At Smith College commencement on Sunday, Juliet García, the first Hispanic woman to run an American college or university, talked about how she found her strength.
García, who stepped down last year after two decades as University of Texas-Brownsville's president, was named one of Time magazine's 10 best college presidents in 2009. Under her watch, she said, the school's physics department added more and more Latino students. Now, the school ranks in the top five among universities graduating the most Latino physics majors.
"There is nothing wrong with the human capital in any of our communities that a little bit of opportunity can’t solve," said García, who now runs the UT Institute of the Americas.
Several life experiences that could have been considered setbacks -- including her mother dying when García was very young -- helped the former president become strong.
"Our lives are strengthened not by our accomplishments," she said, "but more often by our challenges."
Her power over the years, she said, grew with help from her family, the 40,000 UT-Brownsville students who graduated while she was president and "the great privilege of doing important work in my community on the southern border of the United States."
She also spoke about the support of her husband, whom she married at 19. García's father made him promise to make sure she got her bachelor's degree, and he stayed with her as she achieved that, along with a master's and doctorate.
García said she has felt tired of representing both women and Latinos in higher education, as she is often the only person from either category at events. But a colleague told her that it was her responsibility to represent them until others can take their place at the table, and she has honored that.
"We must use [the opportunity we have been given] to find our own strength and having found it, to become steadfast, powerful and incessant advocates for others," she said.