Diana Natalicio at her final UTEP commencement as president in May 2019. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso)

Diana Natalicio, the groundbreaking president at the University of Texas at El Paso for more than three decades, died on Friday, her family announced. She was 82.

“My sister loved El Paso, and she chose to retire here. She loved the weather, the mountains, the food, and the wonderful people. She had a great and accomplished life. She loved UTEP and most of all, she loved UTEP’s students,” her brother, Bill Siedhoff, said in a statement.

Natalicio’s successor as UTEP president, Heather Wilson, said: “Dr. Natalicio will be remembered by many as a pioneer in higher education. She defied the critics who said it wasn’t possible to open access to higher education to everyone and still offer a top tier educational experience. Her sustained commitment to provide all residents of the Paso del Norte region access to outstanding higher education opportunities has helped make UTEP a national success story.”

Natalicio was born in St. Louis and worked as a switchboard operator after graduating from high school. Seeking a more fulfilling career, she enrolled at Saint Louis University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Texas at Austin.

She came to UTEP in 1971 as a linguistics professor, and rose to be a department chair, a dean and vice president. She was named interim president in 1987 when Haskell Monroe resigned, and was named to the job permanently in 1988 by the University of Texas Board of Regents. She retired in 2019.

UTEP had one doctoral program when she assumed the presidency; the university had 22 when she retired. She was a tireless champion of access to higher education, especially for Latinos and other under-represented populations.

“I am a huge advocate of public higher education because, when I was growing up, there were no public universities in St. Louis,” Natalicio said in 2019. “I began to understand how important access to higher education was for students like me who were the first in their family to go to college [or] from families with modest means.”

More than 90,000 UTEP students graduated during her presidency. Some of those graduates took to social media to talk about the influence that Natalicio had on their lives.

El Paso leaders praised Natalicio on Friday after learning of her death.

“Dr. Natalicio was fearless in her pursuit of excellence and her vision transformed my alma mater @utep and our borderland. We are forever indebted to her,” U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said in a tweet.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said: “Dr. Natalicio was an incredible human being who dedicated her life to UTEP and to the thousands of students whose lives she changed for the better. I will always be grateful for her friendship and her counsel. She made UTEP the tier one university it is today, and she made El Paso shine bright throughout the world.”

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said he once toured the county with Natalicio “and I was amazed by the number of former students who were eager to share their stories with her.”

Natalicio’s longtime aides said she will be remembered for the thousands of students whose lives she touched.

“Her legacy will be reflected in the accomplishments of all the students she helped succeed. She stood up for them no matter the odds, and you knew the odds were in your favor if you had Dr. Natalicio in your corner,” said Richard Adauto, UTEP’s former executive vice president who worked with Natalicio for her entire tenure as president.

“She loved baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals, root beer floats, brats, the beautiful Franklin Mountains and UTEP and its students most of all. I am devastated, but deeply grateful to have been part of her family at UTEP and her life,” said Estrella Escobar, who served as an associate vice president at UTEP. 

Services have not yet been announced.

Diana Natalicio at her final UTEP commencement as president in May 2019. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso)