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Fronteras: From the first Latina college president in the U.S. to the Presidential Medal of Freedom — trailblazer Juliet García reflects on her career

Juliet Villareal García led higher education in the Rio Grande Valley for more than three decades.

García served as the former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, becoming the first Mexican American woman to lead a college or university in the U.S. She is currently a communications professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

García was instrumental in creating a partnership between Brownsville's local community college and the University of Texas System.

She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000 and was named one of the Top 10 College Presidents in the U.S. by Time magazine in 2009.

Fortune magazine also named García one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2014. She joined that list along with Pope Francis, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and former President Bill Clinton.

García marked a new milestone on July 7.

She was among 17 Americans — and two South Texans — who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House.

She recalls receiving the news that she had been chosen to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“I was, like, speechless,” she said. “And I'm never speechless.”

García has always seen herself as a professor who wanted to change the education system.

She explained what inspired her to climb the academic ladder. “I became frustrated at an organization that didn’t work well and I wanted to improve it,” she said. “I felt like if I could just be in charge, I could fix things.”

Watch the video of the Presidential Medal of Honor ceremony here. Click here to see García receive her medal.

Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1