New Faculty Spotlight: Garcia's California homecoming is big for Berkeley

Gina Garcia wasn’t stressing over a dozen college applications when deciding where to go for her undergraduate degree.

“I made the choice like a lot of first gen college students do: Wherever is closest to home, that’s where I’m going,” said Garcia about joining her older sister at California State University, Northridge, in the mid-1990s, when tuition was virtually free and Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action, wasn’t undermining diversity.

Northridge, which is about 30 minutes from her home, was a world away from where Garcia grew up in the predominantly white town of Simi Valley in California’s Ventura County.

“When you’re in a white space, you know when you’re not white,” said Garcia of her childhood. “And so I went to college, and I was in a brown space. I immersed myself….It felt like a space that I belonged in. That was my undergraduate experience.”

The experience at Northridge was formative to her future and highly lauded research on Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and equity in higher education. She literally wrote the book on HSIs: Becoming Hispanic-Serving Institutions: Opportunities for Colleges & Universities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), winner of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education Book of the Year Award in 2020. She went on to edit the book Hispanic-Serving Institutions in Practice: Defining "Servingness" at HSIs (IAP, 2020) and recently published Transforming Hispanic-Serving Institutions for Equity & Justice (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023).

Garcia brings this expertise and national renown to Berkeley School of Education where she joined the faculty in July as a full professor. She was previously an associate professor in the department of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

At Berkeley, Garcia looks to continue to advance this research as well as the university’s efforts toward becoming an HSI in the meaningful ways she has identified as critical for students and institutions. In addition to research and teaching, Garcia will also serve as the inaugural Faculty Director of the Latinx Thriving Initiatives at UC Berkeley.

“Her unparalleled expertise will lead us as we continue building a community-centered culture of belonging across campus,” said Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Dania Matos.

Making ‘real change’

After attending the University of Maryland at College Park for a two-year program in college student personnel and a brief stint at Mattel, Inc. (yes, she worked on the Barbie line), Garcia took a position at California State University, Fullerton, a Hispanic Serving Institution since 2004, as part of a Title V federal grant. That’s where she started to think critically about what it meant and didn’t mean to be an HSI.

“I decided to get a PhD so that I could make real change because the more degrees you have, the more credibility you have — for whatever reason,” said Garcia said with a laugh, “because I felt like I knew what I was talking about back then as much as I do now.”

Just as Garcia accepted her admission to the UCLA doctoral program in Higher Education and Organizational Change, she was also preparing to become a mother for the first time. Her son was born in August and she began the PhD program in October. Garcia says she didn’t tell her advisor, Professor Sylvia Hurtado, in advance that she was pregnant.

“I wasn’t sure how that was going to be perceived,” Garcia said. “I came in pregnant and there was no way of taking that back.” She would go on to have a second son before the PhD was done in just four years.

Garcia says that being a “mother scholar” was not common at UCLA at the time and she managed, with the support of Hurtado and other colleagues, to normalize things like “pumping” breast milk and making pregnancy and parenting an acceptable part of the academic experience.

She says coming to Berkeley with her boys, now 11 years old and 14 years old, is a California homecoming.

California — with nine HSIs — provides the perfect location for her to conduct research in her “backyard” and to deepen the partnerships she’s built with colleges across the state.

“Professor Gina García’s appointment will have a far reaching impact at BSE, the campus, the state, and beyond,” said BSE Professor Kris Gutiérrez. “As the state with the largest Latinx population, García’s expansive knowledge and research on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion for minoritized student populations are concerned with reimagining institutions of higher education that support the education of all students.”

Garcia says she’s looking forward to putting this research into practice.

“Is it actually going to matter?” asks Garcia about her research on HSIs and equity and the impact on students. “Writing about it and having it sit in a journal or a book doesn’t do anything. I can actually do it at Berkeley.”

Professor gina garcia smiling at camera wearing white tank top dress double necklace of pears and small silver chain

About Gina Garcia

Professor Garcia explores issues of equity and justice in higher education. As an organizational theorist, she seeks to understand how Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) enact an organizational identity for serving Latine/x students and minoritized populations. She draws on qualitative methods including case studies, interviews, observations, and participatory research methods to explore how organizations change from predominately white to minoritized-serving.  She also examines the experiences of administrators, faculty, and staff within HSIs and the outcomes and experiences of students of color attending these institutions. As a critical scholar, she is race-conscious and equity-minded in her approach, seeking to empower historically marginalized populations and to create liberatory educational experiences in colleges and universities. She and her colleagues coined the term, “servingness” with much of her research interrogating how HSIs come to embody this concept within their organizational structures. Read Professor Garcia's full biography.

Professor Garcia’s podcast “Qué Pasa, HSIs” explores “the history and evolution of HSIs, culturally relevant and liberatory practices in HSIs, current and emerging research with HSIs, and the policies that shape servingness.” 

Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) is a federal designation and defined as an institution of higher education that—

  • is an eligible institution; and
  • has an enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25 percent Hispanic students at the end of the award year immediately preceding the date of application.

Source: U.S. Department of Education