Making a Difference

As the interim dean of the college of arts and sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Dr. Dolores Guerrero is proud to provide students with a firm foundation and to make a difference in people’s lives.

By: Sarah Tindall  //  Photos by: Dustin Ashcraft

Dr. Dolores Guerrero, the newly minted interim dean of the college of arts and sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK), quotes university president Dr. Steven Tallant to sum up her dedication to her profession:
“You can lose a lot of things in life – your house, your car – but you can never lose your education. It’s that foundation that education can give a person that can make all the difference in their lives.”

Guerrero, who was born and raised in Alice, Texas, and raised by a single mom, didn’t start her career as a college professor. After graduating high school in Alice, she went to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “But after a few months, I knew it wasn’t for me,” she admits – it was too theoretical, and she wanted hands-on work.

She spent her formative years following her mother around and seeing the plight of the poor, so she knew she needed a career in which she made a difference. After taking a social work class and realizing social work was the practical application of psychology, she was hooked: She changed her major to social work, and she finished in three years. She then moved to Arlington to attain her master’s in social work at the University of Texas-Arlington.

While she was pursuing the degree, she got married and had her daughter – a preemie she refers to as a “miracle baby” born in 1989. After graduation, she first began her career as a Child Protective Services investigator and later became a medical social worker for the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. After she had served almost 10 years in that job, her husband was transferred to McAllen, and the family moved from the top of the state to the bottom in 1996.

Then an opportunity came up for Guerrero to be an emergency lecturer at UT-Pan Am. She decided to try it for a year to see if she enjoyed it, and if she did, she’d pursue the Ph.D. “I really connected to the students,” she says. “They were 95 percent Latina and had similar upbringings to mine. I never thought I would come back to school, but I loved the teaching – loved being able to share my hands-on experience, and also just connected with the students themselves. They would come visit with me, and I’d help them as they were planning for the next step. Just talking about my life and my career path made them feel like they could do it, too.”

So she applied for and was accepted to the doctoral program at the University of Houston, and she commuted for two years to take all her courses. After completing them, she taught for two years more at Pan Am before her husband took a job back in Alice, so she began commuting back-and-forth to McAllen to continue teaching.

She never thought she’d end up back in Alice, but she says it’s been the best thing she could have done. Shortly after she moved there, her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2004, and she found herself responsible for her sister, who has Down syndrome, and caring for her mother in addition to teaching and being involved in the community.

Then an opportunity came up to teach at TAMUK in 2002, and she was hired to get the university’s social work program off the ground. She completed that project with the program receiving initial accreditation in 2004, and she has been at the university ever since, getting tenured in 2008 and her program reaffirmed for eight more years.

In 2009, she was named interim assistant dean for the college of arts and sciences, and in 2010, she was named founding dean of the honors college. She began to notice a pattern in her career choices: “I like building things from the ground up,” she admits, “so I’ve enjoyed these opportunities.” The program took off, and now, four years in, it has its own residence hall and is a living/learning community comprised of more than 200 students. “We have a real relationship with these students,” she says. “I’ve always had an open-door policy, and access is important for them to build a connection to the university. We’re really proud of where this has gone.”

The students come from all colleges of the university: About 40 percent are from the arts and sciences, 35 percent are from the engineering program and the rest are agriculture students. “The program really engages the students,” Guerrero says. “They’re doing research and working with the professors and even going to national presentations with their faculty. It’s an amazing opportunity for them.”

This summer, however, Guerrero was offered the chance to build something again: The university tapped her to serve as interim dean of the college of arts and sciences, overseeing 10 departments and almost 170 faculty members. She’s looking forward to the challenge – as she says, “That’s the diversity of my life.”

As part of her role as interim dean, she is involved with the new Tejano Civic Museum, which is a collaboration between TAMUK and the League of United Latin American Citizens. She also serves as the president of the board at the YWCA, a chair of the board at the Women’s Shelter of South Texas and a trustee of the board at Behavioral Health Services of Nueces County.

She attributes her career choices and her motivation to make a difference in her community by serving on these boards to her mom, who was a community activist in the ‘60s. “She started her career working as a teacher’s aide in a Head Start program, but because she worked hard, she worked herself up to be an area director for a couple of counties,” Guerrero says. “She was a role model for me, advocated education, but also took me to the projects to see the need for action in our community. I look at the world and the way we’re all interconnected, and for me, it’s all about making a difference in people’s lives.

“We’ve all had our share of life experiences and disappointments, but I like to think of them as opportunities to grow, and I’ve tried to make the most of those as things I learn from and I grow from. Compassion for others is one of the basics of social work, and the goal is to start where the client is. I try to live my life that way – starting where people are.”

At the core, for Guerrero, it’s all about making a difference in people’s lives in her community. “When I do community work, I feel that I’ve been given certain skills that are meant to be shared,” she says. “It wouldn’t be right for me not to help when I can. I have a passion for empowering women and families, and if you look at what I volunteer for, you see that’s what I do. It’s all about making a positive difference in our community.”

Guerrero says people always ask where she gets this drive, and she always answers that she learned it watching her mom as a child. And then, when her mother struggled with Alzheimer’s, she learned to take advantage of opportunities when they come – to just jump into things when they are offered to you and never miss a chance to learn and grow.

“I went to Australia last year by myself, even rented a car there by myself, because I wanted to see the outback,” she says. “In life, we have to face fear; we don’t know if there’s going to be a tomorrow. Accepting risk is a big part of what I’ve learned. Sometimes you fail, but it’s what you do with that that can make you a better person. You have to learn to say, ‘This didn’t work,’ and learn from it, pick yourself up and keep going.”

Guerrero feels grateful to have been given such a chance to make a difference through her work in higher education. “Education is so important – the foundation for our youth – and I feel like I can make difference here,” she says. “If I have one young lady who comes in my office and says, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ I’m successful. It’s empowering someone to say, ‘It’s possible’ – to make them understand that they have that potential to grab the opportunities, take the risk and face the fear. You never know what’s behind that door unless you try. It’s a privilege to make a difference in people’s lives.”

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