Boldness at a border university

Diana Natalicio leads UTEP in achieving twin goals of ‘access and excellence’

EL PASO, Texas—Diana Natalicio, recently named one of the 100 most influential people in the world, hopes the honor causes a little dissonance in the minds of people who care about higher education.

She wants observers to wonder why Time magazine placed her, the longtime president of The University of Texas at El Paso, on the 2016 list alongside household names such as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Pope Francis and Angela Merkel, and Caitlyn Jenner and Leonardo DiCaprio.

More specifically, she wants readers to think about the education prospects of the country’s growing Hispanic population and about social justice on college campuses.

“I’m very eager to change the national narrative about the role of higher education in society, because all of the trends appear to be going in the wrong direction,” Natalicio said in her office on the rocky, desert campus she’s led since 1988. “We are so hindered and constrained by these mid-20th Century values and assumptions and prestige rankings that hold us back from being adventuresome and setting bold goals to change the trajectory for low-income students.”

Natalicio’s formula—“access and excellence”—powers the mission for the 23,500 students on UTEP’s campus, located within shouting distance of the Mexican border. On the access side, the university works closely with the city’s nine school districts to develop talented students who may not have the financial resources to attend college.

On the excellence end of the spectrum, the robust research environment Natalicio has built provides financial and academic fuel—to the tune of about $270 million in grant funding in 2015. Research brings in top-quality faculty to provide students with learning opportunities equal to those found at elite institutions, she says.

“Nothing much has changed for the poor over last 40 years. The low-income students who come into a university have every right to expect that we will create excellence for them because, more than anybody else in our society, they don’t have other choices or other pathways to get at what the excellence side of this equation provides.”

Dumping a switchboard for Dante

Natalicio felt unprepared for college as a first-generation student. She blames her predicament on inadequate instruction from a St. Louis high school that steered blue-collar boys toward careers in factories—and prepared female classmates to marry them, she says.

After the initial excitement of landing her first job—operating a switchboard for a big industrial firm—the dull repetitiveness of the day-to-day routine drove her toward higher education.

When she enrolled in Saint Louis University, she felt she had to study twice as hard as other students did for every test. And she worried constantly about failing, as many of the other students in her classes had graduated from more rigorous high schools. “I was very intimidated,” she says. “They talked about Dante, and I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Leader at a glance

Diana Natalicio, a native of St. Louis, president of The University of Texas at El Paso since 1988

  • Undergraduate study: Saint Louis University
  • Graduate degrees: Master’s in Portuguese and doctorate in linguistics, both from The University of Texas at Austin
  • On the way up: All at UTEP—vice president for academic affairs, dean of liberal arts, chair of the Modern Languages Department and professor of linguistics
  • Outside the institution: Has served on the boards of the ACT, Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, Sandia Corporation, American Council on Education (chair) and Internet 2. She was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans and by President Bill Clinton to the National Science Board.
  • Places she’s traveled: “I’ve been everywhere,” she says, including all around the desert Southwest, to the South Pole and on a safari in Tanzania.
  • Biggest hobby: Baseball. She’s a big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and El Paso Chihuahuas (local minor league team), hates designated hitters, used to play catch all the time, and still dreams of being appointed commissioner of Major League Baseball.
  • Favorite music: Scott Joplin’s ragtime jazz, which she also plays on the piano
  • Favorite exercise: Hiking in the desert. She once visited the University of Rhode Island; when she got home, she realized some of the views from her favorite hikes were “bigger than Rhode Island.”

Intensely focused on her coursework, she did not participate in extracurricular activities. She also worked part-time as a secretary—a job for which she had been prepared by high school instruction in typing and shorthand, she says.

But she graduated in the honors program and earned a Fulbright scholarship to study language in Brazil—a trip that involved spending her first night away from home and taking her first plane ride. The cultural experience sparked the type of growth she hopes to provide for UTEP’s first-generation students.

“It really transformed my life because I saw a world I never expected to know and I saw it in great depth,” she says. “By the time I came back from Brazil, I was a totally different person with far greater self-confidence because I had made it on my own.”

Near the end of her time in Brazil, Natalicio was recruited by the chairman of the language department to join The University of Texas at Austin as a teaching assistant in Portuguese. She later spent a year and a half in Portugal and finished her doctorate in linguistics at UT Austin.

She first came to El Paso and UTEP as the “trailing spouse” of a faculty member. The city, the sprawling Fort Bliss Army base and the neighboring cities of Juarez, Mexico, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, are home to a few million people. It’s an unheralded yet global metropolis, separated from Texas’ other big cities by wide stretches of desert and divided by a busy international border.

