Diana Natalicio stood on the patio of the UTEP Dinner Theatre in the Student Union.
To her right was the 100-year-old Old Main, among the first buildings in the storied university. Straight ahead sat the Lhakhang Cultural Exhibit, the colorful centerpiece of the Centennial Plaza built by Bhutanese craftsmen and gifted to UTEP.
All around, students – the majority of them Hispanic – zoomed by as they headed to class at the now Top Tier doctoral research university.
Further out, two giant construction cranes moved swiftly as the future five-story interdisciplinary research building rises from the ground.
“This is it right here,” Natalicio, donning her iconic hair bun, said when asked about her favorite spot on campus.
Perhaps because it’s there that she could see the past, the present and the future of the institution that she led as university president for 31 years before retiring in August.
At UTEP she saw a diamond in the desert, a community filled with potential and promise, and a shifting demographic she knew to be the future of the nation.
Under her leadership, UTEP and its students reached new heights.
She’s served on countless prestigious boards and organizations, including the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Rockefeller Foundation and the National Science Board.
And she’s earned every accolade imaginable – from the city’s highest civilian honor, the Conquistador Award, to being named among Fortune magazine’s Top 50 World Leaders.
She’s never rested on her laurels, Natalicio said, echoing a phrase common in her commencement and convocation speeches.
“You can’t have high aspirations or set high expectations without weaving a path to reach them,” Natalicio said.
“It may start with a dream, but you have to have confidence and courage, and the willingness to work hard. We did that here.”
Natalicio coined the phrase “access and excellence,” interweaving goals that have become a model of success in higher education and given UTEP national prominence.
At the heart of that success over three decades has been Natalicio, who was named among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2016.
“Natalicio was ahead of her time,” Julian Castro, then secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, wrote in the magazine, “seeing the future of America in the faces of her students.”