Sonia Garcia came to the U.S. mainland in 1988.
She and her parents left the Dominican Republic and spent several years in Puerto Rico before coming to pursue their American dreams.
“As I started going through the educational system, I found myself being cocooned by many great people who helped me transition,” said Garcia, assistant dean for undergraduate diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Engineering. “I had all of these great role models who helped me navigate the intricacies of higher education and complete an undergraduate degree—something I never thought I’d be able to accomplish. Navigating the system being an immigrant, a first-generation college student, working full time to help my family pay for my college, was a lot to shoulder, and having these role models was a saving grace.”
Garcia earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston; a master’s degree in human development, family studies, and related services from the University of Rhode Island; and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from Michigan State University. She gives credit to those who helped her along the way.
“Through those role models, I kept meeting other people, and they kept seeing something in me that I didn’t really see,” she said. “I think the reason I ended up in higher education is precisely because of the experiences I had. I want to be one of those individuals doing the same thing for underrepresented minority students.”
Garcia’s career began in Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. It was the right place at the right time for her, and she worked with a program recruiting underserved populations. She then moved to lead recruitment efforts at their College of Geosciences and got involved in STEM education. She later developed an access and inclusion program for underrepresented minority students at Texas A&M’s College of Engineering.
Garcia saw a gap in underrepresented populations in the STEM workforce in Texas and saw the same in Georgia. Her husband took a position with UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and she joined him in Athens in 2022.
“What attracted me the most was the tremendous growth going on in the College of Engineering—that really energized me—and Dean Leo’s desire and vision to grow and support the college’s underrepresented groups in STEM, as defined by the National Science Foundation. He’s an amazing ally,” she said. “I’m humbled to be the inaugural assistant dean, and I was really thrilled to build and develop a program from the ground up and create an element of change.”
Historically, there has been a relatively low number of minorities in engineering. But Garcia wants to be part of that growth. She immediately jumped into the university’s Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Plan and began developing, alongside the leadership team, ideas of how the College of Engineering could add to it. The college’s plan has been approved by the Office of the President and the Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, and they are in the process of implementing it.
As part of that plan, Garcia hopes to contribute to expanding need-based scholarships and professional development opportunities for the college’s undergraduate students. For example, the college just added a chapter of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. This summer, with the support of Georgia Power, she will launch an engineering academic boot camp for incoming first-generation and underrepresented students. Garcia also is collaborating with Undergraduate Admissions on an engineering symposium for high school counselors and STEM teachers. Additionally, she’s looking to create a high school internship program, alongside Jaime Camelio, associate dean for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, and Jorge Rodriguez, industry capstone projects coordinator, that would give juniors and seniors an opportunity to work on research at the Factory in the iSTEM Building and introduce them to STEM fields at UGA.
“We want these students to feel like part of the change and partake in these innovations and be part of STEM and the College of Engineering at UGA,” she said.
Garcia aims to be visible and available, so her days are often filled with students dropping by in between meetings. In fact, she considers those students to be the best and most important part of her job and enjoys “seeing how they grow and change.”
“It’s also a lot of learning for me,” she said. “It opens my eyes to different opportunities to develop relationships with different stakeholders.”
Since she joined UGA, Garcia has published two articles on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and her goal is to use data from her programs and initiatives in the College of Engineering to publish more.
Outside of work, Garcia hopes to learn more about her still relatively new community and explore more of Georgia with her family. They enjoy hiking and often have family movie nights—usually documentaries, comedies and children’s films—on Fridays.
But whether it is exploring Athens or expanding the reach of the College of Engineering, Garcia’s focus remains on building relationships.
“I want people to know that this is not just a job for me. It’s more than that. It’s community, it’s learning, it’s working in teams, it’s creating, and it’s innovating,” she said. “And most important, it’s about people.”