Irma García: Blazing Trails & Scoring Success

It’s lonely at the top for Irma García. Since 2007, when she was named the athletic director at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., she has remained the first and only Hispanic woman to lead a Division I athletic program.

“I like where I am at,” she said recently. “I have been really blessed, though I wish there would be more females getting into this role.” If she has anything to do about it, then there likely will be others who follow in her sneakersteps. García proudly wears the distinction, using her experience to help shape legions of athletes into better, more well-rounded individuals before they head out into the post-collegiate world of work and greater responsibilities.

García first arrived at St. Francis in 1976 as a student-athlete and played on the women’s basketball team. Her strong defense won her a coveted starting role. When she graduated, she didn’t have to look too far. She became the girls’ basketball coach at St. Joseph by the Sea on Staten Island. And in 1988, she returned to St. Francis, then as the head coach of the women’s basketball team.

García received accolades, and after the 1997-98 season, she earned the Northeast Conference Coach of the Year award. Off the court that season, her team had the 23rd-highest grade point average among more than 300 Division I programs, and her students bested that distinction the subsequent year, when her team had the fourth-highest GPA among all Division I programs.

She turned in her coaching jersey in 1999 to serve as St. Francis’ associate director of athletics, a role in which she needed to handle fundraising and budgeting and which paved the way to her elevation to athletic director in 2007.

Irma Garcia

“Because of her experience with the college as a student, an athlete and a coach, as well as her administrative duties in the athletics department, Irma was the best-qualified person to become our next director of athletics,” said St. Francis College President Brendan J. Dugan. “The fact that she is a trailblazer for Latinas is an added bonus in several ways. It offers an example for the younger generation to aspire to and also gives our current and future Latino students a supportive and friendly face to help them adjust and succeed at St. Francis.”

García earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in 2001 in sports administration and is an active member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators (NACWAA), American Council on Education, and Minority Opportunities Association.

She’s been featured by numerous media outlets, from USA Today to ESPN to American Latino, a nationally syndicated TV show. She remains awed by all of the attention – the numerous awards citing her glass-ceiling-busting distinction. Recently, García was recognized as one of the recipients of the 2010 “Mujeres Destacadas Award” by El Diario La Prensa, the premier publication serving New York-area Latinos. And just over two years ago, in October 2008, she was honored by the not-forprofit organization MANA, which presented her with its Las Primeras Award at the White House. She sat down with The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine to discuss her role, vision for student achievement and future goals.

The Hispanic Outlook: You were honored at the White House as a 2008 Las Primeras Award Recipient by MANA for becoming the first Hispanic woman to run an NCAA Division I athletics program. What was that like?

Irma García: I didn’t know I was being honored at the White House. It was two combined events, and what ended up happening was that my parents were flying in to Washington, D.C., and I asked if they could come the night before, and then the part of the event was at the White House. I was really excited. But that was the night that there was a vote on the first stimulus, so there really was nobody around at the White House. Even the person who was supposed to give me the award couldn’t attend. I took as many pictures as they allowed me to. It was a day I will never forget because my parents were there. I am one of eight children. My dad worked two jobs, in the post office and as a carpenter. And my mother was a paraprofessional and a school crossing guard. They constantly worked, so they were unable to attend any of my basketball games. So this was a wonderful experience. I still have the pictures from that day.

HO: More recently, you received a 2010 “Mujeres Destacadas Award” from El Diario La Prensa. What did that mean to you?

García: They didn’t tell me what it really was until I arrived. When I arrived, there was a huge picture of Judge [Sonia] Sotomayor, and I was saying, “Oh, my goodness.” I had e-mailed her when she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and she answered back, which I thought was phenomenal.

HO: What did she say?

García: She thanked me and congratulated me as well. Once I saw the picture, I thought she was going to be at El Diario’s event. Instead, her best friend was the keynote speaker. El Diario’s event was interesting; they made us feel like princesses. They seated me with a high school student who wanted to go into athletics. They grouped people together based on their interest. It was just amazing. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez was at my table. I was so upset that my mom wasn’t there. She would have enjoyed sitting with so many Puerto Rican women at my table. We exchanged stories about Quinceañeras; they told us that today you are all princesses for the day, and gave us all little crowns. The only regret I have is that I didn’t invite my mother. She lives in Florida and, had I known more about the event beforehand, I would have flown her in to attend.

HO: Do you see yourself as a role model, and if so, what do you hope to convey to students, particularly Hispanic women?

