Meet the first Hispanic woman to serve as a U.S. college president

From a young age, Juliet Garcia knew that education was the most important thing.

“I grew up in a family who lamented not being able to study [at university],” she said. “Whatever college was — and we didn’t know what it was, my brothers and I — we knew it must be really wonderful.”

She would eventually earn higher-education degrees and become a luminary in the field. In July, Garcia was one of 17 people to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Biden at the White House.

“Believing education is a cornerstone of our democracy, she created a culture of excellence, affirmation, and intellectual curiosity for generations of students,” said Biden, “many the first in their families to go to college and who see their American Dream through her and because of her.”

A leader in her community

Garcia was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas — a small town on the Texas-Mexico border. Her father, a Mexican immigrant, and her mother, a fifth-generation Texan from the area, worked hard to provide for the family, saving every penny for their children to attend university.

Juliet Garcia leaning against bannister at side of outdoor plaza (Courtesy of UTRGV)
Juliet Garcia, seen here in 2011, served as the president of the University of Texas at Brownsville for 20 years. (Courtesy of UTRGV)

Garcia saw those dreams realized when she received undergraduate and master’s degrees in speech and English from the University of Houston. She earned a Ph.D. in communication and linguistics from The University of Texas at Austin and became a professor.

“I knew I could teach, and I enjoyed it, but things needed fixing and I couldn’t do it from that place,” she says. In 1986, leading Texas Southmost College, she became the first Hispanic woman to become a college president in the United States.

Starting a university for everyone

While president, she oversaw the merger of the college with the University of Texas. The move made the community college part of the state school system, founding the University of Texas at Brownsville, and allowed more people to receive a high-quality education in the small border town.

Juliet Garcia and college graduates posing outdoors in academic robes (Courtesy of UTRGV)
Juliet Garcia stands with graduates in Brownsville, Texas, in 2004. (Courtesy of UTRGV)

Garcia says the merger was the pride of her career because it made education accessible to more people who were holding down multiple jobs but wanted technical training to become nurses or engineers.

“In essence, we uncovered latent potential,” she says. “There was nothing wrong with the people here. But they didn’t have an opportunity and all of a sudden, they had an opportunity to go to college.”

After 20 years, the board of the university voted to dissolve the university and turn it into the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Today, Garcia hasn’t stopped teaching. She continues as a professor of communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and loves being back in academia.

“I believe my experience [as a university president] makes me a better teacher,” she says.