Conversation: Texas A&M-SA’s Founding President Maria Ferrier

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From left: A&M-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Ambassador Enric Panés, Consul Raul B. Rodriguez, and Instituto Cervantes' Anastasio Sanchez Zamorano sign the memorandum of understanding. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

From left: A&M-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Ambassador Enric Panés, Consul Raul B. Rodriguez, and Instituto Cervantes' Anastasio Sanchez Zamorano sign the memorandum of understanding. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Editor’s Note: On Jan. 1, 2015, Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the first president of Texas A&M-San Antonio, transitions to a new job with the Texas A&M System as Director of Development and Mexico Relations. In this position, she will create, build, and oversee relations with Mexico for all 11 universities of the A&M System and the 7 System Agencies. We connected with Dr. Ferrier to take a look back and a look ahead.

Rivard Report: Dr. Ferrier, you’ll go down in history as the founding president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, but everyone seems to know you informally and affectionately as “Maria.” It seems the best known people in San Antonio go by their first names: Henry, Nelson, Julián, Lila, Pop, Timmy, Manu and Tony, and you, Maria. May we call you Maria in this interview?

Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Maria Ferrier

Texas A&M University-San Antonio founding President Maria Ferrier

Maria Hernandez Ferrier: Absolutely.

RR: Maria, we want to share your long and distinguished career as an educator with our readers who might not know much about your humble beginnings as a teacher and as an anti-dropout advocate. Let’s begin, however, in the present. How did you come to be the president of a school that didn’t even exist?

Maria: I was working at Southwest Independent School District as the Executive Director of Federal Programs and Foundation when the Superintendent, Dr. Velma Villegas, asked me to accompany her to the ribbon-cutting of the new Texas A&M Kingsville System Center‘s home at the former South San Antonio ISD Olivares Elementary School. A few days later I was asked to send the System my resume. They were looking for someone who could assist in growing the System Center to a stand-alone university. After several phone calls and interviews, I was offered the position of Executive Director of A&M Kingsville’s System Center-San Antonio.

RR: So the last seven years have been quite a journey: from concept to temporary digs at Brooks City-Base to campus. Are you as amazed as the rest of us that in addition to UTSA, a second, four-year public university in San Antonio is taking shape? A&M-SA has just won an important accreditation, making San Antonio the only Texas city with both major public universities.

Maria: I began as executive director on April 1st (April Fool’s Day) 2008.  One of my goals as president was securing A&M-SA’s independent accreditation status.  I am so proud of our faculty and staff that worked tirelessly for more than three years to ensure that we were ready.  One of my proudest moments was when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accreditation team told me that not only had we received a perfect score but that the work we were doing with our students could serve as a model for other universities.

RR: The actual buildings, designed by Muñoz and Company, are handsome and reflect the heritage of early San Antonio and the Southside. You have hundreds of acres of empty land for expansion. How will the campus continue to grow over the next 5-10 years? Is there a master plan and a timeline? Can you tell us what A&M-SA will look like in 2020?

Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

Maria: When I arrived as executive director I learned that a master plan had been developed but at that time a mission statement had not yet been developed and was informed by way most university master plans had been developed.  So after I arrived we developed a mission statement, a strategic plan and a 10-year master plan, and just two years ago we completed a five-year development plan, given the fact that TRBs had been nonexistent since 2006. We are very grateful to Chancellor John Sharp and our regents for awarding the University the Permanent University Fund money to build our beautiful new Central Academic Building that brings us closer to realizing our 5-10 year plan.

We are optimistic that in this legislative session we will be awarded the funds to build a Science Technology Building on the main campus and allow us to bring all University programs onto the main campus.

Ballons are released into the sky during opening day at A&M-SA's new Central Academic Building. Photo courtesy of A&M-SA.

Balloons are released into the sky during opening day ceremonies at A&M-SA’s new Central Academic Building. Photo courtesy of A&M-SA.

RR: How do you think the university has changed the Southside and the attitudes and aspirations of families here who dream of their own children attending and graduating from college, an opportunity too few Southside families have had over the generations?

