we would go. They set high expectations for us from the beginning.
To your question about why Communication and why study the humanities. I heard people say you should go toward the light and use the skills that you have. I enjoyed being on debate teams, in plays, and those kinds of activities in high school. I thought, if I'm going to spend time doing these kinds of things, I might as well spend time learning what I already enjoy. I went toward my light. My father would say, ‘What are you going to do with an English degree, honey?’ I told him I'll teach, but I never imagined that I would do other things.
I taught persuasion and speech. I knew I could teach those things, but what I wanted to know was if I could do use those skills in a courtroom, in life, or as an advocate. In other words, can you do what you're teaching? That’s when I thought, I've got to do more with whatever skills I have. Moving into an administrative position would allow me to make a difference using the skills that I had in Communication. I knew I could be effective. We have a lot of needs here in the Valley [Rio Grande Valley].
My mother always said, your job is to learn how to use the skills you have for the common good. As I progressed through my work, I thought that meant moving out of the classroom to a place where I could have a greater impact. I'm a fixer. When I notice that something is wrong, I try to make it better. So, I applied for an administrative position. I didn't get it the first time, but they assigned me to a job that prepared me even more for a presidency. Years later, I applied again and became president. As you can see, it wasn't a neat little path. It never is. For me, it was a progression of events, circumstances, and opportunities to be around people who could teach me and where I could pick up some courage along the way.
3. As a college president, you made history. You’ve also known as a longtime advocate for young people, especially Hispanic students, and their pursuit of higher education. Talk a bit about the role of Communication in those efforts?
There are many smart people in the world. There are also many people with good ideas. But there are very few people who can sell those ideas or can advocate on behalf of others. For some reason, that skill is rare.
I want young people and my students to gain those skills and understand the role of Communication. Those skills were at the center of everything that I did, from raising money for scholarships or advocating before the legislature for some additional dollars, making the case for new degree programs, or testifying before Congress in Washington. Those efforts did not call for me to explain the idea but for me to convince the legislature, the donor, or whoever that they should have confidence in me and the university, and they should give us money to do good work.
What I share with my students is that without good Communication skills, you're not going to effectively represent your community. When you have those good ideas, give them a way to reach an audience, the world, or the people that you're trying to help.
4. When you observe the field and its future, what’s needed to interest more students in making Communication an area of academic study and a career pursuit?
I think what’s missing in how we describe our field is the word leadership. We talk a lot about the skills that are needed, but not what you can do with them. In a course I titled “Latina Leadership,” for example, I asked students to tell me why they were taking the course. Interestingly, they tell me that they have always been the person in their family who is asked to be the advocate. They proceed as if this will always be the case, and they want more skills, not just for the sake of gaining Communication skills, but because they think they are always going to be advocates or that they're naturally advocates.
I also think what we're missing in the field is the notion of what you do with these Communication skills. Imagine if you teach a surgeon anatomy or how to cut without saying the skills you’re learning should be used to help save lives. You can change the trajectory of someone's life because of the skills that you’re teaching and they’re acquiring. Perhaps this is my naive approach to how we attract people to the field. It's got to be for some reason that you learn these skills.
5. What Communication research, writing, or other projects do have underway?
My research includes doing what I'm doing with you right now. That is trying to understand how it is that you have an impact. I'm already at work on writing three things; one is my memoirs because I keep getting asked about them. Another piece I’m writing about is how we built a 20-year partnership between the university [The University of Texas at Brownsville] and the community college [Texas Southmost College], and why it represented important and innovative work. The third thing I am writing about is how we built this new university, UT Rio Grande Valley, and a new medical school.