When Yolanda Arriola first met a certain 16-year-old young man in her GED program years ago, he was using drugs heavily.
The young man went to prison for a few years. Because Arriola had kept in contact with him, she was the first person he saw when he got out.
She gave him a chance and hired him. He continued his education and finished his master’s degree. Arriola said he is now one of her most important directors at what is now Southwest University, where she serves as CEO and president.
“He’s my hero,” Arriola said. “In times of trouble, I always think of him. If he can do it, anyone can do it.”
Motivated by young people who needed support from a caring adult, Arriola established the Quick Study Learning Center to help them get GEDs. When she realized a GED wasn’t enough, she began Southwest University, a private university that now enrolls some 1,700 students a year.
“I love seeing young people come through these doors and leave confident and sure of themselves. We help those who need a bit more help in flexibility and understanding. It’s always about changing lives,” Arriola said.
That love of helping young people has gone past the university’s doors. Arriola has worked with and helped a number of organizations, including Dame la Mano, Child Crisis Center of El Paso, El Paso Children’s Hospital, Aoy School, and currently, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Tom Lea Institute.
Southwest University serves as the title sponsor of the El Paso Downtown ballpark, and recently made a notable donation to the El Paso Children’s Hospital – the largest private gift to the pediatric hospital on record.
Friend and colleague Liz Uribe Sinclair touts Arriola’s generosity.
“She shares her home, family, wealth, everything,” Uribe Sinclair said. “She’s one of a kind. Everybody matters to her because she’s the most approachable kind, genuine human being.”
Arriola’s work also brought her a rare honor: Texas Small Business Person of the Year in 2016.
“She screamed at the top of her lungs when she found out,” said Cindy Ramos-Davison, CEO of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “She thought we were playing a joke on her. An El Pasoan hadn’t won in that category for more than 20 years.”
Arriola modestly gives credit to her adopted city.
“People here are caring and giving, and have taught me the same,” she said.
“I am blessed beyond belief because I get to work with people, make a difference, and change peoples’ perception of life,” Arriola said. “My goal for students is not just to learn math or anatomy, but to learn that life is worth living.”