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Editor’s note: This article concludes a series profiling winners of the 2014 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented April 8 at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in Washington, D.C.
Elias Provencio-Vasquez was one of eight children born to immigrant parents from Mexico. Neither of his parents finished elementary school, and he knew — as a young child in El Paso, Texas — that he needed to push himself to succeed.
As a teenager he washed dishes and delivered food trays at a hospital in Phoenix. It was at that hospital he discovered his passion for helping others.
When he went to GateWay Community College in 1973, he was keenly aware of the opportunities a college degree would afford him. He was a mediocre student who had little parental guidance, but he applied himself enough to maintain average grades.
“No one in my family had gone to college, so there was no history or lessons learned,” he says. “Community college allowed me to test the waters, grow from my experiences and make the transition from high school to college. It was an affordable, safe, attainable goal.”
In a female-dominated field
After completing his associate of arts degree in psychology, he went to work as a nursing clerk, but quickly returned to GateWay to pursue a degree in nursing. There were only two other men in the program, and Provencio-Vasquez was the only minority, but his instructors were committed to his success and believed in him. Through their support, he learned to believe in himself.
“Throughout my career, all of my mentors have been women, particularly three instructors at GateWay: Ms. Baker, Ms. Burley and Ms. Custer,” he says. “They saw potential in me that I may not have seen in myself. If they had not supported me so strongly, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”
Essentially, his female instructors became his family.
Provencio-Vasquez says that graduating from community college gave him incredible confidence.
“Everyone should get a start at a community college,” he says. “I would’ve been lost if I went to a large university right out of high school, especially because I wasn’t a strong student and didn’t have family support.”
A line of 'firsts'
Once he left GateWay, Provencio-Vasquez started down a path filled with numerous awards, accolades and “firsts.” In 1992, he became the first Hispanic male in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in nursing.
In 2009, he was the first Hispanic male to become dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Two years later, UTEP’s School of Nursing was recognized as the number-one school in the country in awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics.
Partly because of the support he received from women, Provencio-Vasquez has spent much of his career focused on minority women and the link between the health and well-being of mothers to the health and well-being of their children. He is the principal investigator at UTEP on a $6 million NIH-funded Center of Excellence that is investigating Hispanic health disparities and educating up-and-coming researches.
In addition, he has created innovative nursing approaches for mothers suffering from substance abuse and was the principal investigator on a research project aimed at protecting Latinas from acquiring HIV.
Still, Provencio-Vasquez says he is most fulfilled by sharing his knowledge and experiences.
“For me, paying it back is the best reward. The biggest compliment is when a student comes back after a few years and says, ‘I remember when you taught me this in the hospital or said that in class.’”
Back to his roots
Though it’s been 35 years, Provencio-Vasquez still holds the three women at GateWay who showed him how much they believed closely in his heart. Certainly, the experiences in college inform the way he behaves as a dean.
“I walk around campus when students are in class,” he says. “They know who I am and I’m proud of that. I don’t want them to just know my name at commencement. I’m interested in who they are and getting to know them as people.”
Provencio-Vasquez enjoys the challenging philosophical conversations he has with his students and considers that part of his down time. It’s a good thing, because he is currently an advisor for five dissertations.
“I admit it,” he laughs. “I’m not good at separating my professional and personal life.”
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges