Texas Diversity Council Board Member Profile

Lisa Firmin came to her work in diversity and inclusion at University of Texas San Antonio, not through a degree, but through a 30-year career in the armed forces. When Firmin retired from active duty three years ago, she was the highest ranking Latina in the United States Air Force. She had earned a Bronze Star in combat, held her own with Marines and led hundreds and thousands of people in the harshest of climates.

Firmin joined the military immediately after college. It was leadership she was after and the chance to make a difference. But in the male-dominated environment of the 1980's Air Force, she says, "I stuck out like a sore thumb. All eyes were on me. I was the token one."

She fought hard to be respected for her knowledge, her expertise and professionalism. "I really, really wanted to be known as a professional officer first. I did not want people to see me as a woman or a Latina," Firmin says. "Years later, I realized of course that it was important for people to see me as I really was, a Latina AND a professional officer, I was both and COULD be both."

As she earned promotions and increased responsibilities, Firmin realized there were fewer and fewer people of color and women sitting beside her. Latinas in the Air Force were being left behind in leadership assignments, not because they were not qualified, but for lack of opportunity. "I realized how rare I was. I was one of five Latina leaders in the Air Force at that point," Firmin says.

"I didn't start out in the field of diversity and inclusion, but I certainly gravitated to it when I realized I had the opportunity to make a difference. I tried to use my position, my rank and my authority to make that difference," Firmin says.

She treaded softly but firmly advocating for increased diversity and inclusion in the Air Force. "I started doing more and more to meet with people, talk with them, share my story and try to motivate them. It's not all peaches and cream and it's not easy. There are times it is very hard and you sometimes think it would be easier to say, 'Forget it.' But at the end of the day it is more important to go on because you have so many people behind you," Firmin says.

"I realized I could never underestimate the power of being a role model, even a quiet role model who does her job day in and day out, who is ethical and does the right thing when no one is looking. You may not realize it, but everyone is looking," Firmin says.

To be sure, Firmin learned some lessons the hard way, because she lacked role models in the Air Force. "I understand what it's like to not have a role model. In the military, the first time I worked for a woman I had been in the service 18 years and that was at the Pentagon. I never worked for a Latina or Latino ever."

Despite that, and due in part to an admitted stubborn streak, Firmin developed an adaptable, creative, and flexible leadership style that she now puts to work on behalf of UTSA as their associate provost for faculty/student diversity and recruitment.

"It is exciting to see the young kids coming in and be able to advise them and mentor them. There's such hope and promise in them," Firmin says. In so many cases, she sees her younger self in them and that's why she's dedicated to reaching out beyond stereotypical barriers like socio-economic status.

Firmin came to the university with a plan to build a scholar program to recruit a diverse selection of top students with merit scholarship, combined with individual programming in leadership and professional development, a study abroad component and a service component. "It's taken about three years to bring that to fruition. We have a pilot cohort that started this fall with just a few students and we are so excited to finally have this come alive," Firmin says.

Firmin successfully established diversity and inclusion awards for students, faculty and staff as part of UTSA's Presidential Awards, which traditionally recognize teaching, research, and staff excellence. Often it's the work of people in the "shadows" that make a huge difference in diversity and inclusion. It was time, she says, they were recognized.

"UTSA has made great progress, however I believe there is more that we can do in the areas of diversity and inclusion." For example, some of the areas that her office will explore this year are; underrepresented groups among UTSA's faculty, women in STEM, LGBTQ and the transition needs of veterans.

"I am passionate about education and helping people through diversity and inclusion. I work 24/7 to do this," Firmin says. "You’ll find that most people who work in diversity are just like this. They care so much."

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