Dr. Cristina Villalobos
UTRGV’s Center of Excellence in STEM

EDINBURG — There’s a phrase Cristina Villalobos tries to instill in hundreds of college and thousands of K-12 students her institution has mentored and guided toward careers in science, technology, engineering and math: take the initiative.

The founding director of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Center of Excellence in STEM Education, Villalobos focuses on that phrase because, as she says, no one’s going to be knocking on your door to take the initiative for you.

On Aug. 3, Villalobos’ dedication to pushing her students toward success won her the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, one of just 15 professors to receive the White House honor this year. She’s the second UTRGV professor to win the award in as many years.

“It was just exciting,” Villalobos said. “Surreal at the same time.”

It’s easy to see why it would be surreal. Through academia, Villalobos has carved out a career in a field traditionally dominated by men with little minority representation, climbing from being a first-generation college student to the academic position she now uses to give her students the initiative they need to achieve goals they’d never dreamt of.

Villalobos, who was born in McAllen and raised in Donna, is the daughter of Mexican migrants. Her parents worked in the canning industry while she was growing up, and her mother later became a custodian.

Cristina Villalobos, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School associate dean for the College of Sciences, poses on campus Friday in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Villalobos’ educational career almost ended at high school. She was working two jobs as a cashier, which she didn’t particularly like, and decided to give college a try at the University of Texas. She’d always been good at math, she thought, maybe she could be a high school teacher.

“My alternative was just getting a full-time job,” she said. “I didn’t know what college was about, I didn’t know if that was something I wanted to do.”

Few of UT’s tens of thousands of undergrads looked like Villalobos, especially in the math classes she was in.

“I remember looking around and I was one of few women in these courses. You look around for Latinos, there aren’t too many either,” she said.

Villalobos’ undergrad mentors, Efraim Armendariz and Uri Treisman, talked her out of becoming a high school teacher and into pursuing a Ph.D. in Computational and Applied Mathematics from Rice University. There were more women at Rice’s STEM programs and more Latinos, but Villalobos was still a minority.

Ironically, Villalobos and Karen Lozano, the UTRGV professor who won the award in 2019, both started at Rice the same year and met at the university. They’re friends now, as well as colleagues, and godparents to each other’s kids.

“It’s fairly small, and then you put in the women in STEM, and that narrows it down; then you look at the Latino population, that narrows it down,” Villalobos said.

Villalobos joined the University of Texas-Pan American in 2001, where she founded the Center of Excellence in STEM Education and runs it with program coordinator Idalia Mejia. In many ways, the center does for students at UTRGV what Villalobos’ mentors at UT and Rice did for her: it helps them see beyond their expectations for themselves.

“We’ve got a lot of talent here in the Valley,” Villalobos said. “I want to see the students understand that they have that potential to succeed and become leaders. Whether it’s here in the community, whether it’s at D.C., whether it’s at the state level, it doesn’t matter to me.”

Villalobos has a talent for seeing a few steps farther down the road than her students can see for themselves. If a student comes to Villalobos and says they want to be a high school teacher, for example, she wants to gear them up for being the department chair. If they want a bachelor’s degree, she wants them to shoot for a Ph.D.

“We’ve got a lot of talent, sometimes students may just not have confidence and we may not be able to tap into that potential, and that’s one thing we need to do, is inform students that they have that potential,” she said. “With just a little push in awareness they can do this.”

Villalobos isn’t above a little trickery. She knows many of her students haven’t spent much time outside the Valley and going to a Ph.D. program in another state can be daunting. So she sets them up for a summer research program — a little taste of the outside world for a few months, enough for her students to prove to themselves that they can survive and thrive out there.

“I kind of have a plan in mind for these students. I want them to get a Ph.D., but I know that if I send them immediately from here and they’ve never been outside they’re going to say they just don’t want to leave,” Villalobos said.

In many ways, Villalobos’ students look like she did when she started at UT. Many are first generation college students, some the children of migrants. Some are women, many are Latino.

Villalobos says carving out more representation for those minorities in the field is something that drives her, and something that’s important for the Valley.

“To make an impact in the nation and to be at the table, we really need these folks to serve in academia and industry and leadership positions, to make decisions for those groups along with everybody else,” she said.

So far, she’s been successful. Almost 20 of her mentees have gotten Ph.D.s in mathematics or are on their way to doing so, a number that’s significant proportionally.

“That’s a good number,” Villalobos said. “A good contribution to the nation, because in mathematics we just don’t have too many women or underrepresented minorities getting Ph.D.s.”