García: Yes I do. When I found out that I was the first Hispanic woman as an athletic director, I could not believe it. I didn’t know what to do. I was like, “What am I supposed to do now?” At the time I was getting the award at the White House, Dr. [Frank] Macchiarola, the college’s president at the time and one of my mentors, allowed me to take part in a professional development seminar, NACWAA, because I was becoming athletic director. I learned so much in that seminar about administration, and who I am now, what I am supposed to be doing. At the end of the seminar, there were all of these gifts handed out, and in each gift was a word. The word I picked up was “inspire.” I became very emotional and cried because I realized that this was what I was meant to be doing, inspiring people. I took that and ran with it. That’s what I have been doing all along with Hispanic kids. It is important for me to reach out, to help Hispanic women and students. A few months ago, I spoke on a panel to female students and faculty. Many of these women do not know what is out there and what is available to them. It was important for me to speak and let them know they should get out there and go after their dreams. I try to mentor as many student- athletes as possible, not just female students. At the panel, there was a Latina woman who asked the question “How do I find a mentor?” I responded, “You just did. I will be glad to be your mentor.” It was important for me to reach out to her and other students, to tell them they can do whatever they want in life, and show them there are ways you can get things done and live your dream, because I’m living my dream.

Gracia with SWA

HO: What makes a good mentor?

García: You really have to understand the students. You have to understand what somebody needs. You have to be a great listener. To me, everybody has a story. When you hear their story, you can tell some of the things they need to tweak, make suggestions, be there for them. Everybody has a story; everybody has a struggle. Old, young. Everybody faces bumps in the road. If I can help them to see the whole picture and let them know how to get past the bumps in the road and not to take things personally, that can help. If we take things personally, we can never achieve our goals. There are always steps to take, and there is no substitute for hard work. That’s what makes a great mentor. You constantly repeat all of these things and show a passion for what you have. It can be very contagious. In my three years as athletic director, my day is full and constant, and it feels so good and rewarding to me when our student-athletes accomplish their goals. It is wonderful when you can make a difference. To me, mentors are difference makers. It’s a great achievement.

HO: So what is your typical day like?

García: I get up at 6:30. I don’t need a clock. I do a little bit of exercise, and I have a moment to reflect on what I need to do for the day. I usually take the train to work from Manhattan to Brooklyn. From the moment I get off the train, it may take me awhile to get to my upstairs office because I stop to say hello to so many neighbors on our block, to students, student-athletes and faculty. I have a wonderful staff; they are very young and full of energy. I meet with my senior staff, and we go over the day. I have an open-door policy all day. Even if I have a full day, the students come first, and the president of course! I attend many meetings and many games. I make every effort to attend every home game.

HO: How many students are involved in your sports programs?

García: We have between 180 and 200 in 19 sports. It’s important for them to see me and understand that I am in this with them. We just had a seminar for student-athletes on how to write a résumé. We had 75 kids signed up for this program. We just don’t teach them about sports. It’s not about the X’s and the O’s; it’s about many other things, and helping others so you can learn about who you are. I always think our student-athletes are going to get hired before others because they perform so much community service and understand the value of leadership and giving back.

HO: What types of community service are they encouraged to perform?

García: This is an integral component of every student-athlete. We encourage them to do community service and to give back. We are involved with the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. They work with New York Road Runners and Boys and Girls Club. And we did this wonderful event where we had 200 donors who donated shoes for 200 underprivileged kids. The kids did not know they were getting the shoes before the week of a basketball game. The donors came in and wrapped the gifts with our student-athletes and gave each kid a box with the shoes in it. You could see the look on their faces, the donors as well as the student- athletes, as the kids opened up their gifts. It was some good stuff! We have other programs as well, like Think Pink and Relay for Life. Now I am challenging all of the student-athletes to do more community service and share their experience with other athletes besides their team. Our teams are competing against each other to see how much they can do different types of community service. I tell them this is part of their growth and if they want me to recommend them, then they need to perform community service. I don’t recommend anyone who does not give back. It is important that they learn to give back early on.

HO: Tell me about the challenges that today’s students face.

García: Kids don’t always have it easy. Most of our student-athletes work, and many have to bring up their siblings. For them to find the time to do all of the things we expect them to do can be a challenge for them. Many of our kids come in with very sad stories. Our school is very diverse, and a majority is either Black or Hispanic; they often are dealing with a variety of different issues on a day-to-day basis. We have a good counseling center, and a number of kids are involved with the center. The dean of students and I work very well together, and this can be rare at many colleges, but she’s great. We understand each other’s role. I give kudos to the coaches. They do a lot with their student-athletes, who are dealing with everything, like not getting enough sleep or dealing with death in their lives. I hear their challenges. I listen to them. I tell them they have to find ways to overcome these challenges. I am big with prayer, and not because we are a Catholic school, but because I believe in having faith.

HO: Was basketball your first love?

