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Newman Fellow Uses Empathy and Volunteerism To Improve Community


By Sam Byrd

In Miguel Garcia’s world, kindness and community are king. Thanks to the University of Houston-Downtown junior’s efforts to raise up his fellow Houstonians in need, the psychology major received a major accolade from the Boston-based non-profit organization Campus Compact when he was selected as UHD’s newest member of the 2021 cohort of Newman Civic Fellows.

The Newman Civic Fellowship, named for Campus Compact co-founder Frank Newman, is a one-year experience tailored for students who have demonstrated a capacity for leadership and an investment in solving public problems. The organization, which works to advance the public purposes of higher education, selected only 212 students from 39 states, Washington, D.C., and Mexico for this distinction.

“When I learned that I am a Newman Fellow, I felt a welling of joy and gratification. This is a great honor and an incredible boost for me to make an impact in the community. I feel very grateful to be given this opportunity,” Garcia said.

The Path to Leadership
For Garcia, public service is nothing new – he has been volunteering since childhood. As a young person, Miguel accompanied his grandmother as she delivered food, clothing and other necessities to needy persons in the community. He soon began volunteering to mow lawns for the elderly persons in their neighborhood. This initial engagement sparked a desire to help others throughout his life. He continued to serve in his community through programs such as the Brighter Bites Program and the LULAC National Education Service Centers, even while holding down a full-time job to support his family.

With more than one dozen years working in oil and gas, Garcia chose to return to college and picked his major based on his experiences as a youth and in the working world.

“I worked in oil and gas where people spend a lot of time isolated due to work, and people’s mental health and well-being were not a priority. That’s what drove me to pursue a psychology degree,” he said.

Once he enrolled at UHD, his dedication and generosity were noticed. He was nominated as a as a Newman Fellow candidate by Dr. Julie Wilson, and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning organized his application packet. Former Interim President Antonio D. Tillis wrote his letter of recommendation.

In the letter, Dr. Tillis said “Miguel Garcia is a tireless and compassionate young person who has been working for many years to improve the lives of persons in low-income communities. As he has matured in the area of community service, Miguel has decided to focus on the area of mental health. During these COVID-19 times, mental health has become a greater priority, and Miguel has become engrossed in helping those in need by learning and volunteering. As a Newman Fellow, I am confident Miguel will learn from other fellows, community leaders and teachers, and bring back his knowledge to help community members in the Greater Houston area.”

Garcia has delivered on that expectation.

The Heart of a Volunteer
Garcia joined UHD’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion to continue his work. Among its many goals, this center strives to help students from marginalized communities who may feel stressed at the University by creating inclusivity. Through this relationship, he began volunteering in the counseling offices at the Montrose Center and the Legacy Community Health Clinic. The Montrose Center focuses on ensuring the mental health of the LGBTQ population. The Legacy Community Health is affiliated with United Way, and its mission is to connect communities with all health services.

As with most activities in 2020, COVID-19 has challenged people and organizations to find inventive ways to perform normal duties, which has impacted the way Garcia has worked with these nonprofits.

“It’s been difficult. The organizations don’t do a lot of in-person volunteering now because of COVID-19, but they still do a few activities,” he said. “If there is any opportunity to help out, I always love to do it…whether it’s a supply drive or working a suicide hotline. There are many things that I miss doing, but hopefully I’ll be able to do it in a larger capacity as the coronavirus vaccination continues its rollout.”

Advice for Gators
An avid horticulturalist, Garcia compares his success at the University to tending his garden, and recommends future Gators follow the same advice.

“Plant your seed in the right garden. Tend to that garden in the best way you can, and watch the result. Surround yourself with people who have your interest at heart, who understand where you’re coming from, and who can guide you to live a more fulfilling life. Surround yourself with positive people who will also give you the hard truth when necessary,” he said. “Learn how to be disciplined. It might get immensely challenging moving forward with all the things happening in the world, but you have to keep your eyes on where you’re going and not let the obstacles you may encounter distract you.”

What Next?
Garcia’s immediate plans are to graduate from UHD on the dean’s list and make an impact on people who didn’t think it was possible to go back to school and change their careers.

“I was afraid to do these things, and I contemplated very much about my next moves and my impact,” he said.

He also wants to continue on this path of service.

“After I graduate, I want to continue reaching out to organizations and helping others, whether that’s starting new programs for an initiative’s rollout into the community or jumping into an organization to become a full-time part of their team. I plan to continue bringing positive changes to the community,” he said.

As a Newman Fellow, Garcia will receive perks to help him develop as a public servant. Through the fellowship, Campus Compact provides a variety of learning and networking opportunities, including a national conference of Newman Civic Fellows in partnership with the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The fellowship also provides fellows with access to apply for exclusive scholarship and post-graduate opportunities.

The Newman Civic Fellowship is supported by the KPMG Foundation and Newman’s Own Foundation. Learn more at compact.org/newman-civic-fellowship.