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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Meet HFSA Member Mario Villa

Mario Villa Director of Student Recruitment and Financial Aid, Texas Law

The Hispanic Faculty/Staff Association (HFSA) is a campus-wide organization that has been making a positive impact on the university through advocacy, education and service. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are spotlighting several HFSA members who are leading efforts to make UT Austin a more inclusive, equitable place for Hispanic/Latino faculty, staff and students. Read on to learn more about Mario Villa’s (M.E.d., Higher Education Administration ‘08/B.A., Sociology ’03) experiences in the organizations—and how he is working to improve financial wellness programs and resources for graduate students in higher education.

Mario Villa
Director of Student Recruitment and Financial Aid, Texas Law; Doctoral Student, Educational Leadership and Policy, College of Education
Years of membership: Four
Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas

Do you have a particular family member who you look to for inspiration?

My grandfather was a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II. He had a lot of respect for the military and for our country—and those values were instilled in my family. When I think about what he went through after he was captured in the Philippines, I don’t feel so overwhelmed by the challenges I face in grad school. Also, knowing what my grandfather sacrificed for himself and his family keeps me on course and focused on success.

Could you tell me about your family heritage?

Both sides of my family have roots in Mexico. My dad’s side of the family is related to Pancho Villa [ a Mexican revolutionary and guerrilla leader]. The political unrest of that time in Mexico coincidentally became the reason why my mom’s ancestors moved to Texas in the early 1900s. My grandparents are American citizens, so technically I’m a fourth-generation immigrant. Now, my parents and sister’s family live in my hometown of Fort Worth and much of my extended family is all over the DFW Metroplex.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? And do you have any favorite family traditions you enjoy celebrating during this time—and all year round? 

This month is a chance to educate, to celebrate and to be visible. I’ve always enjoyed being a part of the HFSA because of the connections with people from similar cultural backgrounds who all reflect the vision of Hispanic Heritage Month. As for traditions, I love the celebrations we have over the holidays with the tamales and the many foods we all look forward to enjoying every year. My parents also have an annual tradition of driving from Fort Worth to El Paso and New Mexico to gather chiles including hatch green chilies. My mom uses them all for her homemade salsa that we eat all year round with everything. It is the best salsa in the world!

 Could you please share a bit about your current research?

I focus on financial preparation for graduate studies for students of all disciplines, not just law school. There are so many issues to contend with when dealing with student loans and finances, such as costs and insurance coverage, credit worthiness markers that vary from state to state and credit card debt, just to name a few.  My research goal is to expand resources to liaisons in higher education systems who have financial conversations with students, and to also help demystify the law school application process and include more financial preparation for graduate study. People need to realize that higher education needs to be more invested in students’ academic and financial wellbeing. It’s a good sign that more conversations are being had about this issue, but we’re only just now scratching the surface.

What made you decide to join the HFSA?

I got involved after the 2016 election when Trump was elected president. The rhetoric from that campaign was really disparaging and a big turning point for me. It galvanized me to be around people from my own cultural heritage, and to keep my ear to the ground with other Latinx staff and faculty.

What HFSA events and activities do you most enjoy?

My favorite event is the fiesta at the end of the year. We are all in a jovial mood as we celebrate the money we raised, and I love the silent auction at the event. I also loved creating the idea with the leadership to make care packages for Latinx students during finals last year. HFSA put together little bags of candy with little study aids like book labels, notepads, pencils and other trinkets along with encouraging messages. It’s the little things that can make a big difference, especially during stressful times.

What do you enjoy most about your work here at UT Austin? 

What really drives me to do this work is the people. In my past role within the Office of Admissions, I see these wide-eyed and bushy-tailed students transform into adults—and I really enjoyed being a part of their journey. In the Law School, I get to see them progress from the application process to passing the bar exam. It’s amazing to see them flourish over the years, and I love working at a place that brings dynamic transformation into people’s lives.