García: As I mentioned, I was one of eight children. We played many sports together and against other kids. We had a softball team comprised of my siblings and cousins; it was Team García, and we played against everybody else. I am a lefty. Back then, if they made two lefty gloves, that was a lot, so I had to put my glove on the wrong hand. We played against everybody, so I always played with the boys. The first six of us were girls, and my father wouldn’t let us out. He was a carpenter and built everything in our backyard. We always sat with him and watched basketball on television. Because we were not allowed out often, we played basketball in front of the house. We didn’t have a basketball hoop, so we played to “hit the sign.” You had to hit – or “tap” – the “No Parking” sign. That was a shot, and that’s how we first played basketball. We used to beat the boys at “taps,” even if they’d give us girls an extra point to start. It turned out I was really good at basketball. When we mixed up teams, the guys always chose me first. So when I got to high school, I didn’t know the rules of the game, so I got cut from the team, but I could shoot better than most of the kids at the school. I remember the coach telling me that I needed to learn the rules. But next year, she ended up not being the coach, and the new coach took me on the team. I was a junior, and I scored most of the points, and I had learned the rules. I still love watching basketball, but I don’t pick up a ball anymore. Now I’m into golf!

HO: You are the only Hispanic woman breaking through the glass ceiling. How challenging is it for others to attain this?

García: Unfortunately, it’s mostly an all-boys group. There are some phenomenal women, but apparently schools are hiring more lawyers and people from the business world as athletic directors. I went through the ranks of physical education and sports. I really believe that if you are going to be a good director of athletics, that you need to know about sports; you’ve played it, you’ve coached it, and you need to know sports if you are going to administer it. In some places, the athletic director does the fundraising while the senior associates do the day-to-day management. I am fortunate to have a president who allows me to be involved in the day-to-day operations and to serve the student-athletes and coaches. I like where I am. I have been really blessed, though I wish there would be more females getting into this role. I served on the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities Interest Committee and sat with all of the young NCAA interns. I asked how many of them wanted to be an athletic director, and five of them said they did. I told them they definitely could reach that goal, and I will take them by the hand and show them how to get it done. People have to give them a chance. Presidents have to give more women a chance. The good thing about women is we have that mommy gene; we know how to multi-task, how to develop and be passionate about what we do. We are very good listeners, and we know how to delegate. We think outside of the box. Given the opportunities, women can run a really good program. I am hoping that there are going to be more women athletic directors. I don’t want to be the only one. It gets lonely.

HO: Do you have any recommendations for others who want to follow in your footsteps?

García: They really need to not only network with other women but with men, and they need to meet presidents. They need to go to professional development seminars. The American Council on Education does a great job in promoting women. They should apply for internships and apply for a grant somewhere and learn more about what it takes to be a Division I athletic director, or a vice president or a president. If they want to be mentored, they need to reach out. Women need to share their stories, their struggles, and I am sure that people will open up and try to help them out.

HO: What are the signs of a good coach?

García: A good coach is a good teacher. When you are teaching a class, you want the students to learn. It’s not about simply memorizing. I consider teachers who make students just memorize to be poor teachers. A good teacher wants students to understand concepts, and teachers must be productive, inspiring and engaging. We counsel coaches, and we teach the coaches to teach as well. Is it successful? I think it is when students leave and they’ve had a good experience, and they end up being good people. What they hopefully learn is to pass that on.

HO: You had served as the liaison to the admissions and financial aid offices and had taken on fundraising. Which is more challenging: fundraising or playing basketball?

García: Being on the court is always challenging. Fundraising for the women’s locker room was probably the easiest $75,000 I ever made. I like to fundraise. I want people to give back, so I just don’t want money but time as well. To share their stories with our student-athletes. Everybody knows I have a lot of passion. I want what’s best for St. Francis College.

HO: Tell me about a student who changed your life or affected your outlook.

García: I coached a point guard at St. Francis, Erinn Siemer. She was one of my students about 10 years ago, and she was hit by a drunk driver while crossing the street in Red Bank in New Jersey. They did not think she was going to live. I rushed to the hospital, and thereafter I visited her every day. She ended up making it. I was there when she first snapped out of a coma. It was so scary. She suffered some brain damage, and we have kept in touch. She married a baseball player that attended St. Francis College, Michael Jaworsky, and they now have two beautiful kids. This taught me a couple of things about living your life and believing in yourself. For her to give life, to bring more life into the world, it teaches you about what life is really about and how valuable it is.

HO: What honor or distinction has meant the most to you?

García: The MANA. It really made me feel so special to be able to thank my parents, and I have never been able to do that in front of so many people. There were about 300 there. It stays with me. I am very humbled by all of this. I get to meet so many amazing people. It was the greatest feeling to be up there and say, “Mom and Dad, this day is because of you.”

HO: What do you do for fun?

García: I enjoy riding my bike in Central Park, and I love golf.

HO: Any other personal and professional goals?

García: I would like to go back to school and get my Ph.D. And I would like to see if I could ever become a college vice president or a president someday. 

HO: Have you told the current president about that?

García: Not yet. I would like to be just like the former president [Dr. Macchiarola] or the current president, President Brendan Dugan. They’re just great mentors and great people.