Maria: This is probably what inspires me the most.  Story after story by our students is a testament to what this university means to them. Our graduations are true celebrations of lives transformed and dreams becoming reality. We have had graduations when an entire family, parents and their children, have walked the stage to receive their diploma.

One of the many traditions we have begun is our Ring Ceremony. This is a time when over the University Seal, embedded in the ground in front of the main iconic building, a loved one places their sparkling new university ring on the finger of the graduate candidate. Often it’s a young child, placing the ring on a single mom or dad.  It is sometimes a spouse or a parent or grandparent.  Already the children in that family are thinking college. Doors are opened and mind sets are expanded to the hope of a new life – the American Dream within reach.

The Torre de Esperanza, the Tower of Hope, stands at beginning of University Way, the mile-long boulevard that leads to Texas A&M University-San Antonio from Loop 410. Lined with young trees and banners showcasing the university's core values of Excellence, Service, Commitment and Integrity, the drive offers visitors a view of the changing landscape of the Southside as the university's construction changes daily.

The Torre de Esperanza, the Tower of Hope, stands at beginning of University Way, the mile-long boulevard that leads to Texas A&M University-San Antonio from Loop 410. Photo courtesy of TAMU-SA.

The tower that beacons to the university is labeled “Torre de Esperanza” and that is exactly what the university is to thousands, hope. There are times when children accompany their parents to school. I love talking with them and asking them about their plans for college.  Almost 100% tell me that they are going to be Jaguars when they graduate from high school and indeed they will not be high school dropouts.  Their relative, more than likely the first in the extended family to attend a university, has broken through the academic glass ceiling and is an inspiration to an entire community.

RR: Do you agree the Southside is undergoing a transformation that includes not just A&M-SA, but also other developments, ranging from the bid for World Heritage status for the Old Spanish Missions to the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach to the Toyota manufacturing plant?

Maria: I remember when the city’s Southside was considered as an area without the ability to benefit.  How wrong were those who believed that and actually fought against an institution of higher education on the city’s Southside. Today A&M-SA is one of the fastest growing universities in the state and every year the number of graduates has increased. In the last six years we have graduated more than 6,000 students, even as we can only serve juniors, seniors and master level students. In addition to those you mentioned in the question, we are beginning to see new housing development. I believe that in the next five years we will see the beginning of a huge and rapid transformation of the Southside with the University as a centerpiece for academics and culture.

I am thrilled that last month I received word that the University has been awarded the State’s Historical Site Designation.  It was part of the Camino Real and actually played part in the American Revolution when Bernardo de Galvez sent cattle that grazed on our acres to provide food for soldiers fighting for our independence. I am also proud of our newly announced Instituto de Cervantes that is scheduled to begin on our campus this spring.

From left: A&M-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Ambassador Enric Panés, Consul Raul B. Rodriguez, and Instituto Cervantes' Anastasio Sanchez Zamorano sign the memorandum of understanding. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

From left: A&M-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Ambassador Enric Panés, Consul Raul B. Rodriguez, and Instituto Cervantes’ Anastasio Sanchez Zamorano sign the memorandum of understanding. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

RR: Do you think attitudes in the city are changing about the Southside and its potential and its attractions?

Maria: The Northside is wonderful but if you live out where my daughter lives in Timberwood Park, the traffic is really difficult to navigate. When time is a precious commodity, even with cell phones, it can really be frustrating. I think the city is beginning to take a new interest in what has been heretofore a diamond in the rough. In a few short years, this diamond is going to sparkle. The A&M System has a well-deserved stellar reputation and our students and others are proud to be associated with it.  Now with our separate accreditation, we will be able to offer programs that until that goal was met, were not possible.  We say that we focus on programs that meet regional needs with state-wide impact.  We have done a great job laying a firm foundation and our graduates are very successful, but now we have the opportunity to go into high gear with new programs and degrees.

RR: Early on, you helped define the university’s mission as a teaching school that would partner with area public schools and faculties. You decided A&M-SA wouldn’t just graduate teachers, it also would strive to improve public education outcomes in part by better teacher training and mentoring. How has that worked?

