Pledge to Educate: Diana Natalicio
Story By: Shellie Smitley
After three decades, Diana Natalicio continues to maintain sights in El Paso’s higher education
When it comes to opening doors and inspiring upward social mobility of Latino families, The University of Texas at El Paso, under the leadership of President Diana Natalicio, continues to rise to the occasion.
UTEP was included in a Brookings Institution study this year that looked at research institutions throughout the U.S. It was named as the leader in equal access to higher education based on a combination of research productivity and student social mobility.
Although Natalicio was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential leaders in 2016, and this year recognized by Fortune magazine as one of 50 top world leaders, she is quick to point out that she does not deserve all the credit for the university’s success.
“To me it’s always the team and what we have been able to do together,” she said pointedly.
It’s not just the faculty and staff that keep motivation high at the university located at the heart of the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, Natalicio credits the students over the past three decades with motivating her to reach out to the Latino community she feels driven to serve.
“They were eager to take full advantage of the educational opportunities that we offer at UTEP,” she said. “They were hungry for education (because) they knew how important it would be in their lives. It is such a privilege to work with students like that.”
Although Natalicio is not Latina, growing up in a blue-collar community, and being part of the first generation in her family to graduate from college, enabled her to emphasize with the socio-economic difficulties that many Latino families face. Reflecting on her own experiences, she dug deep into the financial issues that deterred Latino students from attending college. It instilled a passion for opening the door to higher aspirations.
“I have always believed that talent crossed all boundaries,” she said.
Latino students from area high schools, typically prone to enter the workforce after graduation, are recruited to attend UTEP. One of the major hurdles of the recruitment process is encouraging families that they can afford to have their children educated. Many parents have already lost hope.
“When they hear about the cost of attending more expensive Ivy League schools, they talk themselves out ofeven dreaming of higher education,” Natalicio said. She too is bothered by the rising costs of education in the U.S. Although UTEP strives to keep the cost of tuition low, it is no easy feat in light of declining state appropriations. It is an issue that keeps her up at night, she said.
“We see every single day on our campus students who have to make decisions about their education not based on how they are performing academically but what it costs, so money makes a difference.”
Natalicio’s down-to-earth approach is reflected in some of the services offered to the student body. UTEP goes above and beyond by offering emergency loans for life situations like car repairs. That emergency funding can make the difference between dropping out and graduating for some students.
“How sad (it is) to think that somebody’s life trajectory would be changed because they drop out of school for a brake job,” Natalicio said. “That’s just not the way it ought to happen.”
Education has long been recognized as a springboard for social mobility. Natalicio believes that earning a bachelor’s degree enables Latinos to overcome the stigma of poverty. A first-generation college graduate can give an entire Latino family an economic boost. That message is important to convey throughout the Latino community, she said. There is still a gap between the cost of higher education and the availability of resources for many Latino families, and that barrier needs to be addressed by society at large. Now, after almost 30 years of growth under her presidency, UTEP’s demographics closely match those of El Paso.
“We are giving students the biggest boost in social mobility that we can,” Natalicio said and pointed out that a college education is not just for the wealthy. “People cannot be afraid to raise expectations. Low expectations equal low results.”
While putting money aside for a child’s education is never a bad idea, Natalicio understands it is an unrealistic approach for many Latino families of very limited financial resources. The best advice she has for Latino parents is to talk to their children every day about going to college and to encourage high academic performance in high school. Dual enrollment essentially offers students access to the first two years of college free of charge.
In addition to dual enrollment, the best ticket to a college education is a scholarship coupled with financial aid. She admitted she personally donates to scholarships.
“I can’t think of a better investment, really, than investing in talented young Latinos,” she said. “We have to dream bigger and we have to help develop bigger dreams on the part of young people and low income families.”
Natalicio is proud of the 103-year-old university’s growth and progress and even more proud of the students who have overcome their fear of failure and reached for higher aspirations. The university and students, as a team, have made great strides in opening doors to upward mobility for Latino families. Eighty percent of the student body at UTEP is Hispanic and another five percent live in Mexico. According to New York Time columnist David Leonhardt, 71 percent of students who enrolled at the university in the late 1990s, and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution, have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution. Since previously thought of as a primarily Anglo university, one might argue that Natalicio’s presence has had a supernatural effect on Latino enrollment.
While her commitment to helping Latino students achieve their goals and dreams of higher education has paid off, there is at least one more problem at UTEP that Natalicio is striving to solve. The football team has not had one win this year.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand over athletics,” she said laughing.