President Joe Biden on Thursday presented Juliet V. Garcia, the longtime former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
Garcia was honored along with 16 other Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients including Simone Biles, Gabby Giffords, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and former Arizona U.S. Sen John McCain, in the first such ceremony during Biden’s presidency.
Garcia pioneered the partnership between UT Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which in 2013 merged with Pan American University in Edinburg to form the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and later the UTRGV School of Medicine. She served as TSC president from 1986-1992, when she assumed the presidency of UTB-TSC.
She stepped down as UTB President in 2014 when UTRGV was formed but continues to serve as a UTRGV professor of communications.
“Over two decades she turned her hometown University of Texas at Brownsville into a center of excellence for countless students who were inspired by her example,” a White House spokesman said as Biden hung the medal around Garcia’s neck. “A trailblazer and mentor, Dr. Garcia is considered one of the top university administrators who understands the power of education as the great equalizer in America.”
Garcia’s granddaughter Julieta Rico, who is completing her doctorate at the University of California at Los Angeles, remembers going with Garcia to work at her office in Gorgas Hall on the UTB-TSC campus as a child.
Rico said she went practically everywhere with Garcia back then and now is extremely proud to see the grandmother after whom she is named receive recognition for her accomplishments as an educator and university administrator at UTB-TSC and now UTRGV.
“She would take us to her office with her and we would play on her whiteboards. She would take us to meetings and to plays. We were always with her,” Rico said as she waited in line Thursday morning to get into the White House for the ceremony.
The entire family, uncles and aunts, children and grandchildren, attended the ceremony, seated across from the recipients and next to the lectern from which Biden presented the awards.
William F. Strong, also a UTRGV communications professor and well known for his “Stories from Texas” podcasts on National Public Radio, worked alongside Garcia as a UTB-TSC vice president during her tenure as president.
Garcia hired Strong at TSC. He said he would watch Thursday’s ceremony via the White House YouTube channel.
“I’m very proud of her and proud to be her friend,” Strong said. “In my opinion we wouldn’t have a university campus, a UT university campus in Brownsville if it weren’t for her devoting her life to that cause, and by default, without UT-Brownsville existing I don’t think we would have UTRGV as it exists today.”
Strong credited Garcia’s leadership with helping the Valley find the political will upstate to merge UTRGV’s two legacy institutions.
“I always say that Dr. Garcia to me is ethos personified. She is a highly ethical person who has great passion for giving opportunity to people from this region who wouldn’t otherwise have it. I think it’s spectacular that she’s getting the recognition nationally that she absolutely deserves, and it’s good for the region to see that we have people from the region that are recognized nationally,” Strong said.
Michael Aldape, who is completing his doctorate in higher education leadership at UT-Austin, worked in Garcia’s office in Gorgas Hall as an undergraduate.
“I think it’s incredible,” Aldape said of her receiving the Medal of Freedom. “She’s beyond deserving of the recognition. She’s done incredible work for our community. For me personally as a student, I have benefited greatly from her work when I was an undergraduate, and as a graduate student at UT-Brownsville then. … It’s no surprise to me that she’s getting this award.