Maria: As you know, I have an extensive K-12 background, sort of unusual for a University President.  Yet an excellent K-12 education is the best predictor of success and is basic to the economic development for our city and state.  There are some reports that set the drop out at 30% and though this is an improvement, it is still terribly high. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority and yet are the least educated.  That is a tragedy for individuals and families but it is also tragic for our community. Our community colleges report that approximately 80% of entering students have to take at least one developmental class to be prepared for college level work.

In addition to my work in our public schools I served in both of the administrations of Presidents Bush #41 and #43 in the Department of Education. In this role I had the opportunity to travel across the country visiting schools.  There, like here, I witnessed that newly graduated teachers were not prepared to be successful in the classroom. At Southwest ISD, I saw the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Superintendent had to spend to prepare these newly graduated teachers for the classroom.  They should have been prepared during their work in college.

So the first thing I did when I arrived in 2008, is to visit the five school districts close the university and asked them to review our curriculum and to give us their perspective on what was missing.  They gave me a laundry list and then began working with our faculty to change the way we prepare our teacher students.

Pretty soon other superintendents had heard about what we were doing and called us. Today we are working closely with 11 school districts not only preparing teachers but at their request, preparing principals and superintendents.  We call our program Ready From Day One because our graduates are ready from day one.  They spend 18 months under one master teacher in one school district and their classes are taught by both our faculty and a best practice practitioner.

While we have no control and can’t do anything about the barrage of negative and unhealthy messages our kids are constantly assaulted with, we do have control over the excellence of teachers in the classroom.  If you ask students that had been identified as  probable dropouts but don’t,and you ask them what kept them in school, more often than not, they will say “a teacher.”  After all, kids are in school an average of six hours a day, nine months out of the year. I would dare say that for many students, that is considerably more time than they spend with anyone else.

Texas A&M-San Antonio

Arches and ornate tiles combine to offer welcome shade from the South Texas sun at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.i

At A&M San Antonio, there are no ivory towers, there are great faculty members who in addition to being extraordinary scholars are mentors with high expectations of their students. All three of our colleges work together for their success. We do not have walls between our College of Arts and Science and our College of Education.  Working together they ensure that both content and pedagogy are solid before our teacher prep graduates take charge of a classroom. We always say, if that teacher is not good enough for my children or grandchildren, that teacher is not good enough for anyone’s children.

We are thrilled that so many of our graduates are voted teacher of the year in their very first year.  In fact one of our special education teachers was voted the best special education teacher in Texas and represented our state at their national convention in Philadelphia in October of this year.

RR: You’ve talked about the vision for the campus. What’s the vision for the school? Do you think we will see the day when it rivals UTSA in size? If so, how about a football team? Will there be a new on-field rivalry between the two schools, or are sports programs not on the drawing board?

Maria: I was actually surprised when last year our students voted to approve a recreation fee on themselves.  Sports have a way of bringing a community together.  Having a team to cheer for and identify with adds a whole new dimension to collegiate life and the entire community experience and I want that for our students and graduates. I was very excited for Ricardo when the Roadrunners had their first game.  In fact we had a large group of our students that attended that game sporting T-shirts with “Jaguars for Roadrunners”  printed on the front.   Yes, there will come a day when A&M-San Antonio will be the second largest A&M University in the state and the big Thanksgiving game will be will be Jaguars vs. the Roadrunners and I plan to be at the first game!!

RR: You are hardly retiring. The Rivard Report has published a story about your future endeavors for the A&M System. Describe your new mission and job for our readers.

Maria: This is a new department in the A&M System.  In this position I will work with our Universities and Agencies to assist and facilitate their collaborations with Mexico where needed.  I will be looking at the areas of education, culture and possibly engineering, agriculture and medicine. During the first months I will be gathering information and working jointly with System Presidents, CEOs and faculty to develop a system-wide strategy for our work in Mexico. A&M is particularly well suited with its many university and agencies to work with our neighbor Mexico and its changing landscape. I am extremely excited about what we as a System are already doing there and the  possibilities for our next steps in that beautiful country, for many of us the country of our family’s history.

RR: Some of your friends and colleagues might question the wisdom of you taking on a new role that might involve extensive travel south of the border. Do you have any security concerns? When we read about horrible crimes like the disappearance and murder of 43 students, it does beg the question: Is anyone really safe in Mexico?

