'We are forever indebted to her': Former UTEP President Diana Natalicio dies at age of 82
Diana Natalicio, the 10th and longest-serving president of the University of Texas at El Paso, died Friday at the age of 82.
Natalicio helped shape UTEP's presence and growth in the Borderland region and the Southwest over a 31-year career and fought for underprivileged students to have expanded access to higher education.
When Natalico took the helm of UTEP in 1988, about half of the university's 14,000 students were Hispanic. Today, 83% of students are Hispanic and approximately 49% are first in their families to attend college.
Natalicio remarked to Texas Monthly in a 1998 article: "You draw 84% of your students from El Paso County, you should look like the county."
Natalicio, who was also the first female president of the university, retired in 2019. Her time in office was the sixth-longest of any public doctoral/research university president in history at the time of her retirement.
Bill Siedhoff, Natalicio's brother, said Friday that his sister loved El Paso and UTEP's students.
"She loved the weather, the mountains, the food and the wonderful people," he said in a statement. "She had a great and accomplished life. She loved UTEP and most of all, she loved UTEP’s students. They are what drove her life’s work and what provided her greatest satisfaction."
Natalicio was named President Emerita by the University of Texas System Board of Regents in August 2019 after she announced her retirement.
She received the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2011, the highest honor given by the Mexican government to a non-citizen, was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in 2016 and was named one of Fortune magazine's Top 50 World Leaders in 2017.
Diana Natalicio dies at 82:Here's what El Paso leaders said about the former UTEP president
UTEP President Heather Wilson, who succeeded Natalicio in 2019, said in a statement that Natalicio defied critics who said it was impossible to increase access to higher education to everyone while offering a high-level educational experience.
"The Miner family has lost a great advocate and leader who devoted her life to making a difference in the lives of others," Wilson said. "Our hearts go out to all of those whose lives she touched. We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and celebrate her legacy of access and excellence that lives on."
During Natalicio's tenure, the university awarded more than 91,000 degrees and just months before her retirement, UTEP was designated an R1 research university, placing it among the top 5% of universities in the nation for research.
She increased the Latino population by 16% in a decade. During her tenure, UTEP's annual budget increased from $65 million to nearly $450 million and the number of doctoral programs grew from one to 22.
Just before she retired in 2019, Natalicio told the El Paso Times it was difficult to get support for the idea UTEP should reach into the El Paso community for talent.
“Our alumni were mostly Anglo. They were worried we’d become, I don’t know, an exclusively Hispanic institution,” Natalicio said in an April, 2019, interview with the El Paso Times. “I don’t know what they were worried about, but I kept telling them we’re going to become a better university because of it. And that’s the way it’s turned out.”
UTEP's student body is now 83% Hispanic.
Before serving as president, Natalicio served at UTEP as vice president for academic affairs, dean of liberal arts, chair of the modern languages department, and was professor of linguistics.
A Missouri-native, Natalicio attended public schools in the city and later earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish from Saint Louis University. She started out as a secretary who performed typing and dictation while studying in college.
Natalicio studied Portuguese in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship and was recruited to the University of Texas at Austin as a teacher's assistant, later earning her master's degree in Portuguese in 1964 and a doctorate in linguistics from UT Austin in 1969.
She was the first person in her family to attend college and when she came to El Paso in 1971 as a visiting associate professor, may not have guessed she would become president of a small university with almost 15,000 students 17 years later.
UTEP's enrollment grew to more than 25,000 students during her time in office.
On the 100th anniversary of the university in 2014, Natalicio reflected on the previous 26 years she had served at the university and looked ahead to UTEP's future.
She emphasized a point evident throughout her career; her commitment to uplifting students who would face more challenges seeking higher education than their peers.
"We would prefer that particularly for first generation students from this community, that they have a college experience, that they come to the campus and develop leadership skills," Natalicio said.
"Providing students with the kinds of experience that their more privileged peers in more affluent settings have, study abroad and civic engagement and internships. All of those things we have to work hard to provide our students in a custom format so they can actually participate."
Memories, well wishes shared by El Paso leaders
Memories and well wishes poured in from El Paso leaders after news spread of Natalicio's death.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said in a statement Natalicio was more than the president of UTEP, she was someone who made a difference in a lot of lives.
“It is a sad day for El Paso. Dr. Natalicio was an incredible human being who dedicated her life to UTEP and to the thousands of students whose lives she changed for the better. I will always be grateful for her friendship and her counsel.
"She made UTEP the tier-one university it is today, and she made El Paso shine bright throughout the world. She will be greatly missed and always remembered. Thank you, Dr. Natalicio. I can imagine you in heaven now going: Go Miners.”
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar tweeted El Paso was forever indebted to Natalicio and referred to the longtime educator as a mentor.
"Dr. Natalicio was fearless in her pursuit of excellence and her vision transformed my alma mater UTEP and our Borderland," Escobar said. "We are forever indebted to her."
Texas Sen. César Blanco, also a UTEP graduate, tweeted a statement, saying that generations of UTEP students benefited from Natalicio's vision and leadership.
"... I can say with confidence that she was a pillar of our community and she will be dearly missed," Blanco said.
To honor Natalicio for her service, UTEP tweeted the university's Mining Minds sculpture would be illuminated in blue and orange to honor her for the next 31 days — one day for each year Natalicio dedicated to her beloved university.
In her pre-retirement interview, Natalicio said a 2016 health scare convinced her she should began planning for the future of UTEP so that it would continue strong without her.
“None of us is going to live forever. It’s not only about that,” Natalicio said in 2019. “It’s about your responsibility to hand it off with the confidence that the baton is going to be handed off, and the next leg of the race is going to be run successfully.”