The vibrancy of the border, and the ability to move back and forth between countries, is one reason she and many others stay in El Paso—which statistics have shown to be one of the safest big cities in the U.S., she says.

“People get media versions and political candidate versions of the border, which are so extreme and so preposterous and so unfair,” she says. “It’s not the border I see, and worst of all, they’re demonizing Hispanic people. I just get outraged.”

Connection with K12 breeds success

When she began teaching at the university, Natalicio quickly realized the institution had to adapt to better serve students who struggled financially and who faced competing priorities of jobs and families.

“I knew there was much more that a university needed to do in order to work with a population that was historically undereducated and underestimated,” she says.

In 1991, she led the formation of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, bringing together leaders of the city’s nine school districts and its community college.

“Our goal was to raise aspirations, raise educational attainment and eliminate achievement gaps between ethnic groups,” she says, adding that such a vertically integrated working group is rare.

The collaborative, which meets bimonthly, digs deep into data. If, for instance, a particular high school is sending just a few graduates to college, Natalicio and other higher ed officials will meet with administrators to determine the reasons—which often have to do with poverty and job and family obligations.

At the same time, the university’s research shows that students who work more than 30 hours per week—which many at UTEP attempt to do—are also less likely to stay in school.

In response, about 2,500 on-campus jobs have been reserved for students so they don’t have to travel far between work and classes. Supervisors of the campus jobs are more sensitive to a student’s academic life and exam schedule, Natalicio says.

To enhance the curriculum, the collaborative compares how students in specific classes at each high school perform in higher ed, and it works to align public school curriculum with courses offered at the community college and UTEP.

As a girl, Diana Natalicio played baseball until the organizers of her neighborhood leagues stopped letting her on the field with the boys. And for much of her life, she still practiced pitching and playing catch.
As a girl, Diana Natalicio played baseball until the organizers of her neighborhood leagues stopped letting her on the field with the boys. And for much of her life, she still practiced pitching and playing catch.

The work has reduced the need for remedial education in the region. High schools are more aggressively testing students in their junior years to help them catch up before they graduate.

In addition, UTEP has merged many operations with El Paso Community College’s five campuses. For instance, the institutions share their admissions application and students can use the same financial aid to enroll in courses at both schools.

“You now see a very seamless transition,” says William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College. “It’s a national model for a two-year/four-year relationship.

Overall, the results have been impressive, Natalicio says.

In 1993, for example, few El Paso students performed well on state math tests, yet the substantial gap between ethnic groups “was unacceptable,” she adds. By 2013, those gaps had disappeared, and the area’s high school graduation rates are on par with other Texas metro areas.

UTEP, which doesn’t consider standardized test scores in admissions, now enrolls a higher percentage of low-income and non-English speaking students than do its peer institutions. And, Natalicio has achieved a demographic benchmark: The student body matches the makeup of the city. “We focus on talented high school students across the community, which naturally gives us a great academic mix,” she says.

Nearly two-thirds of local high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes enroll in UTEP.

Measure degrees, not graduation rates

Almost all of UTEP’s students apply for some financial aid, and 45 percent report a family income of $20,000 or less. The university’s tuition is lower than any of its peer, emerging-research institutions.

Natalicio decided UTEP could make up that financial ground through an intense focus on research funding that would also attract top faculty. Undergraduates are heavily involved in research projects, serving as assistants to professors.

“Our research goals were far more driven by our desire to ensure we were exposing our students to a high-quality educational environment at the undergraduate level than they were by the fame and fortune of being a big-time research university,” she says.

UTEP now spends about $90 million on research, and Natalicio wants to push that to over $100 million. Yet UTEP’s leaders are “sworn enemies” of traditional graduation rates that measure only the success of full-time students who enroll in the fall and complete their education at the same institution where they started.

Those standards apply to only 30 percent of UTEP’s students, who include many community college and military transfers, she notes.

It’s more valuable to look at the number of degrees awarded, and that number has doubled over the past 15 years as UTEP’s enrollment has grown by about 50 percent. The university not only produces some of the highest numbers of Hispanic graduates, but is also among the leaders in Hispanic graduates who go on to earn doctorates.

And corporate America, as it tries to diversify its own workforce, has noticed UTEP’s achievements, particularly in its engineering and computer sciences programs, Natalicio says.

“If you have a high concentration of Latino students, for example, you’re going to be on their radar screen, and that’s very important because companies also are quite interested in providing support—investing in labs, providing internships, and doing the kinds of things that we know are factors that contribute to degree completion.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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