Maria: I remember being called to return to Washington right after 9/11 when many people were concerned about flying. I wasn’t, I had prayed and when this perfect peace came over me I knew that was the right thing to do and it was my purpose for that time in my life.  That is how I feel now.

RR: You have a great office overlooking the campus, but your new office will be right downtown in the former Museo Alameda, now the Educational and Cultural Arts Center. How has the university made use of this location since the City of San Antonio and A&M-SA reached the current agreement?

Maria: Over the past two years we have opened the doors to the Educational and Cultural Arts Center for a variety of cultural events, lectures, performances, and most notably in May of this year we opened our first exhibition, Contemporary Latino Art:  El Corazon de San Antonio with over 70 local Latino artists and more than 100 works.

When the City unanimously agreed to lease us this space, we made a commitment to the leadership and our community to stay true to the original mission of the Museo Alameda and continue to facilitate an understanding and appreciation of Latino arts and culture and their influences on the United States and we are proud to have accomplished that with our first exhibit, something we have done with a grassroots effort “call for artists to submit works,” a curatorial team of individuals with expansive reach in the community  and with free admission!  This inaugural exhibition embraced many young upcoming talented artists while respecting and honoring those that paved the way and broke the barriers that had for many years cast a shadow on their work.

Earlier this fall we opened Besos de la Muerte, Photographs by Dr. Ruben Cordova, curator and historian and an amazing one of a kind altar by Deborah Cortez, inspired by and honoring the children of the Mexican Revolution.  The exhibition also features the award winning documentary by Lionel and Kathy Sosa, Children of the Revolution.  This is a wonderful trifecta of work that will remain up until the first of February.

2015 will also be filled with exhibitions starting with the opening of Arte y Tradicion de la Frontera: The U.S.-Mexico Borderlands in the works of Santa Barraza and Carmen Lomas Garza openingJanuary 29.

In addition, when Univision closed their location on Cesar Chavez Blvd. they hand-picked the ECAC for the home of their downtown studio so that they could keep a downtown presence in the bustling Market Square. The studio is a prime location to spotlight the everyday happenings in downtown San Antonio and the Mercado.  Texas A&M-San Antonio communications students also have the unique opportunity to use this studio as a classroom where they gain hands-on experience in front of and behind the camera.

The Educational and Cultural Arts Center is in the heart of the Zona Cultural, designated by the City as the Cultural Zone

RR: Excited about working downtown? Did you see our story about Centro San Antonio’s push to designate the West Commerce Corridor as the El Mercado Zona Cultural?

Maria: Oh my goodness Bob, this is one of the most exciting initiatives that our city could take on – both for San Antonians and for visitors.  When people come to visit this beautiful romantic city, they want to experience our unique culture.  We don’t have a “zone” like, say, New Orleans, where you can find and experience the culture of the folks that settled there. I have to say that Jorge Cortez is a treasure for our community. His vision along with that of Jesse Trevino and others has definitely caught my passion.

Presently the folks that are working for State designation of El Mercado Zona Cultural as an official Cultural Zone continue to bring awareness to this amazing jewel of our City where so many different nationalities gathered for business and commerce and made San Antonio their home.  This is a place where people, work, live, shop and where tourist and residents alike are enlightened by the sights and sounds of San Antonio.  With my office for Mexico Relations located in this vibrant and historic site, I predict many more wonderful things to come.

The former Museo Alameda, now Texas A&M University-San Antonio's Education & Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy photo.

The former Museo Alameda, now Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s Education & Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy photo.

RR: For readers who have only known you as a university president, talk about the kinds of jobs you held starting out, and how you progressed over the years as your career developed?

Maria: Never in a thousand years could I have predicted my life’s journey. I truly believe in what Rick Warren calls “The Purpose Driven Life.” We were all born for a purpose, a purpose uniquely ours. As a 30-year-old divorced mother of a 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, I had a job as an aid in an MHMR child development center earning approximately $1.60 per hour. The wonderful woman in charge of the center, Carol Tuell, a speech therapist – now gone to be with the Lord – saw something in me I didn’t see in myself; college material. She believed in me so much that she paid for my first semester at San Antonio College. That one act of kindness and mentoring changed my life.

