When she was a young adult, Martha Garcia found herself a single-mother with not much in the way of opportunity. But that didn’t stop this self-made woman from rising to the helm of Imperial Valley College, something she hopes inspires young Latinas everywhere to strive for greatness.
“That is my message … that I want to be an example. That, yes, you can. Sí se puede,” Garcia told Valley Women during a recent interview at her IVC office.
Garcia, Ed.D., became the ninth superintendent/president of IVC on July 1. She also became the first woman to lead the college, and one of about six Latinas who lead colleges in California.
Garcia succeeded Victor Jaime, Ed.D., who retired June 30 after 38 years at the college, including the past seven years as superintendent/president.
Garcia may be considered the equivalent of a CEO of a major company. She oversees a staff that is approaching 450, and well over 8,000 students projected to enroll for the fall semester.
Out of poverty
Garcia’s parents were migratory farm workers who emigrated from Mexico, so her childhood was by no means posh.
“My parents, both of them came from Mexicali,” Garcia said. “When my father initially came here, he was migrating. As we were growing up, he stopped doing that to be with his family.”
Garcia, 40, was born in Calexico, and raised in Brawley where she attended the public school system.
“I am very grateful for the public education that I received in Brawley,” she said. “At that time, I was attending what would be considered the schools in the lowest socio-economic area of Brawley. However, they were my foundation to where I am at now.”
Garcia graduated from Brawley Union High School in 1995, and attended IVC — earning her associates degree in 1997. She was the first generation in her family’s history to earn a college degree.
Not yet satisfied, Garcia began attending San Diego State University-Imperial Valley to earn a bachelor’s degree — not in education, but in criminal justice administration, something she completed in 1999. She had hoped to pursue a career in law enforcement, but ultimately that would not be her path forward.
“I had registered for a master’s in forensics, and planned to continue in that field,” Garcia said.
But, Garcia learned, there were only two highly competitive positions in Imperial County where her degree would be useful, meaning she probably would need to relocate to a larger city to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“I was a single mom. I was only 21 years old [and] my support system was here,” she said. “My parents [and] my brothers were here. I said, ‘What am I going to do with a baby in a large city with no support system and starting a career?’ It seemed too difficult for me at that time.”
“I decided to change [programs of study] to educational counseling,” Garcia said. “I really believe I was destined to become an educator because it wasn’t my plan.”
It was a throw of the dice, Garcia said, something virtually picked at random from a list of majors.
“I didn’t have a mentor” at that time, she said. “I didn’t know a counselor that could guide me, a first-generation college student [and] daughter of farm workers.”
So, Garcia decided to go with her instincts.
“This is what my gut was telling me. I went with it.”
Success, she continued, “takes being a risk taker to a certain extent. There are calculated risks and sometimes risks that you take” fully aware of the ramifications “in order to advance. They are necessary.”
However, the decision to pursue a career in education “was a risk that wasn’t even calculated, because I did not know,” Garcia remarked. “I just [thought], this is what I think would be a better field, being that I am a single mom struggling in poverty trying to really create a future that would help me be self-sufficient and ensure that I could offer my son what he deserved.”
Her son, Gerry Pinela Jr., is now fully grown and will attend IVC in the fall, Garcia said.
Rising through the ranks
Garcia has been employed at Imperial Valley College since 1999 and has held several positions in Student Services and Academic Services. Before being named as superintendent/president, Garcia served as Imperial Valley College’s vice president for Student Services, and since January had also been acting vice president for Academic Services.
Before becoming an administrator, Garcia was responsible for developing and coordinating a $5.8 million California Career Pathways Trust Grant that enabled IVC to create a Peace Officer Standards and Training Level One Academy. She also developed a multitude of categorically funded programs that focused on serving minority and underrepresented students, securing more than $14 million for IVC since 2009.
Garcia was among five finalists for the position of superintendent/president, ultimately winning approval and breaking the glass ceiling at IVC.
“There are [about] 114 college presidents in the state,” she said. “Less than 25 percent are females, and it is assumed I am the sixth Latina college president.”
Furthermore, “I believe that I am the youngest female college president,” Garcia said.
That outcome is not typical for young Latina daughters of migratory farm workers who are first-generation college students and who were unwed mothers at 21, to boot.
“All those statistics say I should not be here, and yet I am here,” Garcia said, “and I just want to be an example for the students, the community, that yes you can. Sí se puede. And, it all started here because this was my only opportunity for higher education. Imperial Valley College was my gateway to a doctorate, and it all started here.”
A unique and caring perspective
Having risen from poverty to success here in Imperial County, Garcia said she has a unique understanding of the plight first-generation college students have to overcome, especially children of migratory farm workers.
“For those families, we understand there is an even greater challenge because they are relocating, usually to the Central Valley,” she said.
Garcia is living proof that the sky is the limit, no matter what background or race a person originates from.
“I never imagined I would achieve a masters, much less a doctoral degree,” she said. “Only about 1 percent of the population of the United States has earned that degree, or equivalent to that degree. It is achievable for anybody when you are ready to put in the work required, and the commitment.”
Garcia said that in addition to dedication and hard work, a person must also love the career path she has chosen.
“Whatever is success for them is really what matters, because you have to love what you do,” she said.
“If you don’t love it, you won’t be happy. It is important to love what we do, and when we love what we do, then you give it your all and, yes, I spend a lot of time here, but I love it.”
IVC is a second home of sorts for Garcia, she said.
“It is!” she said gleefully. “I make it feel like it is. I spend many hours on this campus, and I love it, and we are seeing results. I am not saying they are only my accomplishments. They are the institution’s accomplishments.”
Garcia said it is her policy to help remove barriers that might be preventing potential first generation students from attending, and succeeding at, IVC.
“Obviously we will follow the law and follow regulations, policies and so forth,” she said. “But, if we are placing barriers on students, we are making it more difficult. I am talking about barriers because [some] institutions create certain policies that will … make it more difficult for a student to persist. My priority is we eliminate institutional barriers for students to ensure that we enhance our education achievements for students who have historically been underrepresented.”
Garcia noted that 90 percent of students at IVC are Latino.
“When we look at statistics, Latinos are still lagging in comparison to other ethnicities, and we here, I feel, as a community could strive to do whatever we can to enhance our education achievement rates,” she said.
Out of about 180,000 people in Imperial County, “about 14 percent of the population has achieved a bachelor’s or above,” Garcia said. “In comparison to the state, we are behind because the state is at about 30 percent. I am committed, personally, to do whatever I can to enhance that higher education achievement rate.”
For the 2017-18 school year, IVC awarded 1,337 degrees and 716 certificates of achievement, Garcia said.
“My goal is to increase completion numbers by 15 percent in the next three years,” she said.
And it is not only typical college students Garcia wants to enliven, but those on the fringe of society as well, including prison inmates.
“We are talking about social justice,” she said enthusiastically. “We are here to make society a better place to live in. What greater contribution to a population that, yes ,they’ve made choices, but many times have been forgotten?” she asked.
“When you look at the research, it indicates that the more education they receive while incarcerated, the probability of them returning is greatly diminished. I am proud to say that this institution is contributing to the improvement of humanity in general, regardless of who it is.”