When an automobile accident derailed Lynda de La Viña's dream of becoming a professional tennis player, she designed a new career track that was destined to lead her to success as an economist, a university professor and dean, and an entrepreneur.
In recognition of her many accomplishments in higher education, government service and business, de La Viña has been selected as one of five alumni to be honored March 29 as a 2014 Pillar of Success by The University of Texas-Pan American during its 2014 Alumni Ball.
And it all began in Edinburg, Texas, where she grew up as part of one of the city's founding families. Her grandfather, Plutarco de La Viña, was one of the original developers of Chapin, which was later renamed Edinburg, and was one of the first trustees of Edinburg College, which evolved into UTPA. Her great grandfather was the first Hispanic county judge in Hidalgo County, and there have been so many prominent educators in the family that De La Viña Elementary School is named for all of them.
For Lynda, her role models were her late parents, Juan Manuel de La Viña, Edinburg Junior College alumnus who served many years as county tax assessor, and Herlinda Cisneros de La Viña, who was the chief bookkeeper at Woolworth's in downtown McAllen and then served the Texas Veterans Commission for over 20 years.
"I'm very proud of my mother who graduated from La Feria High School," said de La Viña. "I can imagine that a Hispanic woman graduating from high school in the 1930s was an anomaly."
De La Viña began her own educational odyssey at Sam Houston Elementary School, then continued on to Edinburg Junior High and Edinburg High School, where she earned "most athletic" honors and starred on the tennis team, winning district and regional competitions in singles her senior year and qualifying for the state tournament.
"I was getting ready to go to state and a couple of friends and I were driving to Pan American to watch their tennis team play - back then, Pan Am had one of the best teams in the country," she recalled. "We were going across University Drive on Fourth Street, and a speeding cement truck hit us broadside. With both a broken wrist and broken tennis hand, I never made it to state."
While the accident ended any hopes of a tennis scholarship and a professional career in the sport, it opened up new opportunities for de La Viña, who enrolled in Pan American University after graduating from Edinburg High.
"I was originally majoring in government, then I took an economics class that opened up to me the world of economics - the quantitative side that I like - so from then on, I double majored in government and economics."
Her academic success at Pan American earned her full transfer scholarship offers after her sophomore year from two prestigious east coast women's colleges, Wellesley and Radcliffe. "Of course I wanted to go, but my dad, being the good Hispanic dad, said no, that I wasn't going off by myself to Massachusetts. I was not happy," she recalled with a smile.
Her father did, however, allow her to accept the offer of a Chancellor's Scholarship to The University of Texas at Austin. "But I didn't like the large classes, and I was still unhappy about not getting to go to Wellesley. So after a semester I decided I didn't want to waste anybody's money and believed that, comparatively, my education at Pan Am was better than what I experienced at UT, so I came back," said de La Viña.
As she neared graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1972, she applied to a couple of law schools but also was encouraged to look into a doctoral fellowship program for Mexican-American students being offered by the Ford Foundation. "I was chosen to go to New York City for three days of interviews, and then was notified that I had been selected," she said. "It was an amazing scholarship because it paid tuition and all fees, plus a living stipend."
So then, she had to make a decision - law school on only loans with no scholarships or graduate school on full scholarship. "That's what made the difference between becoming an attorney and going on to a Ph.D.," de La Viña said. "It was literally a financial decision."
The next decision was where to go for her doctorate. She eventually chose to attend Columbia University.
"I had offers from several places, including Stanford," she said. "The school was wonderful, but the environment around the campus in downtown New York City in the 1970s was horrendous. You couldn't even go to Times Square because the area was so crime ridden."
Also, her living stipend didn't stretch far there. "I'm sleeping on a cot, and taking crackers and honey from the cafeteria for my snacks at night," recalled de La Viña. "I realized that, by the time I paid for my room, I didn't have enough money to eat on."
After losing some 20 pounds and realizing what an "uninformed decision" it was to move to New York, she decided to return to Texas and was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Rice University in Houston. "There were only two women in the doctoral program in economics, and I was the only Hispanic," she said. "It was a pretty tough program."
