Garza was born in San Benito, Texas to a family of migrant farm workers. Her father was a crew chief and the family traveled from Texas to Florida to Georgia harvesting crops. They first came to Ohio in 1968 and worked on farms in Old Fort, Green Springs, Oak Harbor and Fremont.
She received most of her early education at Lindsey Elementary School but dropped out when she reached junior high.
“I quit because it was too hard and I was so far behind,” Garza said. “I was the oldest of eight children and so I had to help my mom.”
She married at 15 and continued to work in the fields with her husband and eventually their oldest daughter, Norma. One day, while they were working, Norma approached her mother with an idea.
“We were picking pickles. It was summer,” Garza recalled. “She was mad. She was 17 and she just said I am not going to do this all my life. We’re going to do something.”
Garza was pregnant with her fourth child at the time and during a doctor’s visit, they saw a pamphlet from Terra Community College and decided to investigate.
The two of them left the fields one day, with muddy shoes and all, and walked into the Terra admissions office.
“I was ashamed,” Garza said. “But we talked to Juanita Sánchez (currently the assistant director of the Terra College Foundation) and she helped us so much.”
Watching her daughter enroll in college was inspiring.
“I was so proud of her, seeing her and how her eyes just lit up,” Garza said. “I thought, that’s for me, too.”
During the next two years, while Norma was completing her degree in law enforcement, Garza was preparing herself for college as well. She took General Equivalency Diploma classes at Vanguard Vocational School and in four months earned her GED.
“Something was planted in me,” she said.
When Norma graduated in 1995, she approached her mother.
“She said, ‘Now it’s your turn, Mom,” Garza recalled. “She helped me enroll at Terra. I started in early childhood education because I had worked with daycare before.”
It was not easy. While Garza’s parents had always spoken some English, Spanish was her first language.
“I would sit in the car and cry for half an hour,” she said. “But the professors were really good. They would stop and let me catch up. They were so understanding.”
After a few classes, she received the chance to serve in the Americorps program and began working for Rural Opportunities. That college degree would have to wait.
Garza was able to work with migrant workers through her job and also earn $10,000 in scholarships. In 2003, she went back to Terra, this time to major in social work.
“It took me a long time,” she said with a smile. “But I kept thinking, I have to show my kids that we can do it. And show other migrants what they can do. They don’t have to stay in the fields.”
Her first two years back, Garza was still taking her notes in Spanish.
“But this year was easy,” she said. “It really sunk in. I took my notes in English.”
Sánchez continued to be a mentor.
“Juanita made me feel at home. She would help me with anything I needed,” Garza said. “I feel at home at Terra.”
Sánchez is a first generation college graduate herself, so no matter what position she has held with the college, she has always been a contact for Hispanic students. Encouraging them is a natural thing for her, and students like Garza are memorable.
“Yolanda is one of those extra special students, especially being a non-traditional aged student,” Sánchez said. “I admire her for her perseverance, for reaching this point in her life and for graduating.”
Garza was also taken by the way she was treated by faculty and staff at Terra.
“The professors treat everybody the same,” she said. “I just feel so good and lift up my collar when they walk by and say, ‘Hi. How are you?’ I feel Terra is a very good college.”
This year, Garza became involved with the Terra Latino Student Union. She said much of their work was one-on-one assisting and encouraging other Latino students and would-be students.
Recently, Rural Opportunities hired Garza as a field service specialist. She’s pleased to be working again with migrant farm workers. She continues to encourage her clients to pursue an education at Terra.
“I want to plant a seed like someone planted in me,” she said. “There are more opportunities than the fields.”
Garza has even bought a house and plans to work for Rural Opportunities into the foreseeable future. Someday, she would like to work with Hospice to help those who are Spanish-speaking.
And she’s not finished with school.
“I think I would like to get my bachelor’s in social work,” she said. “Or even something small. I just want to keep up with learning. I love learning different things. And it’s not just from professors; it’s from everybody.”
Now married, Norma (Leija) is taking a couple more classes at Terra before she transfers to Tiffin University to continue her studies in forensic science. She now has two children of her own.
Garza’s family, including her parents, children and grandchildren, will be in the audience at Friday’s commencement ceremony.
“I’m very excited,” Garza said. “I never thought I would get to this place.”