Entering middle school, Hector Garza could barely speak English. The University of Texas-Pan American student said it was a tough obstacle to overcome.
"It was hard for me. English is the hardest language to learn and I was really shy about that and got huge stage fright. To this day I still get sweaty hands when I have to speak in front of a crowd," Garza said.
The political science and economics double major has come a long way since then. Garza was recently selected as an associate board member for the prestigious State Farm Youth Advisory Board (YAB). The board oversees $5 million in grant funding to address critical issues that have a direct impact on communities such as public safety, environmental responsibility and access to higher education.
"It's kind of humbling. It's a big accomplishment and it is something I am very proud of, but when you meet some of the board members from the across the country, they have done so much," Garza said. "They motivate me to do even more to expand what I am doing as an individual, as a community member and as a student here at UTPA."
Garza and 14 others were selected from more than 1,000 national applicants for their deep community involvement and passion for service-learning projects. The new members will serve along with the existing 15 members, comprising the full 30-member board.
"We are looking to empower youth because the more we empower our youth the more our community strives forward because you are developing generations and generations of leaders," Garza said. "The more youth that we get involved, the more likely they are to attend college, the more likely they are to attend UTPA and grow the programs here and the more likely they are to grow the Valley."
The 19-year-old is ready to tackle the State Farm philanthropic initiative.
"My mom and dad always raised me to be hungry. There's always more you can do. Nothing is ever good enough. You should always strive for more. So if anything, this process has humbled me even more and made me want to do more with my community and here at school," he said.
Along with his unwavering family support, Garza credits the GEAR UP program for his success. The Edinburg native said the program transformed him from an insecure student into a confident community leader.
"The program was a huge agent in helping me get where I am today. My GEAR UP facilitators went that extra effort with me and really molded me into what I am today," Garza said. "They saw something in me that I didn't see at that time. GEAR UP made me see those doors that I didn't even know existed."
Garza is still heavily involved with the program. He works with a mentorship program through Region One and mentors students of the current GEAR UP class. The UTPA sophomore is also an intern with the Texas Valley Community Foundation (TVCOF) working with Engaging Communities for College Readiness (ENCORE), a program founded to ensure South Texas students graduate from high school prepared for college and career success.
Gilbert Maldonado, the chief executive officer for TVOCF, said Garza is a perfect fit for the youth board.
"Hector is a great advocate for our community. While at the foundation, he has reached over 1,000 first generation middle school students about the importance of staying focused on post-secondary education," Maldonado said. "Hector is giving back to by telling his story at schools, churches and community centers."
Garza received a $3,000 scholarship for post-secondary education and upon successful completion of his first year with YAB, is eligible for an additional $5,000 scholarship. He said his time at UT Pan American played a large role in his selection.
"A good professor will change your perspective for the better, and we have that here at UTPA. The environment is great and so is the staff," Garza said. "That's the kind of spirit I want to be around. It motivates me and I really appreciate my experience here at UTPA."
Upon graduation, Garza plans to throw his hat into the political arena.
"I want to run for mayor as soon as I graduate with my master's, and then maybe run for Congress eventually," Garza said. "It's some big shoes to fill because Congressman Rubén Hinojosa has done so much for education and our community but it's something I want to do. I see the potential our area has."
It is a remarkable transformation for the shy young man who struggled to learn English, and now sits on a national board dreaming of a career in politics.
"While you are sleeping, someone is doing something to get ahead. While you are resting someone is working harder, so you always have to work harder," Garza said.