A vision from the barrio (Part I): A&M-San Antonio’s inaugural president shares educational lessons and priorities
Editor’s Note: This is the first of three articles chronicling administrative and leadership transitions at A&M-San Antonio.
By Jacob Beltran
Living in a West Side house with dirt for a road in the 1950s, a tiny 11-year-old San Antonio Hispanic girl never even dreamed of a college education.
First came the gravel, then, even more exciting, asphalt on Buena Vista Street. Finally a curb and a sidewalk. The little girl could ride a second-hand bike her father brought just for her.
She heard the bells at nearby Our Lady of the Lake University ring each day, but did not think those sounds called her to more education.
Parents encouraged most Mexican-American girls back then to finish high school, if they could, and carry on as good wives, mothers, and grandmothers—vital, yet limiting, roles.
At 30, she was a divorced mother of two, living in a rental home for $50 a month on Martin Street, and facing a difficult future.
She traded her beat up bicycle for a used car her father bought and taught her to drive. She used it to get to her job as a nurse’s aide at the San Antonio State Hospital for mental health and retardation on 24th Street near Martin, working for minimum wage at $1.50 an hour.
One day, her mentor, Carol Tule, who worked there as a speech pathologist, approached her and asked, “Why don’t you go to college?”
Maria Hernandez Ferrier replied, “Because I’m not college material.’”
Tule didn’t take that for an answer, and paid for the Texas A&M-San Antonio’s future president’s first semester at San Antonio College.
At 73, sitting in her presidential office, with a view overlooking campus and the historically underserved South Side of San Antonio, Ferrier remembered her mentor and that moment, and fought back tears.
“It changed my life … That is one of the reasons that this job and this position with this university mean so much to me, because I see me in our students. I know what education and hard work can do.” Her voice deepened and she pressed her index finger hard against her desk.
“It’s always faith in God, that’s primary, and education.”
By the time this university’s next interim president takes office Jan. 12, 2015, Ferrier will have already settled into her downtown office and embraced a new role with the Texas A&M University System.
Her next career step requires her broaden her scope, use her diplomacy, and forge new collaborations on behalf of the Texas A&M System. The university’s inaugural president, a Hispanic faith-driven woman with a life anchored in education, will vacate her seat Dec. 31.
Her new objective: To serve as director of development and Mexico relations, a newly created division within the System.
Faculty, staff and students have adjusted to the news that Ferrier will change jobs, made publicly during a 10-minute administrative meeting Sept. 5. But the real adjustment will come in early January, when Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, the sole finalist and university’s interim president, begins shaping the university’s next era of growth and development.
Chancellor John Sharp announced Teniente-Matson’s position Dec. 6 following a telephonic meeting of the Board of Regents.
For Ferrier, December means finishing projects, transitioning A&M-San Antonio into a new era of growth, and diving into a new job. For the university community, December brings a sense of anticipation and wonder about what will come next under new leadership.
Last steps before changing jobs
Ferrier ranks accreditation as both her top priority and the most difficult task during her presidency.
As part of her transition to working downtown in a newly refurbished office at the university’s Educational and Cultural Arts Center at Market Square, she said her last accomplishment will be to usher the university through the last steps of separate accreditation granted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
In her new role, she will establish relationships with key Mexican businesses, educational institutions and industries. She will also generate Mexican, as well as American, funding sources for new projects, and develop faculty exchange programs, and partner with Mexico in areas of interest.
These program goals form part of a new System effort to broaden its educational reach within its diverse neighbor to the south, Mexico.
In September, the Texas A&M System signed an agreement with Yucatan, Mexico, to become the first international academic partner in SIIDETEY, the Mexican state’s expansive research consortium
The consortium promotes technological development and economic competitiveness for the State of Yucatan with projects focused on water use, agriculture, education, architecture, veterinary medicine, geosciences and marine biology.
When Ferrier starts her new position, she will take the lead on projects the university has already launched and create a few of her own.
“It means working with all of our presidents as we look together at the work they’re already doing with Mexico, and then looking at the opportunities for deepening and expanding the work that we’re doing with Mexico,” Ferrier said.
While getting used to a new position will come with its challenges, Ferrier is well accustomed to transition. From a windowless office at a former elementary school, to the recently completed Frank L. Madla Building, to the presidential suite on the fourth floor of the Central Academic Building, she’ll be making one more transition downtown, growing another part of Texas A&M.
Editor’s Note: We corrected the floor that the presidential suite is on. The suite on the fourth floor, not the third.
Tomorrow’s article on administration transition at A&M-San Antonio, published Dec. 9, will provide insight on Ferrier’s leadership style during her four years as president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio.