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Saturday, December 4, 2021

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Alumna Martha Garcia ('99, on the left), the first Latina superintendent and president of Imperial Valley College, with SDSU doctoral candidate Hossna Sadat Ahadi at commencement 2019. Alumna Martha Garcia ('99, on the left), the first Latina superintendent and president of Imperial Valley College, with SDSU doctoral candidate Hossna Sadat Ahadi at commencement 2019.
 


Martha Garcia: A Story of Courage and Conviction

How one of SDSU Imperial Valley’s biggest success stories overcame early disadvantages.
By Padma Nagappan
 

“If SDSU was not here, where would our students go to continue their bachelor’s degrees? They would have to leave the valley.”

When one hears Martha Garcia’s story, there are similarities with other Latinas who have made it despite challenging odds — farm worker parents who didn’t complete high school and spoke only Spanish, the first in her family to go to college, and a single mother. 

But when you learn she was pregnant when she transferred from Imperial Valley College to San Diego State University Imperial Valley, delivered her son at the end of her first semester but continued her studies without missing a beat, eventually completed an Ed.D, and became the community college’s first Latina superintendent and president, it adds layers of complexity to her journey to success.

As a single mother barely out of her teens, Garcia was determined not just to complete her bachelor’s degree but also go on to graduate school. With the aid of public assistance in the form of CalWORKS, and supportive parents who helped raise her son, she graduated with a degree in counseling in 1999. She then became a CalWORKS counselor at the community college and supported herself through graduate school.

“When I came to SDSU Imperial Valley, my goal was to achieve a bachelor’s. I felt that was already great and much more than what my family had, but when I took my first trip on a plane to San Francisco with my criminal justice club, I had experiences that opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I realized I should pursue a master’s if I wanted to make a greater impact,” Garcia said. 

She was set on a career in forensics, but realized the job opportunities available to her would take her out of Imperial County. Since she did not want to move away from her family and the support system they offered her son, she switched gears to counseling.

Humble origins

Garcia was born in Calexico minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border and raised in Brawley, the middle child between two brothers. Her parents immigrated from Mexicali, with her father having completed sixth grade and her mother ninth grade. 

She remembers her early years as difficult times. Her father commuted to work in the Central Valley at times, and sometimes to Coachella Valley, depending on where he secured work. He worked for Bermuda grass growers, so during hay season he would leave from dawn to dusk, come home to eat, sleep and go right back to work.

Her mother worked in tomato packing plants and grape orchards, which also called for an early start. So Garcia and her brothers would get ready and leave for school on their own, and return home and await their parents.

“We learned early that they needed to work this hard to provide us opportunities to achieve the American dream. They wanted us to persevere in life and I am who I am today because of the values they instilled in me,” Garcia said. 

Aspirations to rise

A high school counselor encouraged her to go to college and helped her with applications. An eager but nervous Garcia asked the counselor to talk to her mother and convince her. Decades later, she remembers exactly how things played out at home.

“At dinner that night, my mom made tortillas, served it and told my father I had gotten in to a university,” Garcia recalled. “Father very quietly said, ‘My daughter will study, but she is going to do it here.’ I did not argue or cry. I understood.”

Her father had just left a stable job to start his own business, and money was tight, so going locally made economic sense. 

At that time, she didn’t think beyond being the first to go to college and graduate. Dreams of higher education were sown by her mentors at SDSU. 

Garcia began commuting to National University in San Diego for an M.A in educational counseling while working at Imperial Valley College, in increasingly responsible positions in student services and academic services. She served as vice president for student services before being named superintendent in July 2018.

“My own experience helped me better understand the people I worked with, and I realized I needed a doctorate if I wanted to make a greater impact and be in positions where I could make those decisions,” Garcia said. 

She returned to SDSU, this time at the San Diego campus, to pursue her Ed.D. but continued to commute from Imperial Valley.

“I was offered opportunities but my heart is tied to my community, and I’m passionate about giving back to the community that has given me so much,” Garcia said. “I’m fulfilling a purpose, I know I’m making a difference.”

SDSU Imperial Valley as the equalizer

She emphasized that it’s important to recognize Imperial County is a rural community with tremendous needs, but it’s also a community with tremendous opportunity where higher education is the greatest equalizer that impacts social and economic development. 

Garcia focuses on removing barriers to access, and one of the college’s latest initiatives stands testament to her prowess. Thinking out of the box, the college has built Tiny Homes to house dozens of homeless students.

As an active SDSU Alumni board member, Garcia gives back to her alma mater by mentoring doctoral candidates and was the 2019 commencement speaker at the College of Education. Her son has followed in her footsteps to the community college and aims to graduate from SDSU with a degree in criminal justice.

Always an Aztec at heart, Garcia said SDSU Imperial Valley has a tremendous impact on the local community. 

“At Imperial Valley College, we serve a large percentage of first generation college goers and if SDSU was not here, where would our students go to continue their bachelor’s degrees? They would have to leave the valley,” Garcia said. “In reality many of our students would not have the opportunity if it were not here. I myself would not have been able to complete my bachelor’s, because it’s the only opportunity for many of our youth to graduate.”