Since that time I’ve earned a bachelor’s and masters from OLLU and a Doctorate from A&M-College Station. I  have been a speech therapist, a counselor, an administrator, and worked for three U.S. presidents. I worked under President George H.W. Bush (“41”) as the Executive Director for Bilingual Education, under both President Bush 41 and President Clinton as a U. S. Senate confirmed Commissioner on the Commission for National and Community Service, and under President George W. Bush (“43”), as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education for the Office of English Language Acquisition. I’ve worked as the executive director of San Antonio’s City Year, executive director of Texas A&M Kingsville System Center in San Antonio, then as interim president of Texas A&M San Antonio, and for the past five years as president of this wonderful University.

RR: What do you think have been the most important changes on the education landscape as you look at San Antonio and the incredible growth of the city? Pre-K 4 SA? Anti-dropout initiatives, Teach for America, Communities in Schools, charter schools, in-district magnet schools, Alamo Colleges and workforce development programs, UTSA’s march toward Tier One status? All of the above?

Maria: I was very excited about Pre-K 4 SA.  I hope that everyone eligible will take advantage of this great gift.  I am excited about choice.  I think that charter schools, in district magnets, AmeriCorps programs, communities in schools all have their place to making San Antonio a great education city.  Different kids learn and thrive in different educational environments and I am excited that we are beginning to offer those. Our Alamo Colleges, especially their Academies, are truly filling the need for particular skills required at some of our businesses. And with Alamo Colleges, we are partnering on the $10K degree in Cyber Security.  I am very supportive of Ricardo’s march toward Tier One Status.  I am also very excited about the great applied research that our faculty and students are involved in.  This, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, needs two 4 year public institutions of higher learning. As you know, we are an upper level institution now but we are hopeful that during this legislative session, we will be successful in our request for downward expansion thus allowing us to begin accepting freshman and sophomores.

RR: You’ve seen the new study released by the Hispanic Chamber Commerce linking early childhood education to economic development. Do you share those views that the battle is won or lost by the third grade, with good readers prospering and those who can’t read proficiently falling behind and never recovering?

Maria: It is true that if a child can’t read by third grade catching up is really a challenge.  However, the battle is not lost.  We have proven over and over again that with a great teacher, kids can overcome.

RR: What would you tell a young person today seeking your counsel about a career as a teacher? I know at least one of your own children was a standout teacher who has gone on to become a successful independent consultant that helps teachers become better teachers.

Maria: I would say it takes both intellect and heart.  If you are hoping to get rich or just like having summers off or a convenient schedule, I would say teaching is not for you.  But if you want to be the teacher you want for your own children, I would say “go for it,”  we need you.  Our kids need you, our city needs you, our country needs you!  There is nothing more wonderful than touching a life and making a difference.  Great teachers can change a life, an entire community and when it’s all over, isn’t that the only thing that really counts?

RR: One last question before we wish you Feliz Navidad, Maria. Under your watch, A&M-SA amassed a serious collection of paintings by noted Latino artists, most of them from San Antonio. What importance do you see to a public university serving as a showcase for public art and as a supportive institution for local artists?

Maria: Bringing great art to our beautiful Southside was one of my goals.  These works of art speak to our students, there they see themselves, their families and their experiences on canvas displayed with pride for all to see.  They see that they belong – that their heritage is something to be proud of. They see their childhood” icecreamero,” their grandmother’s kitchen, their vaquero uncle, children in the barrio –girls playing jacks and boys spinning their tops.  It tells them, they belong.  This university is their home.  Their background, their experience is part of this wonderful county we call America.  Higher Education is for them and they are at their academic home. To me, great art elicits an emotional response.  It lifts the spirit.  I can’t tell you how many students have said “thank you.” This art, like this university confirms for them that they are important – that they are worthy and that the world is ready for them to take their rightful place as great  Americans.

RR: Thank you for the interview, Maria. Congratulations and let’s meet again after you’ve had some time in your new job.

*Featured/top image: From left: A&M-SA President Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Ambassador Enric Panés, Consul Raul B. Rodriguez, and Instituto Cervantes’ Anastasio Sanchez Zamorano sign the memorandum of understanding. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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