When Gina García enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU) in 2004, she was an aspiring educator with an unconventional background: a 24-year-old wife and mother of two children, an employee juggling two jobs, a proud daughter raised by parents who never reached high school.

In the spring of 2008, just three classes shy of earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, García dropped out of school. She had become a battered wife and a depressed mother, despairing of life. So great was her torment, García reached for a knife at home. “I was suicidal,” she said.

After considering the pain and loss she would cause her family, García put the weapon down. She had battled abuse and heartbreak for years until a glimmer of light appeared in the form of an idea. Why not go back to school?

Saturday at Freeman Coliseum, García, 36, completed a 12-year journey, earning her bachelor’s in Spanish. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said. “I’m at the best place in life.”

20161217_kathrynboydbatstone_ginagarcia_ollugrduation-23
Gina García smiles as the 2016 graduates of Our Lady of the Lake University are announced.

No one may have been more proud than OLLU Spanish professor Maribel Lárraga, PhD, a close friend and mentor. The two met when García first took a class from Lárraga 12 years ago.

“We celebrated with a big embrace and lots of smiles,” Lárraga said. “I’ve been so privileged to witness her determination, focus, and heartfelt desire to finish her degree. She has experienced a lot of physical and emotional pain. But I knew she would finish her classes successfully because she works with heart, body, and soul.”

Lárraga provided immeasurable support for her former student. Once, after a summer school class several years ago, she approached García. Was there a reason, the professor gently asked, why García would wear a long-sleeved shirt on such a hot day? García explained that she was covering up bruises.

Gina García hugs her advisor and Spanish professor Dr. Maribel Lárraga before crossing the stage to graduate.
Gina García hugs her advisor and Spanish professor Dr. Maribel Lárraga before walking the stage. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“I broke down,” García said. “Dr. Lárraga took me to the campus police department and they took pictures. She became my advisor, my teacher, my friend. In those days, I wanted to give up. But she was there to push me.”

No one needed to push her in high school. The second oldest of four children, García, grew up in Eagle Pass with a zeal for learning but without an educational role model. Her mother, who was born in Mexico, only had an elementary school education. Her father, a native of Eagle Pass, got as far as middle school. “My parents spoke Spanish but I taught myself English by reading,” she said. “I was my parents’ pride and joy.”

Gina García shows her father, José García, and mother, Georgina García, her diploma as her two youngest sons Alomar Robert Ybarra and Danys Omar Ybarra play in the background.
Gina García shows her father, José García, and mother, Georgina García, her diploma as her sons Alomar Robert Ybarra and Danys Omar Ybarra play in the background. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

At Eagle Pass High, García tutored classmates in math and took night classes at a community college to get a head start on her associate degree. “I’ve always liked school,” she said.

One year after graduating from high school in 1998, she got married. García moved to San Antonio and had two children. She worked during the day and took night classes at Palo Alto Community College.

After enrolling as an education major at OLLU in 2004, García worked as a substitute teacher and became an English as Second Language (ESL) aid at Brentwood Middle School in the Edgewood Independent School District.

She switched her degree plan to Spanish in 2005. For three years, García attempted to balance school, work, and motherhood while enduring domestic abuse. In 2008, she collapsed under the weight of it all.

“I was trying to complete 26 hours (in one semester), my marriage was falling apart, I was working full-time and taking classes online,” she said. “It got the best of me.”

García left school and sank into depression. Her parents had a good marriage. Where had she gone wrong? She wrestled with questions she could not answer. The abuse continued. She wanted to end her life.

“I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted,” she said. “I was at my lowest. I hit rock bottom. I sat there and thought about my boys. I grew up with a mom. I couldn’t imagine a life without my parents. And I didn’t want my boys to grow up without me and be affected by what I was doing. It was selfish.”

She separated from her husband. A weight began to lift. This past summer, García decided to return to OLLU – only to face several obstacles. She had to meet new requirements for her major, abide by new policies, and fulfill procedures that were not in place when she left in 2008. Lárraga helped García through the process and taught her in an independent studies class.

Gina García gets a kiss from her father José García who drove up from Eagle Pass for the graduation.
Gina García gets a kiss from her father José García who drove up from Eagle Pass for the graduation. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“She got it all together while being a single mom and working full-time as a teacher’s aid in Edgewood ISD,” Lárraga said.

While completing her final coursework, García earned her special education certification. She left Edgewood ISD and became an interventionist at Salado Intermediate School, working with students struggling with behavioral challenges. After completing her final exams, García encountered a last-minute paperwork glitch and thought she would be unable to graduate. Lárraga intervened.

Gina García gives her oldest son Nomar García Ybarra a kiss after graduating.
Gina García gives her oldest son Nomar García Ybarra a kiss after graduating. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“I didn’t want to retire or die without seeing her earn her degree,” Lárraga said.

García has fresh ambition. “I’m going to stay in education,” she said. “Dr. Lárraga was so happy for me when I came back, she fought for me. There are kids that nobody believes in. I want to do for them what people did for me.”

This story was originally published on Our Lady of the Lake University’s home page.

Disclosure: Ken Rodriguez is campaign communications manager at Our Lady of the Lake University.

Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.