Juliet Garcia, the First Latina University President, Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Juliet Garcia BELatina Latinx
Image courtesy of AP.

Amid the political turmoil in the country, we celebrate the recognition of our Latino leaders — especially Latinas — who finally seem to be receiving the honors they have long deserved. A case in point was the presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Juliet Garcia, the first Latina university president.

On Thursday, July 7, Garcia received the award in the East Room of the White House, becoming one of only 20 Latinos to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The award is given to those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

And Garcia more than deserves it. The Latina is the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville — the first Latina to be president of a U.S. university — and oversaw the school’s merger with the Pan American University of Texas to become UT-Rio Grande Valley, which today ranks third in the nation in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Latino students.

As reported by Latino Rebels, Garcia dedicated her efforts to get more funding for higher education for South Texas Latinos while encouraging representation and access to education through scholarships and competitions.

“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.”

Juliet Garcia had just finished gardening in Brownsville when she got the call from the White House, as she told the Texas Tribune.

“My husband said, ‘Tell her you’re honored,'” Garcia 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.”

However, this leader is very clear about the mission and how to do it.

“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 told the media. “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.”