Irma Becerra did something so many professionals do when she got her new job as Marymount University’s seventh president: She updated her LinkedIn profile. She received plenty of expected responses, kind words and congratulations on her news. And she got something very unexpected: an invitation to a retirement party for one of her former students.
Becerra was a management information systems professor at Florida International University when Jonathan Beris was pursuing his master’s in MIS there. Beris, whom Becerra remembered as an excellent student, went on to have a 21-year career in the Navy, finally retiring this year as a commander. And his overture reminded her, yet again, why she had left the private sector behind to pursue a career in higher education.
“Sometimes we don’t realize we have an opportunity to make an impact on someone’s life,” said Becerra, 58, who was named to the Marymount presidency in May and assumed the position July 1. “There’s nothing more important in this world. I can’t tell you how blessed I am.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey for Becerra, but it mimics that of many immigrants who have found success in the United States. The Cuba native arrived in this country as a college student with big academic dreams. In the roughly 40 years since, she’s defined her life by a simple, oft-repeated mantra: No one can take her education from her.
Education, a subject that turns the typically soft-spoken woman downright emphatic, has defined many of her biggest milestones. It’s what she thinks makes this country so great. It’s what put her on the trajectory to be the first person of color to lead Marymount, and one of a few women of color to helm a major university in the Washington region.
She now plans to use her new role to further connect the Arlington university with its surrounding business community, making internships an equal pillar of her vision as enrollment, graduation and retention rates. She said she’ll build on Marymount’s track record of practical education to produce a trained workforce that has a higher chance of crossing the commencement stage and landing in full-time employment.
As for Becerra’s own track record, as a professor, an administrator, a mentor, let’s just say a note like Beris, is enough to know she’s still coming out ahead.
Becerra was born in Cuba barely a year after Fidel Castro seized power. Under a cloud of communism and amid deteriorating relations with the U.S., Castro shut down Catholic schools and sent children to work at camps in the Soviet Union, its growing ally.
Becerra and her family fled to Puerto Rico when she was only an infant, one of an estimated 14,000 children who left Cuba from 1960 to 1962 for America or its territories in a campaign dubbed Operation Peter Pan, supported by the U.S. government and Catholic Church.
Growing up, she attended Catholic school in Puerto Rico, but decided to chase her college dreams on the mainland. She enrolled in the University of Miami to pursue her bachelors in electrical engineering.
She was one of only a few female engineering students. And without the experience of working with electronics growing up that many of her male counterparts shared, she struggled early on. There was that electronics lab, when Becerra burnt a transformer while attempting to connect a wire. For the rest of that semester, she said, her classmates suggested she stay on the sidelines of group projects.
“I had to sit there and watch so our group’s grade would not suffer,” she said. “I was often the only woman in my classes, so I had to work harder at whatever I was studying.”
While she pursued a master’s in electrical engineering at the same university, she became an electronics lab instructor and got a job as an engineer with the local utility, Florida Power & Light. By age 23, Becerra was responsible for helping manage the reliability of Florida’s electric grid, often working 14-hour shifts from a computer room. She didn’t mind the work, but it was lacking in fulfillment.
“I really loved the technical aspects of my job,” she said. “But I also really loved people.”
Another opportunity opened up at Florida Power, as a statistical quality control manager, helping impart standards to other employees. Then after six years at the utility, education was calling again. So, she quit and went on to pursue her doctorate, this time at Florida International University, this time with two young children in tow.
Ultimately, she became Florida International’s first woman to earn her doctorate in electrical engineering. This time, she knew, she just wanted to teach.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “That was my vocation and my passion.”
For about a dozen years, she taught at Florida International University, organization information systems, knowledge management, business intelligence, IT entrepreneurship. It was the start of her academic career, but much of what she did, then and later, ventured into the world of business.
In 2009, she became director of the university’s Pino Entrepreneurship Center, which helped foster tech and family-owned companies, determined to focus more on innovation. She had a stint that year as a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Information Research. Moved by the entrepreneurialism in Massachusetts, she returned to FIU to launch the Americas Venture Capital Conference, a platform where Latin American and South Floridian entrepreneurs presented to venture capitalists and other investors.
“This was an opportunity for two groups who would have otherwise not gotten together to get together,” said Douglas Wartzok, FIU’s former provost. “She raised money and flew out to California to talk to Silicon Valley people and got them to come to Miami.”
Wartzok soon after promoted Becerra to vice provost of academic affairs. She then rose to vice president of engagement, where she worked to blur lines between the university and community centers for economic development. In her time as an FIU administrator, she watched the university grow from roughly 40,000 students in 2009 to just shy of 55,000 students in 2014.
