Woman of Vigor, Mujer de Vigor

Photo: College of the Desert

As I reflect on my contribution as a superintendent/president at two amazing community colleges, College of the Desert (COD) in Palm Desert, California, and Imperial Valley College (IVC) in Imperial, California, I acknowledge the privilege to serve our students, the team and our communities. This privilege comes with major responsibilities, sacrifices, courage and the audacity to do what is best for students, especially for those who are disproportionately represented in our colleges and those who come from marginalized communities.

As a transformational servant leader, I am committed to the transformative power of higher education and student-centered leadership focused on love, care and service. The values I learned from my parents – hard work, perseverance, honesty and respect – guide and inspire me.

This article continues a series this month focusing on women who lead community colleges as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month.

Using an opportunity

My own story started at a community college. I attended IVC, and this was my only opportunity to pursue higher education as a first-generation college student and proud daughter of farm workers. IVC provided me an excellent educational foundation and created a pathway out of poverty and a bridge to success.

The college opened the doors to an amazing profession, as I was provided the opportunity to work as a part-time counselor and this changed my life. I fell in love with serving our community college students and determined that I would serve a community college for my entire career. At IVC, I have helped to secure more than $23 million in grants to support the creation of innovative programs and services that removed barriers to student success.

Over my 21 years at Imperial Valley College, I have served in several positions and leadership positions that have allowed me to truly understand our students and their needs — from counselor, to special projects coordinator overseeing career education programs, to acting vice president of academic services, vice president of student services and finally CEO.

I became the first female superintendent/president for IPC. This was a great honor because I started my educational journey at this college; however, it was also a great responsibility because it was vital for me to pave the way for future women to assume these roles. 

 Three efforts that made a difference

As a “Woman of Vigor, Mujer de Vigor,” it is important to lead with purpose and integrity and have the strength and bravery to make bold decisions that increase the probability of success for our students, especially for unrepresented, marginalized students. 

A few examples, among others, include:

  • Supporting our Affinity Centers at COD.
  • Creating the Lotus Living, Rise Above Resilient Tiny Housing Community.
  • Starting Advanced Degree for Transfer College Programs at two California state prisons.

To ensure we support our special population students and create a sense of belonging, College of the Desert has created Affinity Centers. The faculty and staff who work in the centers are contributing to an environment that fully embraces and celebrates the uniqueness of our students in a safe environment.

The centers hold block parties that include the entire campus, and we celebrate and honor all our students. Faculty from different disciplines hold their office hours at some of the Affinity Centers in order to extend the hours of operation. I love the magic happening at these centers, and fully support, advocate and strive to secure additional resources, if needed.

Moreover, to help students facing housing insecurity, I envisioned the creation of Lotus Living, Rise Above Resilient Tiny Housing Community (see video, below). It was the first tiny housing community created in a California community college, and it was created with a commitment to provide wrap-around services to students. Current and former foster youth are prioritized, and students pay a total of $200 for rent and utilities a month. This housing community was created as a community of hope, support and care.

I also implemented an Advanced Degree for Transfer (ADT) Program at Calipatria and Centinela State Prisons, where all courses are offered face-to-face. These programs have had remarkable outcomes and continue to transform the lives of incarcerated men, who are mainly represented by Latinx and Black, African American men.

The first cohort of students, which comprised 117 men, completed their ADTs in psychology or sociology in three years and earned a 3.0 GPA or higher.


As a Woman of Vigor, Mujer de Vigor, I have led the way. However, it is important to acknowledge that transformative education is achieved with the support of many dedicated, remarkable team members and the support of board of trustees.

I conclude by dedicating this article to all Women of Vigor, Mujeres de Vigor whose shoulders we stand on and who paved the way for us to be here. I acknowledge and uplift all the amazing women who serve our community colleges, regardless of their roles, they are all essential to support our mission. They all contribute to transforming the lives of our students, their families and future generations.

About the Author

Martha Garcia
Dr. Martha Garcia is president of the College of the Desert (California).
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