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Juliet García had just finished gardening in her backyard in Brownsville when she saw she had two missed calls from a Washington, D.C., number.
She returned the calls, and a White House staffer told her that President Joe Biden wanted to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Garcia is the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Latina to become the president of a college or university in the United States. She joins the ranks of previous recipients of the medal including the late John Lewis, Meryl Streep, Maya Angelou and Babe Ruth.
“My husband said, ‘Tell her you’re honored,’” García said in a phone interview with The Texas Tribune. “I am never at a loss for words, but at that moment, apparently, nothing was coming out.”
A Mexican American native of Brownsville, García first served as president of Texas Southmost College in 1986. In 1991, Texas Southmost merged with the University of Texas at Brownsville and she became president of UT-Brownsville.
García served as president there for 22 years and played a critical role in the merger of UT-Brownsville and the University of Texas Pan American to create the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which was approved by the Legislature in 2013. She decided not to apply for the top spot at the new university and led a new center called University of Texas Institute of the Americas until 2016. At that time, the University of Texas System decided to change direction and tapped her to be the chancellor’s adviser on community, national and global engagement.
She currently serves as a communications professor at UT-Rio Grande Valley.
“Juliet has enriched the lives of many Rio Grande Valley students, from elementary to college,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in a statement. “Her contributions to higher education in South Texas and beyond are long lasting and have created pathways of success among a new generation of Latino leaders.”
García, who is now a professor at UTRGV, told the Tribune that she and her husband had always wanted to focus on improving education in South Texas.
“The work in South Texas, on the border, is hard to do. It’s very easy to decide to pick up and go elsewhere,” she said. “To get to do it in your own hometown where generations before you have not had access and you’re able to be part of something that flings those doors open is just a privilege. For me, that’s the biggest gift.”
García said during her time as president, she’s most proud of fighting back against the federal government when it wanted to build a border wall on campus, which sits inches from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I had to walk the walk,” she said. “We were teaching our students to become advocates and I was an advocate for education, but now I had to be an advocate outside of the normal arena of the work that I usually did.”
Ultimately, the two sides agreed that instead of an 18-foot border wall, the federal government would build a 10-foot green fence with white pillars.
“It’s not intrusive and it did not attack the philosophy of our mission, which was to work across geographic boundaries, political boundaries, across the world,” she said.
García is one of 17 people to receive the medal of freedom during Biden’s presidency.
The group of honorees announced today also includes Houstonian gymnast Simone Biles, soccer player Megan Rapinoe, gun safety activist Gabby Giffords and actor Denzel Washington.
“Juliet Villarreal García personifies the American dream. As the first Mexican-American woman to lead a U.S. college or university, Dr. García has been the inspirational force behind countless individuals who made public service their life’s work and students who realized their academic potential,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken said in a statement.
Disclosure: University of Texas System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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