Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas El Paso, is El Paso Inc.'s person of the year. She says she will donate her $1,000 prize to UTEP's scholarship fund.

“I don’t think there’s any better investment than talented young people,” she said. “The yield on the investment is just terrific.” 

Natalicio’s selection is appropriate, the editorial board felt, because it’s becoming obvious to all that her focus on excellence the past 15 years has gradually transformed the university into an increasingly research-oriented institution with national and global ambitions.

UTEP’s impact on the El Paso economy always has been significant as a pathway for local students to enter business and the professions. But under Natalicio’s leadership, the university is poised to make serious and sustained contributions to the nascent high technology and entrepreneurial sectors of a burgeoning regional economy.

Natalicio became president in 1988 after serving as vice president for academic affairs, dean of liberal arts, and chair of the modern languages department. 

While she’s been president, UTEP’s enrollment has grown to nearly 20,000 students, reflecting the demographics of our region, and UTEP’s annual budget has tripled, from $80 million to $240 million. Recently the school was designated as a research/doctoral-intensive university. 

UTEP’s externally funded research expenditures have grown from less than $5 million to more than $35 million a year. There was one doctoral program when she became president. Now there are 14. 

To accommodate steady growth in enrollment, academic programs and research, the UTEP recently completed a $50 million facilities expansion program, the largest in its history. 

Natalicio serves on the board of trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation, the board of governors of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation for Science, and the board of trustees of Internet2. 

She has served on the NASA Advisory Committee (NAC), and was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as a member of the Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Initially appointed to the National Science Board by President Bill Clinton in 1994, she was re-appointed to a second term in 2000 and serves as the board’s vice chair. In addition, she is a member of the board of directors of Sandia Corporation, Trinity Industries and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. 

In recognition of her success in building strong partnerships between UTEP, El Paso Community College and school districts in the Paso del Norte region, Natalicio received the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education in 1997. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999 and is the recipient of honorary doctoral degrees from Smith College and the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon. 

A graduate of St. Louis University, Dr. Natalicio earned a master’s degree in Portuguese and a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin.

Since most people are aware of her achievements and the recent growth of the university, El Paso Inc. talked to Natalicio about her early life and her basic philosophy.

Q. Tell us about your youth in St. Louis.

My dad’s name was Bill and my mom’s name was Jo. My dad was a fairly innovative guy, and he had this little retail business; my mom was a homemaker who never worked outside the home.

Neither one of them went to college. My father finished two years of high school; my mother finished high school. They didn’t go to college, and I think that was always a disappointment to both of them. So they instilled values in my younger brother, Bill, and me that education was important.

I grew up in South St. Louis, in a middle- to lower middle-class neighborhood. Our family had a nice little house. This was just after World War II, America in the 1950s, the Eisenhower era, when people were optimistic and believed that a lot of good things could happen. I certainly had a fairly stable childhood. All my friends had two parents and the moms stayed home. It was a different time. 

My father had a retail dairy business with a fleet of six trucks. He was a small businessman, basically. He got milk from farmers on the Illinois side of the river – Bellville, Centralia and all those places. He was very proud of the fact that he was one of the first small dairies in St. Louis to get a Grade A rating for pasteurization. This was in the 1930s. I was not born then, but I read about it in newspaper clippings. 

They would deliver milk in glass bottles to homes. He also had a retail store that sold milk, cottage cheese and butter.

But he didn’t sell ice cream – that’s probably why it was so boring for me to work there. From about the age of 10 on I worked in the store. I remember the cash register was high on the counter, and it was one of those old registers where the keys would go way down. You had to get above it in order to push down the keys, but I wasn’t tall enough. So there was always a conflict between trying to get my hand above it, and not having the drawer hit me in the face. 

Q. What about your early schooling?

I went to a pretty good elementary school, but my high school was definitely sub par. It was a high school that served a blue-collar population, and it did not set high aspirations for its students. The highest aspiration was that the young men would go to work for unions in the trades – electricians, plumbers. The general assumption was that they’d become apprentices when they graduated, and then they’d go on to become journeymen and they’d do their jobs. That’s pretty much what the boys were programmed to do, and the girls were programmed to marry and become homemakers like their moms.

