Special Reports

ONLY ON ABC-7: UTEP's Dr. Natalicio reflects on legacy, national recognition

Natalicio special report

EL PASO, Texas - Dr. Diana Natalicio is the longest serving president of a public research university in the United States: 29 years at the University of Texas at El Paso and counting.

The iconic UTEP president likes to use "access" and "excellence" in the same sentence to describe a passionate tenure that has brought her and UTEP national prominence.

Her signature coifed hair and smile have graced the pages of two major magazines. Fortune this year listed Natalicio among the world's greatest leaders for "transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same."

Natalicio is in good company with the Pope, Melinda Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. In 2016, TIME listed Natalicio among the top 100 most influential people around the world.

"What is so important for me is that it brings a lot of visibility to UTEP," Natalicio said about her recent national exposure. "For me, it's about trying to shape the university to shape the needs of people who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to go to school and I find that enormously satisfying."

Whenever she is recognized, Natalicio likes shifting the attention toward UTEP. "What we are doing at UTEP, which is educating students from backgrounds of modest means, has caught fire nationally and we are at the forefront," she said.

It has been a challenging journey to the top - both professionally and personally - for Natalicio. She was 17 when she realized life had more to offer her.

"I always joke I was the Lily Thomlin of Nordberg Manufacturing because I'd always be there every day. 'Good morning' - I'd say that a thousand times a day and after a month of disconnecting and connecting calls, I knew that box really well and it was very boring," Natalicio said.

A young, naive and curious Natalicio enrolled at St. Louis University. She graduated with honors and earned a Fullbright scholarship to Brazil.
"I walked out to the plane and my parents were back there and I kept thinking, 'I can turn around and it will be okay. They'll love me still. They'll be happy I'd stay home,' but my feet just kept going, it was the best year of my life in terms of personal growth," Natalicio said.

Natalicio currently lives at the Hoover House, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017.  Everything in the home belongs to the university - except the baseball memorabilia collection. 

"I love to watch the pitcher and how they move the ball in different ways. I'm interested in the physics of baseball," Natalicio said.

She's especially fond of the St. Louis Cardinals and the El Paso Chihuahuas.

Natalicio, who enjoys traveling, enjoys life in the Borderland, "I love to walk. I love quiet recreation. I love hiking. I love to walk in the mornings to hear the birds and early morning is so special," she said.

Natalicio may live in a mansion with period furniture and beautiful grounds, but she likes simplicity. She has an apartment upstairs where she enjoys quiet time to plan and think.

Something weighing heavy on her heart is President Donald Trump's plan to build a wall. "This idea that the border is a threat to our safety and security and happiness and economy is ridiculous and it bothers me greatly that we are spending so much time denigrating, demonizing a population that doesn't deserve it and i think it's reckless and irresponsible," Natalicio said.

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