By Ashley Festa
Dr. Patricia Watkins, who has been part of the University of the Incarnate Word community for 21 years and vice president of International Affairs since 2004, will leave a legacy of progress and a collection of friends both locally and abroad when she retires from UIW in May.
“This is the most wonderful job I’ve ever had anywhere,” she said, noting that she was in her 50s when she joined and helped form the Brainpower Connection. It was part of her job as Incarnate Word High School principal and dean of college preparatory programs to help launch the concept of the Brainpower Connection in 1989. At the time, the schools involved were St. Peter Prince of Apostles elementary school, St. Anthony elementary school and IWHS. In the mid-1990s, St. Anthony Catholic High School joined the Brainpower schools.
Over the past 21 years, Watkins also worked in the position of dean of university collaborative programs and dean of the Dreeben School of Education. It was during this time that “Lou (Agnese) asked me to go to China and open a school there.”
Building China Incarnate Word, Watkins said, was the most difficult part of her time at UIW. Learning the culture and bridging the physical distance were the most challenging aspects.
“Asian culture is a lot different from South Texas. We had a lot to learn,” she admitted. “Things that seem so simple just weren’t, like holding a business meeting. A simple translation of words is not enough.”
UIW needed to establish with Chinese officials that the university wanted to create an educational facility, not a religious one. “We had to show that we were teaching world religions as a history course, not as a faith-based course.”
Watkins has lots of tales to tell about her work visiting China, but none as shocking as the time she was lucky enough to take a weekend detour on her way back to the United States.
After working in China for weeks, she was ready for her flight back to Texas. She had an 11-hour layover in Singapore, and though she was exhausted, she looked forward to a taxi cab ride through the city for a tour.
On her way out the door from her apartment in China, she heard the phone ring. She did not want to unlock the door and go back inside, but she decided the call might be important. When she answered, Agnese was on the line telling her that he thought the Singapore layover was too exhausting and had arranged for her to have an overnight layover in Hawaii instead. Though she was disappointed about not getting to tour Singapore, she was grateful for the unexpected down time.
When she reached California a few days later, she called Agnese to let him know she was back in the continental U.S. “I’m dead, but I’m home,” she told him. He replied, “Not as dead as you would have been.” He explained to her that the flight she was to take from Singapore to the U.S. had gone down and 83 people had been killed. Her assigned seat had been in a section with no survivors.
“Had Lou not been so kind (to change my flight) or had he called two minutes later, I would have been in my cab on the way to the airport,” she said.
When she became vice president, China Incarnate Word was placed under her direction in International Affairs. Eventually, UIW supervision of the Mexico campus was also placed under her leadership, and Marcos Fragoso was hired to expand it. Fragoso has been named her successor and will take over the VP position at the end of May.
“Marcos isn’t following me. We have walked side-by-side for a long time,” Watkins said.
With Watkins at the helm, UIW has seen its international student population rise steadily, from 229 in 2004 to 444 in fall 2009. The number of countries represented on campus has grown from 41 to 62, and the number of UIW sister schools has grown to 93 schools in 35 countries. Watkins is quick to point out that none of these things could have happened without the “great staff in International Affairs.”
Despite all her accomplishments, “things will never be finished,” she said. But she trusts the job in the hands of Fragoso. “Marcos will change things that need to be changed; things I would change if I were here, plus those in his own vision,” she said.
After her retirement, she will work as a consultant to Agnese until December. Then, she plans to spend more time with her husband, Charles. She also has two grown children, Noel and Mike.
“People ask me ‘Are you going to travel? And I say, ‘No! That’s the one thing I’m not going to do.’ ”
In fact, early in her marriage, she traveled often for her husband’s job, which she believes prepared her for the work at UIW. Her son was born in Newfoundland.
“Raising children in another country makes you a little more conscious of the culture than you would be if you were living there by yourself,” she said.
“This has been the most fulfilling and exciting job I’ve ever had,” she said. “You are constantly being challenged by some project that involves different cultures and you must create an atmosphere where students are comfortable. It’s a challenge.”