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As She Saw It

VP Dr. LaToya Smith reflects on Longhorn life in the '90s  
Dr. LaToya Smith UT VP for diversity & community engagement

While attending Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. LaToya Smith had some tough choices ahead. Should she apply to an HBCU, a school close to home, or perhaps a large Tier 1 university? She weighed her options and decided to follow her dad’s advice.

“Initially I wanted to go to Spelman College or another HBCU, but my dad thought a PWI would better prepare me for the hostilities of the real world,” Smith says. “I applied to Texas, Baylor and A&M, but when it came down to it UT won because it had the best financial package and was closer to home.”

Not too long after setting foot on the Forty Acres, Smith’s pragmatic feelings soon morphed into a strong sense of burnt orange pride. Now as the first female vice president of diversity and community engagement, she feels indebted to the many faculty, staff and students who helped her become the leader she is today.

“There were other paths I could’ve taken, but I have no regrets about choosing UT,” Smith says. “I do know for a fact that a degree from this university matters—and that I wouldn’t be here today without stepping onto this campus where so many people poured so much love and support into me.”

Smith’s first introduction to Longhorn life happened during the summer before her freshman year, when she stayed on campus and attended a couple classes with her cohort of students in the Preview Program. The program is no longer running, yet it served as a precursor to many of the university’s student success initiatives such as Longhorn Link and Gateway Scholars.

“I have a lot of fond memories of that summer when I lived in the Blanton Residence Hall and learned my way around campus and the UT Co-op,” Smith says. “Some of my best friends to this day were in the Preview Program with me.”

Jester East UT
Photo of Jester Residence Hall by Marsha Miller

Confident and ready to embark on her freshman year, Smith moved into Jester East Residence Hall—a home away from home for the entirety of her undergraduate experience. When her roommate became president of the newly created African Students Association, Smith joined in on group discussions about Black student life.

“It was really interesting listening to their stories and observing the experiences of students who were from African countries,” Smith says. “I didn’t have that connection or exposure back in my hometown, so this was another important opportunity for growth and development.”

Another opportunity came Smith’s way when the Jester East hall director—one of the few African Americans on campus—recommended she apply for a residence adviser position. Little did she know at the time, that part-time job would soon lead her toward a long and rewarding career path in higher education.

“I found a support network with the Division of Food and Housing and found that I really enjoyed assisting students as an RA,” Smith says.  “I had a sense of community with the students, many of them were athletes on the football, basketball and swimming teams.”

Smith also connected with New Student Services while working as an orientation advisor—a role that further strengthened her bond with the university.

PCL Library at UT Austin
While living on campus, Smith spent much of her quiet time on the fifth floor of the PCL Library, which was conveniently located next to her residence hall. Photo by Marsha Miller

“As an orientation adviser, I learned so much about the university’s history and traditions—as well as resources that I never would have known about,” Smith says. This was my first foray into my career in higher education, and I found that I really enjoyed supporting staff and students.”

After graduating with a BA in psychology in 1999, Smith journeyed to Texas Tech University to receive her MA in marriage and family counseling in 2001. She later returned to her alma mater to pursue a doctorate in psychology. While living and working off campus, she found her second stint at UT Austin to be much less enriching.

“I felt isolated—and that’s something a lot of graduate students deal with, especially if they don’t feel connected to their cohort,” Smith says. “I was too busy working to get involved in extracurriculars and student orgs. Had I been working part time on campus with a graduate assistantship, I would have tapped into those resources. Instead, I felt more like a full-time professional taking classes rather than a graduate student who was working.”

During this time, Smith found her community with students and staff at the HBCU Huston-Tillotson University, where she experienced a different side of college life on the road not taken. During this time, she decided to follow her interests and switched career paths from psychology to higher education administration.

“I was working at a safe, comfortable place where I was the majority, and then I would come back to UT where I was sometimes the only Black student in the classroom. It was like stepping into two completely different worlds,” says Smith, who earned her Ph.D. in higher education administration in 2006.

Smith enjoyed the immediate sense of belonging at Huston-Tillotson, yet she kept feeling the pull back to the Forty Acres.

“I found my personality doesn’t like to be in situations that are homogenous,” Smith says. “I tend to thrive when there are diverse types of people in one setting. When I think of my circle of friends in high school, they all came from different genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds. That’s been a consistent pattern throughout my life.”

With her passion for diversity and inclusion, Smith found a natural fit within the DDCE, where she will continue to pay it forward to the university that prepared her this high-level position. A current challenge, she notes, is handling controversial topics such as the “Eyes of Texas” song with a large, passionate campus community.

UT football game photo. by Marsha Miller
UT football game photo by Marsha Miller

“While listening to differing viewpoints at virtual events and meetings, I’ve found that not everyone feels the same about ‘The Eyes of Texas,’” Smith says. “There are a lot of Black alumni and students who don’t see the song in the same way as others, but sometimes those stronger voices get amplified and drown out others.”

As the voice of UT Austin’s diversity and inclusion measures, Smith must take the lead on these difficult and sometimes polarizing conversations—but it’s a task she is ready to take on. Moving forward, she aims to help build upon the legacies of former vice presidents Dr. Gregory J. Vincent and Dr. Leonard M. Moore by making the Forty Acres a more welcoming, safe and accessible space for all and further improving university-community partnerships.

While the university has made great strides since its early years of integration, she notes that much more work needs to be done.

“The development of the DDCE, the Multicultural Engagement Center, the Gender and Sexuality Center and ethnic studies programs speak to the university’s progress since the 90s,” Smith says. “If you look across the country at other universities, you’ll see there is nothing like the DDCE, which serves as a beacon of light for UT Austin.  Its continued support and development is a clear sign of progress for the university.”

Interested in learning more about Dr. Smith’s good work on campus? Tune into the TX512 podcast to hear her interview hosted by the Office of Admissions.