Q. How did you break out of that mold?

Well, it’s not clear to me. I think I was really lucky in a lot of ways because I took typing and shorthand in high school, and when I graduated, it was in January, I went to work for a big manufacturing company in St. Louis as a secretary.

I took shorthand, I typed, and I operated a switchboard like Lily Tomlin. From January to about June, I was learning new things, but then it gradually dawned on me that I didn’t want to do that forever. 

I decided I wanted to go to college. I talked to my parents about it and they were very enthusiastic, and I had earned enough that I could pay the tuition.

I chose St. Louis University because it was closer, and I could get there on the bus and by streetcar. I didn’t have any guidance, nobody in high school ever talked to me about applying for college. A very small number of my fellow high school graduates went on to college. I think maybe seven out of 115 or so. The expectation just wasn’t there.

Q. St. Louis University is a Jesuit school. Did they entice you to into certain classes, or did you just naturally follow your nose?

What they did was scare me. In my first-year classes were young men who’d gone to St. Louis University Prep School, and I immediately recognized that I was out of my league in terms of what they had read, the kinds of critical thinking skills they had been helped to develop. In all respects my high school experience and theirs were on two entirely different levels.

That’s an affinity I have with many UTEP students, because I understand how hard it is when you arrive at school and realize your peers are far better prepared for this experience than you are. I had to work hard in order to get to the point where I felt comfortable participating as a student. I didn’t feel worthy at all when I got there. 

Q. From what I’ve read, you had a proclivity for language, though.

Well, I actually took Spanish in high school and I liked it. I’ve always liked languages. And I have a good ear for language, so I majored in Spanish at St. Louis University, primarily because I liked it, and because it was the one thing that I felt initially that I could compete in. I was way behind in math and way behind in literature and way behind in a lot of things, but I could compete very well in Spanish. 

Eventually I came to appreciate the scholarship of the Jesuits in a way that was profound. I began to understand there are people for whom scholarly activity is a life. It became apparent to me that they were wonderful models for something that I liked. I loved learning. It was a great epiphany for me, that people like the Jesuits devote their lives to scholarly activity, and teaching and learning and such.

Q. Did you talk to your parents about the process you were going through?

I did. They worried about that I was working so hard, because I was driven by the idea that I had to catch up. But by the time I graduated I was in the honors program, and I graduated summa cum laude, and I ended up with a wonderful set of options that St. Louis University created for me, which included a Fulbright fellowship to Brazil.

I had never really traveled. I’d not been on an airplane; I’d not spent time away from home. I’d been a commuter student like so many UTEP students.

I remember my parents took me to the airport in St. Louis, and this was a big deal for our family, because I’d never been away from home. I was walking out to the plane – there was no jetway in those days, just the tarmac. And I had these huge carry-ons. And my knees were buckling, partly because they were heavy, but partly because I was scared. I was so frightened, thinking what am I doing?

And I remember thinking, as I was walking toward the plane, you know I could turn around right now and go back and my parents would still love me and it would all be OK.

But somehow you just put that one foot in front of the other and you go do it. And I did. It was in many ways the best year of my life, in the sense that I saw a world that I didn’t know anything about, and it really opened my eyes. I learned that however it is that one perceives the world there are thousands of other ways to look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions and interpretations. It was an extremely valuable lesson.

Q. Was there a point when you first became aware of UTEP?

When I finished my doctorate in linguistics at U.T. Austin, the University of Texas El Paso was one of the places that had a faculty position that seemed interesting. This was 1971. My friends in Austin were somewhat disdainful and suggested that El Paso was the last stagecoach stop to nowhere. They didn’t know a thing about it, they had never been here, but graduate students are real smart.

I came out here, and thought I’d stay maybe a year. But after about two months teaching I was totally hooked. I just loved these students. I thought they were great. And they were great because they were the kind of students who were here to work toward a better life. They were not in class to be entertained. They were not spoiled. They were just earnest working-class people who wanted a better life. I have tremendous admiration for that. 

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