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'El Paso was her heart and soul': Former students, UTEP employees honor Diana Natalicio

Cristina Carreon
El Paso Times

Lucia Esparza was in just the first grade when Diana Natalicio inspired her to go to college. 

The former UTEP president, who died Sept. 24 at age 82, visited Pasodale Elementary School in 1990 as part of the Class of 2001: High Hopes program created by Natalicio to encourage children to pursue higher education. 

"There's not that many events I can remember happening as a first grader, but that was one that stuck," Esparza said.

Esparza started attending UTEP in 2001 and was later a member of the first graduating class of the university's doctoral program in physical therapy. She met Natalicio on campus but it didn't click in her mind to remember their first meeting at first.

"I knew her about as much as a student could know her," Esparza said of Natalicio. She recalled being a freshman and walking up to Natalicio to introduce herself. "After that, she always remembered me, she always remembered my name."

When UTEP later hosted an event releasing balloons on campus, she reminded Natalicio of the event and the then-president asked her for a clipping from the front page of the El Paso Times on May 19, 1990, that included a photo of them.

Photo of Luisa Payan, 6, meeting former UTEP President Diana Natalicio at Pasodale Elementary during an event called the "Class of 2001: High Hopes" which was aimed at keeping kids in school.

"She was very interested when I told her the story, she said 'please find that newspaper clipping and send it to my office, I want to see that story,' she was I think tickled that someone would even remember, that (the balloon event) would leave a lasting impression of something that happened in first grade," Esparza said. 

Students, faculty and affiliates of UTEP often share common stories of the first female president of the university. Though she interacted with thousands, there are many accounts of those who felt Natalicio gave them her complete attention.

And with her drive to increase access to higher education, many, like Esparza, feel a great appreciation to a petite woman with an innocuous, simple hair bun who transformed a university.

"Dr. Natalicio was part of our universe and the beautiful part is that she was part of everyone's universe," former UTEP student Felipa Solis said. 

Natalicio prioritized helping immigrant students access higher education

Francisco Salgado García used to cross the U.S.-Mexico border everyday starting in 2001 to attend UTEP because it was affordable because of the PASE program, which provides tuition discounts so students from Mexico can pay in-state tuition. 

"It was a challenging time — 9/11 happened just two weeks after I started my first semester there, so there was a lot of uncertainty about if I was going to be able to keep crossing the border everyday to go to classes or if the border was going to be shut," Salgado García said.

Dr. Francisco Salgado García, spoke about his impression sof the late Dr. Diana Natalicio, former president of UTEP who passed away in September 2021.

Salgado García is now a clinical assistant professor and director of the Psychological Services Center at University of Memphis.

The Chihuahua City-native, now living more than 1,000 miles from the Borderland, said leaders like Natalicio are needed at universities across the country.

"I truly think that Dr. Natalicio helped a lot of students like me — Mexican students who wanted to have better education and also have a lot of social mobility," Salgado García said. 

After her passing, Salgado García posted to UTEP's remembrance page for Natalicio, writing:

“Thanks to Dr. Natalicio and her mission, first-generation immigrant students like me were able to access and afford higher education in an environment that was supportive of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and international students. I owe this woman the first five years of my higher education that set the stage to get my doctorate."

"I feel a great loss," Salgado García wrote. "The world has lost an excellent person.”

There are 982 students from Mexico attending UTEP. The university's total enrollment in 1988 was 14,056 students, 52% were Hispanic. In Natalicio's final year as president, the 2018-19 academic year, 81.5% of the university's 25,000 students were Hispanic, UTEP officials said Friday. 

Bhutanese student remembers Natalicio's dedication

Natalicio continued the university's friendship with Bhutan that was fostered by her predecessors, starting with the adoption of Bhutanese architecture on campus in the early years of the university.

Sonam Choki Lhamo remembers traveling from Bhutan to attend UTEP to study physics just as the Lhakhang cultural exhibit from Bhutan located at UTEP was nearing completion and the university was winding down celebrations marking its 100th anniversary.

University of Texas at El Paso President Diana Natalicio stands inside the Lhakhang cultural center located in the university's Centennial Plaza in 2015.

The Lhakhang was shown at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. in 2008 and afterward, was deconstructed and gifted to UTEP from Bhutan. The university unveiled the rebuilt cultural exhibit, which is in the style of a Bhutanese Buddhist temple, in the newly completed Centennial Plaza in 2015.

This would be one of the last major construction projects at UTEP completed under Natalicio's leadership.

Natalicio made sure students from Bhutan were taken care of during their stay in El Paso. Despite a busy schedule, she would often talk to and spend time with Bhutanese students at the university, said Lhamo, who was president of the Bhutanese Students Association for three years while attending UTEP and is now a high school teacher.

Former UTEP President Diana Natalicio (center) with former UTEP student from Bhutan Sonam Choki Lhamo (right).

Natalicio asked Lhamo's parents to stand in front of thousands of people during the 2018 commencement ceremony because she knew they traveled more than 8,000 miles to attend.

"It was such a surprise to me because nobody told me about it," Lhamo said. "That was one of the moments I will never forget in my life and that was one of the reasons why I really looked up to her."

Lhamo later organized a UTEP alumni event in the capital of Bhutan, Thimpu, more than a year later and Natalicio attended. Natalicio mentioned to the 20 or 30 UTEP alumni gathered in Bhutan that it might be the last time she would travel given her age, Lhamo said. The then-president met with Lhamo and her parents for dinner.

"That was the last time I saw her, and I wish I knew it would be the last time I would see her," Lhamo said.

Former UTEP student from Bhutan Sonam Choki Lhamo (left) with former UTEP President Diana Natalicio.

In an event organized by The King of Bhutan’s secretariat and held in one of the holiest temples in Bhutan's capital, a ceremony with prayer and the lighting of a thousand butter lamps was held in honor of Natalicio in late September in Bhutan.

The permanent representative of Bhutan to the United Nations posted to social media shortly after her death that Natalicio would, "always be remembered as a good friend of Bhutan."

UTEP employees remember Natalicio as trailblazer for women, always on call

UTEP employees and affiliates who grew friendships over time with the long-serving former university president recall their lasting impressions of Natalicio as someone who never shied away from devoting her time to help.

“I could email her in the middle of the night about something and she would answer me sometimes right after that and sometimes 5 or 6 in the morning," said Yolanda Chávez Leyva, a professor of history and director of the Institute of Oral History at UTEP.

"It meant a lot to me that she would engage with me when there were many levels of administrators between us."

Felipa Solis said she was impressed by Natalicio when she attended UTEP in the 1980s because she was dean of Liberal Arts at UTEP at a time when having a female dean of a college was not very common. Solis is now executive director of El Paso Pro Musica, a nonprofit chamber music organization at UTEP. 

"As a Hispanic female, I didn't see her as anything other than a woman who understood the plight of the Hispanic female at the time, she was a powerful woman making a difference and she was an ideal role model," Solis said.

Former UTEP President Diana Natalicio (left) with El Paso Pro Musica Executive Director Felipa Solis (right).

Natalicio seemed capable of being in multiple places at a time, of inspiring minds and of setting an example of what a university leader could do at home and abroad.

"There are people in this world who walk in a room and who are larger than life and that was Dr. Diana Natalicio," Solis said. "El Paso was her heart and soul."

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Cristina Carreon may be reached at ccarreon@elpasotimes.com and @Cris_carreon90 on Twitter.