Martha Garcia comes to College of the Desert from Imperial Valley College, where she was superintendent/president for the past several years.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NATE ABBOTT
Martha Garcia, a first-generation college graduate who rose through the ranks and became superintendent/president at Imperial Valley College, has taken the top job at College of the Desert. Now, Garcia is laser focused on the school’s expansion, enrollment, and safety of students, faculty, and staff as the COVID-19 pandemic continues coursing through the Coachella Valley. Palm Springs Life asked Garcia about her path to leadership and hopes for COD. — Steven Biller
What qualities do you think propelled you into the leadership of College of the Desert?
What distinguishes me from other CEOs, in general, is my own story. I’m a first-generation college graduate, proud daughter of farmworkers, and have achieved success at a level that I never imagined I would have the opportunity to achieve. Frankly, that continues to be the story of many students. I recognize my commitment is to serve all, but I’m especially driven to go above and beyond to support the students who experience major challenges in life, to diminish the barriers so they can achieve their goals and ultimately achieve self-sufficiency, support their families, and impact future generations.
What motivated you to go to college yourself?
My father and mother emigrated from Mexicali. I remember my father would always state that the reason they came to this country was to ensure that their children had opportunities that were not afforded to them. My father started working when he was 9 years old and my mom [when she] was about 12 or 13 years old. They started working at such a young age because the families were enduring tremendous poverty, and they were helping their parents support the family. It is with that mindset that I knew that I needed to take advantage of the opportunities that this amazing country offers to everyone, and that led me to enroll at Imperial Valley College.
How did you find your way into educational leadership?
I was destined to be an educator, but I never assumed that I would become a college president, much less of the community college that afforded me my only opportunity to pursue higher education. My bachelor’s degree is in criminal justice administration, an area that I perceived would lead to self-sufficiency, which it would have. However, life happened and I became a single mother at age 20. I had registered in a master’s program in forensic science, and I was told that I would have to relocate to obtain employment in that field. As a single mother whose support system was my parents, there was no way that I could relocate. I decided to change my degree to a master’s in educational counseling. By doing that, I was afforded the opportunity to work as a part-time counselor at Imperial Valley College at a very young age. I fell in love with the profession. It made me realize that this is where I belonged and where I was destined to serve.
Do you think access has been an obstacle for many students?
That is definitely something that I’m interested in. I admire the commitment that College of the Desert has demonstrated to afford access in Thermal, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Springs. Cathedral City will focus on the automotive technology program, and there are discussions in Coachella. I’m committed to continue and to dive into ensuring that we’re supporting our students as best as possible.
How do you walk into this massive expansion and manage it?
Frankly, it’s excites me. We are extremely grateful to the community for supporting the bond and being committed to the expansion. One of my first priorities is determining where we are with the expenditures and how much are we anticipating that these projects will cost, and then bring that information to the board and to the community so that we are transparent.
I’m also very interested in ensuring that, as we attempt to continue to increase our face-to-face courses and interaction, that everyone’s safe. That is another priority.
Thirdly, we recognize that there has been a decrease in enrollment. So, we go back to access, we go back to expansion. How are we going to recapture and also attract new students? So, as I’m entering the role, those are my top three priorities.