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Alumna Sandra Garcia fights for education equality

09.14.2023 | By: Valerie Spears

Education has the power to transform lives, but the determination to succeed can be an even stronger force, capable of altering the course of an entire family and extending its influence in the community. And it can all start with just one person making the decision to persevere, no matter the circumstances.  

Alumna Sandra Maria Garcia '02, '09 has worked hard to improve not only her and her family’s lives, but also inspire students in our community to pursue higher education. 

Garcia was the first-born child of her family, who lived in a small village in Mexico. She remembers her dad working in Fort Worth while her mom stayed in Mexico to raise her and her siblings. 

“Unless you planted crops, you wouldn’t have anything to eat,” she said. “There were lean times when there was no work, even in construction. I remember being hungry.”  

One of her brothers started getting sick, and in search of assistance for his family, her father decided to move everyone to Fort Worth. They were able to take her brother to the hospital, where it turned out he had a kidney infection and could have lost his life.  

Garcia’s mother pushed her children to get an education, but the family faced issues being undocumented immigrants. The children were taken in by a church where they were taught English. However, Garcia was able to pick it up faster than her other siblings, which gave her the role of secretary for her dad as he worked. 

“The first thing my mom wanted us to do was get registered in school, but we were told no,” she said. “There were a lot of families singled out. We started school a year later than normal. All my siblings had to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in a special school, so they were isolated.”  

Garcia became one of the first undocumented students in Fort Worth ISD after the supreme court ruled that the U.S. couldn’t deny students a free public education based on their immigration status.  

In high school, her class had over 600 students, making it hard for Garcia to get college counseling. She applied to the University of Southern California and Texas Christian University, getting accepted to both. But due to her father being in an accident, she decided to go to TCU to stay close to home.  

“I didn’t get a lot of financial aid, even though I was in the top 10,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of opportunities like there are now. So, I worked three jobs and tried to keep a good GPA. It was hard. 

“But nobody told me not to do all that. No one was around to see — it was just me. My parents didn’t know anything about college. I had to navigate all that by myself.”  

But something didn’t feel quite right to Garcia, and with juggling the jobs, school and helping her family, she decided to leave TCU after one year for Tarrant County College. She attended TCC for another year before ultimately ending up at Texas Wesleyan University.  

At TXWES, she took night and evening classes so that she could continue working to help support her family. She also attended PTA meetings and school open houses for her younger siblings. She wanted to make sure they did well in school and graduated.  

Twelve years later, she graduated from Texas Wesleyan with her bachelor’s degree in international business. 

“We were told that the only way for us to get ahead was to get an education,” she said. “It took me forever to finish my degree. But it doesn't matter how long it takes — as long as that piece of paper is on your wall, people can't hold it against you.”  

It was that same mindset that helped Garcia also obtain a master’s degree in management from Texas Wesleyan University, despite hearing from others that she didn’t need to do it. The degree helped her land a promotion — which is what she had her eyes on when looking to further her education. 

Seeing the effect that getting a higher education had on her life, she also started working with nonprofit organizations like MANA, a national Latina organization, and the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas Latinas in Progress program. She served on several boards that work to promote equity, public education and college readiness and has been involved with the Young Women's Leadership Academy Foundation, Texas Wesleyan University President's Advisory Board and Juntos Se Puede. 

Through her work, she’s helped several Latina students and their families understand the value of education and become a mentor to them as they went to college.  

“I always made it a mission, especially for my community, [to help others see it’s] important to get an education,” she said.  

In Mexico, even though there is free tuition at public schools, parents are often responsible for paying enrollment fees, classroom supplies and more. Garcia says this puts a barrier on lower-income families to send their children to school.  

“I think it was a blessing that we ended up here [in the United States] for public school. People may say that public school isn’t the best — but that’s often what many can only afford. And I'm a proponent of taking advantage of every opportunity that you get.”  

Her work in the community hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was recently honored with the Heroes for Children award by the Texas Education Agency. The award is “designed to recognize excellence in advocacy for education and to highlight the many outstanding volunteers whose efforts represent significant contributions to public school education in Texas,” according to the TEA’s website.  

“I really didn't think anything big about the award. I do what I do because I like it. I have a passion for education and going to school boards fighting injustice and fighting for equity,” she said. “I never [needed] an award for it. I just felt like it’s something I should do.”  

When she reflects on how education made such an impact on her life, she says it wasn’t always an easy task, but one she wanted to do for her family.  

“I always felt that I had a purpose, especially being the oldest. I was trying to set the bar. I may not have been perfect, I may have made mistakes, but I always tell my brothers they can’t say I didn’t set the bar,” she said.  

Now, Garcia’s thinking about setting that bar even higher as she starts to look into getting her Ph.D. to teach at the collegiate level – even as she continues to help Hispanic and Latin families understand the importance of their children’s education. 

“I think the advantages are so much better now, but there are needles we still need to move,” Garcia said. “More education of the parents of how to be involved [in their students' education] and help promoting education.”  

Want to work in bilingual education? Check out our bilingual education degree and meet Dr. Patsy Robles-Goodwin, a professor who is also working on education equity by desigining programs for Spanish-speaking parents to get involved in their children’s school.