Growing up in a migrant family.
Landing in an American city thousands of miles from her native Durango, Mexico.
Stepping into school not knowing English.
Virginia “Viky” Garcia met these life challenges with resilience she learned from her parents, who migrated to the U.S. and became laborers on the West coast, where Garcia was born, and then the Midwest, where she was raised. Garcia learned English, made it to college on a scholarship, went to graduate school, and became Director of Career Services at Texas A&M International University in the border city of Laredo, Texas.
Then came 2008, when her resilience would be tested in far more dramatic fashion. Garcia by then had left her Texas A&M International position for a new challenge—developing an 11-acre parcel and writing grants for the Laredo chapter of Habitat for Humanity. She was also president of the local Rotary Club. On a Saturday morning in April, she was in a vehicle with other Rotary officers when a truck in front of them accidentally dumped 50 tons of a gravel load. Their vehicle spun out of control. One of her friends died and the others were injured.
Garcia was thrown out, only to have the vehicle roll back on top of her. She suffered multiple breaks in her scapula, pelvis and ribs. Garcia was in a coma for two months, and when she awoke was confined to six months of immobility and then transitioned to a wheelchair. She would spend years in recovery. Her family came for her. First her father, then an uncle. Her brother. Her mother. Their vigilance awakened her resilience.
“My mother retired so she could care for me,” Garcia says, voice breaking at the memory. “Somebody had to feed me. Wipe my booty, as embarrassing as that was. And as hard as it was for someone who was so independent, they were there for me.”
Looking back, the 2019–20 NBCC Foundation doctoral fellow instinctively knew she would not let the accident define her life.
“You overcome because of your desire to be something different and change and grow,” Garcia says. “After the accident, I was in a wheelchair, bedbound, and things seemed bleak. But that’s not me.
“I had a computer, so I started blogging. I continued to speak and interact with the world.”
She took on small positions that she could handle physically, from being a U.S. Census outreach worker to owning a small independent postal center. In 2014, she became outreach director for the Holding Institute Community Center in Laredo, helping to coordinate work among non-profits responding to Central American mass migration into the city.
As much as she was contributing again, Garcia wanted more.
In 2016, she resumed a dream from the 1990s she’d had while earning her master’s in counseling from Northern Illinois University. Garcia decided to seek a doctoral degree, which would allow her to pursue her ultimate two-pronged goal—training new counselors and researching the best ways to serve the underserved.
After initially beginning her doctoral work at Mississippi College, she realized it was not the right fit. So in 2017, she entered St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a 2½-hour drive from Laredo, to begin earning a doctor of philosophy in counselor education and supervision. When she is required to be away from her home in Laredo for school, she uses Airbnb service to stay in peoples’ spare bedrooms.
During days of the week she spends in San Antonio, she also is a contract counselor for a family violence prevention organization that runs Spanish-language groups for domestic violence offenders, both men and women.
“Everyone is who they are, and they make errors,” Garcia says, noting that people who she believes require psychiatric care are referred. “I believe in people and, maybe I’m a little idealistic, but everyone has the ability to make changes to be healthy.”
As someone who has worked with many migrants—and helped organize support for them—Garcia is unhappy with the current portrayal of migrants by politicians.
“Migration is very natural,” she says, but unfortunately, the blitz of political and media coverage has made people in Laredo more cautious about welcoming migrants.
Garcia’s doctoral research is gauging the level of trauma symptomology in immigrant women, in particular looking at the physical and emotional security of women in immigration detention. It merges with her interest of hoping to work with trauma survivors.
The U.S., she says, is “dramatically changing the way we treat people, which makes it more urgent” that research shows the impact of how policy effects trauma.
Becoming an NBCC Foundation doctoral fellow is important to Garcia for several reasons. She first learned of the program reading flyers when she was at St. Mary’s campus.
“I worked in high school and I worked in college. I refused to graduate with debt and didn’t have any for undergraduate or my master’s,” she says. The monetary side of being a Foundation doctoral fellow will help offset her school expenses.
But more important, Garcia says, is having the support of a mentor and being able to connect with people doing similar research. She also says she looks forward to learning newer counseling techniques since it has been more than 20 years since she obtained her master’s degree, and she was “ecstatic” when she learned she had been awarded the fellowship.
“This really gives me the wings to just explore.”