For her next move, in 2014, Becerra didn’t go far, but returned to her Catholic roots. She became provost and chief academic officer at St. Thomas University, a small Catholic university in Miami Gardens, with a student roster of about 5,200. There, she helped build more ties with local high schools to create dual enrollment programs and career academies, while rolling out 19 new degree programs driven by market demand, including cybersecurity and nursing.
As enrollment topped 6,200, the university began to see changes at the top. Its 24-year president, Msgr. Franklyn Casale, retired in January 2018. By then, Becerra’s name had shown up in contention for presidencies at other Florida schools, including Florida Gulf Coast University and University of North Florida. In late May, St. Thomas named its new president, David Thompson from Thomas More College, weeks after the announcement of Becerra’s departure for Marymount.
In the end, she said, Marymount appealed to her on a few levels. It was similar to St. Thomas, a small Catholic university with an ethnically diverse student population. And a priority on faith-based women’s education anchored its founding. At Marymount, she will take on relatively stable enrollment, at 3,375 last year, up from 3,340 the previous year, but down slightly from 3,486 in 2013, according to Washington Business Journal research.
“The last seven years has been a transition period for Marymount. We now have a new baseline and Irma has got to build on that,” said Ed Bersoff, a serial government contracting entrepreneur who chairs Marymount’s Board of Trustees, which voted unanimously to bring on Becerra. “She’s already been in many settings with the business community.”
HER FUTURE PLANS
At Marymount, Becerra is already all business. Her chief goal is to create more connections with Greater Washington businesses to allow students across all academic disciplines to gain more internship experiences.
The idea is to replicate internship programs the university has had with, among others, the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, which often hires nursing students out of school. In August 2016, MedStar Health relocated its Ballston rehab office to a North Fairfax Drive site it opened in partnership with Marymount and its physical therapy doctorate program.
Becerra said these relationships will not only open up opportunities for Marymount’s students but also offer local businesses a reliable pipeline of talent with experience in their fields and office environments. Also, she said, such internships are critical to student retention, of particular issue to first-generation immigrants.
“Marymount was an early proponent for internships for students, creating programs that were very innovative and preparing young women for work,” she said. “Students who take an internship are twice as likely to complete on time. It’s hugely important in order to retain students and help them get to graduation.”
She joins after a period of expansion for Marymount. Predecessor Matthew Shank embarked on a $40 million capital campaign and expanded its footprint, demolishing the old “Blue Goose ” building on North Glebe Road and replacing it with Ballston Center, a two-building academic, office and residential complex last year.
Becerra’s next move? Forming ties with the companies that now occupy the Ballston Center’s office space, including IT and business consulting firm CGI, whose Federal Innovation Center recently moved into the top floor. Becerra hopes eventually to integrate Marymount’s cybersecurity program with that new innovation center.
The feeling is mutual. “I have approached them about this,” said Venkat Kodumudi, CGI’s director of innovation who heads up the innovation center. “The children would get exposure to a real work setting and get to work on the latest technology that we are trying to showcase.”
Becerra’s zeroing in on internships is not coincidental. She looks back at her own internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as key to allowing her to thrive at Florida Power & Light thanks to the similarities in computer modeling and operating systems at both organizations. It’s part of her personal history that she told her new faculty team she’ll be imparting to students in her formal introductions before classes started.
“I think it’s important that we tell our students our story so they know things don’t always come easy,” Becerra said. “And it’s OK to make mistakes.”
President, Marymount University
- Age: 58
- Education: Bachelor’s and master’s in electrical engineering, University of Miami; Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Florida International University
- Residence: Arlington
- Family: Two adult children, Anthony and Nicole
- Past jobs: Engineer, Florida Power & Light; professor, director of the Pino Entrepreneurship Center, vice provost for academic affairs, vice president for engagement, Florida International University; provost and chief academic officer, St. Thomas University
- First job: Clerk typist, American Hospital nursing office
- Founded: In 1950 by the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary
- Institution: Independent, co-ed Catholic university
- Location: Ballston
- Tuition: $15,213 per semester for full-time undergraduate students (12-18 credit hours)
- Total employees: 461 full-time, 357 part-time
- Total students: 3,375
- Total faculty: 162
- Fiscal 2017 budget: $78.93 million
7 Questions for Irma Becerra
- Businessperson you most admire: Jim Jennings, prior deputy administrator, NASA. He funded my research in knowledge management at FIU for many years.
- Favorite book: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins
- If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Mother Teresa
- Favorite hobby: Traveling to new countries and learning about their cultures
- Favorite place outside of the office: Anywhere I can spend time with my kids
- Your earliest memory: Going to the beach with my parents in Puerto Rico
- Pet peeve: Tardiness