Leveling the field (In memoriam: 1965–2013)
By Angela Curtis
Everything changed when Elizabeth M. Garcia’s father died after her sophomore year at UT Austin. She hadn’t been back at school long before she knew she wanted to leave. She was devastated by the unexpected loss, and she thought her 53-year-old mother needed help running the family’s convenience store.
Garcia, then 20, called her mother to tell her of her decision, and her mother arrived from the Rio Grande Valley the next day.
“My mother said, ‘You are going to continue your education despite your father’s death,’ ” Garcia recalls. “She said, ‘You’re not coming home, and I don’t need you at home.’ ”
Years later, Garcia’s mother told her the truth.
“She told me how difficult that decision was for her,” Garcia says. “She said, ‘Of course I wanted you home, but I wasn’t thinking of myself anymore. I was thinking of you.’ ”
Lorenzo and Ercilia Garcia had never gone to college themselves, but that didn’t matter to Ercilia. Elizabeth was going to finish her degree — for both of her parents.
“That’s the way your father and I wanted it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Ercilia told her daughter.
Elizabeth, the youngest of four children, finished her business degree in 1987. After working for two years, she attended law school at Texas Southern University in Houston, graduating in 1992. She began her legal career as a briefing attorney in Fort Worth, later moving to Austin to prosecute child support cases for the Attorney General’s Office. She went on to practice public finance for a small firm in Austin before returning to the Rio Grande Valley in 2003. She now represents insurance companies, businesses, and individuals at the law firm of Vidaurri, Lyde, Gault & Quintana, L.L.P., in Edinburg.
Garcia, 44, was born in McAllen, Texas, and reared in Pharr, graduating from PSJA (Pharr-San Juan-Alamo) High School in 1983. Now she wants other students from the valley to be able to attend UT, too. She has named the University the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, with the proceeds going to create an Endowed Presidential Scholarship in the law school. Like herself, recipients must be bilingual and from the Rio Grande Valley.
“They’re going to be entitled to a three-year education and not have any pressure worrying about trying to make ends meet,” she says. “Education should be a fundamental right. You should not be prevented from accessing an education.”
Garcia decided to give after watching the impact of the Hopwood reverse discrimination lawsuit against the University. In that case, a 1996 decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals halted affirmative action at Texas universities. That decision affected not only admissions but also scholarships and other financial aid. Within a year, minority applications to the UT School of Law dropped 40 percent as qualified minority candidates applied to other schools.
That’s why Garcia decided to create a scholarship for bilingual students from the valley.
“I thought if other alumni also contributed, you would be able to maintain a diverse entering class,” she says.
Garcia had barely started kindergarten when she decided she was UT-bound. At 5 years old, she heard her mother’s youngest brother talking about how much he liked attending The University of Texas at Austin, and it planted a seed in her mind. Years later, when it came time for college, she applied to UT only.
“I knew that this university was one of the best in the country,” she says.
The seed for law school was also planted young. She can’t remember why her father took her to the Hidalgo County Courthouse one day when she was 10 years old, but she remembers how she felt.
“I remember sitting there, and I thought, ‘This is great. There are people arguing back and forth,’ ” she says.
Garcia’s father explained what was happening among the litigants, and she was hooked.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” she says.
Later, when she understood more, she realized she could use the law to make a difference. “It’s all about making decisions that are going to affect people’s lives,” she says. “I like happy outcomes.”
Today Garcia practices law in the same courthouse she visited as a child.
She sees giving as a responsibility, especially for alumni. The spirit of giving matters more than the amount of the gift, especially in tough economic times, she says.
“I know everybody’s on a budget,” she says. “Just as we make accommodations for other activities or hobbies, I think you can discipline yourself to give back. Give so that others can have the opportunities you’ve had.”
Monday, April 17, 2017
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