The real challenge came, however, as she was nearing graduation. "I had done the first draft of my dissertation and found out that a woman at Emory University had just published a book on the same topic, using the same models, just about the same everything. I didn't know she existed, and she didn't know I existed. My (dissertation) chair and I were stunned," said de La Viña. "I was in line for academic positions at some big schools. I had already interviewed at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Harvard, and all of a sudden I don't have a dissertation."
Faced with having to rewrite her dissertation at the same time her Ford Foundation fellowship was ending, de La Viña went back out into the job market and was hired by UTSA, then a fairly young institution, to be assistant director of the Human Resource Management Program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and to do research in labor economics. "I was writing a labor-based dissertation, so it fit," she said.
When she finally completed her Ph.D. as the first Mexican-American woman to earn a doctorate in economics, de La Viña could have moved on to a more mature and prestigious school, but she decided to stay at UTSA.
"I had a wealth of opportunities here," she noted. "The program was young. I could do all the research I wanted to do, and I had great people who had supported me along the way. It was a great time. I produced a lot of research simply because I wanted to, and I never regretted the decision of not getting back in the marketplace. I guess I liked being an academic entrepreneur."
Progressing from assistant to associate professor - with tenure in three years instead of the usual six - de La Viña took on her first administrative assignment as executive director of the Institute for Studies in Business, the research component of the UTSA College of Business. During her time with the institute, she would help develop the first labor market information system for the entire state of Texas as well as the state's first venture capital network.
Later she would be promoted to full professor and develop a new position of associate dean for graduate studies and research, with responsibilities for building the infrastructure for graduate programs and more structured research in the College of Business.
It was during this period that de La Viña also became a mother, adopting two small children "in crises," four-month-old Ashley and her half-sister Courtney, who was a year and a half. "I had told myself since I was little that I wanted to help - to adopt children," said de La Viña. "It was just something that I had always thought about." Today, Courtney, 28, is married and lives in Los Angeles with her husband Josh Paret and two-year-old son Lucas, and Ashley, 25, is in San Antonio and is engaged to be married to Travis Hennies.
In 1998, de La Viña moved her young family, along with her mom, to Washington, D.C., where she joined the Clinton Administration. She then served as a senior policy analyst with the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce before accepting an academic appointment at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she chaired the department of international business and finance, served as associate dean of the School of Professional Studies and director of Business Graduate Programs, tasked with developing the infrastructure and funding for a new business school.
In 2004, she returned to UTSA as dean of the College of Business, which she helped build to national prominence during her eight-year tenure.
"During my deanship was the first time the college achieved national ranking," said de La Viña, who also guided the development of the College of Business' innovative cyber security program's Advanced Laboratories for Information Security (ALIAS), the Center for Financial Studies, the Center for Student Professional Development and two new academic departments, Entrepreneurship and Technology Management and Information Systems and Cyber Security. She continues to assist in developing the Department of Entrepreneurship and Technology Management and directing the Center for Global Entrepreneurship.
An entrepreneur herself beginning in 1986, she co-founded Operational Technologies Corporation, which has grown to become a company with various subsidiaries and interests such as Vutex, Pronucleotine Biotechnologes, OTC Biotech, OpTech Gente and OpTech de Mexico. Most recently, she and two partners have formed VINJER: De La Viña/Jerge Production Company L.L.C. in Los Angeles and San Antonio. One of her partners in that company is her brother, John de La Viña, a senior publicist and senior editor for 20th Century Fox Studios International who is also a Pan American University alumnus (BA' 77, Communications).
While de La Viña takes pride in the recognition she has received for her many accomplishments in academia and business, she also is proud of her family's deep association with UT Pan American. Returning to campus last year for the university's 85th anniversary celebration, she said then that "I'm really proud of the school and all that it has become and all that it will become in the future. I have taught in many universities in my career, but I will always believe in UTPA. This is where my heart is."