One of Irma Garcia’s greatest mentors was someone who dealt her a harsh blow — the physical education teacher who cut her from her high school basketball team.
“The only thing I knew was pick-up ball,” Garcia recalls. “I actually got cut in high school because I didn’t know the rules. I had to learn the rules to make the team. Then I could take anybody.”
Today, as the athletic director at St. Francis College, a Division I institution in Brooklyn, N.Y., Garcia thrives on teaching others the rules of sports and sports administration. During her ascent to the top sports administrative position at her alma mater, she thrived on the input she received from mentors, but there was little information available about professional development and networking.
“I tell my coaches and staff you have to participate in professional growth and development opportunities,” says Garcia, who coached the St. Francis’ women’s basketball team for 11 years. “You have to be part of committees and learn about things that are going to help you become a better administrator. If you’re a minority, you have to do it because you have to understand the culture.”
Garcia learned of her distinction as the first Hispanic woman to lead a Division I program at a conference where she spoke about opportunities for women in college athletics.
“There are so many qualified women out there that could have been the first,” Garcia says. “I feel that this is something that I was given to do something with. I want to give back.”
Garcia pays particular attention to young Hispanics, largely based on her own experiences.
“Spanish kids, including myself, never ask for anything,” she says. “We don’t ask questions. That’s the way we’re brought up.”
As the third of eight children, she adds, “You didn’t have time to ask questions.” She feels many young Hispanics don’t know about athletic scholarships and the opportunities available through sports and she’s trying to develop programs to get the word out in the community.
As a member of a large family, Garcia learned the fundamentals of teamwork, and basketball taught her the rest. Today, she tries to fuel a team mentality among her colleagues.
Last year, she attended a forum at Rutgers University for women of color in college athletics coordinated by college sports expert and Rutgers professor Emmett Gill, where the women discussed the barriers they face and how to overcome them. She met two other administrators from the New York area, and since then the three women have done their best to congregate monthly to discuss recent events as well as how they can help others.
“I keep telling women of color, ‘You’ve got to get out there. You’ve got to meet other women of color,’” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
During her eight years as St Francis’ associate director of athletics, Garcia bombarded AD Edward Aquilone with questions. One of the most valuable things he taught her was to listen well.
Since she became AD in 2007, Garcia has maintained an open-door policy for coaches, professors and students. She attends all of the college’s home sporting events. A fundamental goal for the future is helping to build new leaders from the students at St. Francis, where Garcia says she’s content to spend the rest of her career.
She says women’s gift of multi-tasking makes them well-suited for jobs in sports administration. It’s just a matter of getting the word out.
“I think most administrators just don’t understand what we bring to the table,” she says. “We have to find ways to let them know.”