With such a diverse student population at the University of Arizona, Tannya Gaxiola, the special advisor to the president of UA on public outreach, works to educate and involve students on the importance of a shared sense of community.
Born and raised in Tucson, Gaxiola represents the voice of the university and helps UA President Ann Weaver Hart respond to public issues. Gaxiola prepares Hart for outreach events such as conferences, and helps develop possible questions and answers that will satisfy the Tucson community. She tries to engage Tucson locals at the university and to familiarize students with the history and culture of Tucson.
“My role here is very important,” Gaxiola said, “Because having grown up in the Tucson area, I can identify with the communities around here while others I work with cannot.”
Gaxiola’s association with the UA began not as an employee, but as a student; she graduated from the UA with a bachelor’s degree in finance from the Eller College of Management in 1999. She decided she wanted to get out of the Tucson area, and moved to New York to realize her dream of working on Wall Street. She became an investment banker: a career, she realized quickly, that was dominated by wealthy white men, she said.
“It was obvious that I stood out in this industry,” she said, adding that people often called her a “hick” due to her desert-dwelling background. “I was young, a woman and a minority as a Mexican-American from Tucson, Arizona.”
She decided to make her experience in New York more personal, and began volunteering to teach young kids how to write. She found that experience to be difficult since some of these families came from poor situations.
“It was pretty awful,” she said. “A lot of these kids’ parents would beat them and abuse them and then come to us and say, ‘Alright, well, teach my kid how to read.’ ”
After deciding she wanted to focus more on community outreach, Gaxiola relocated to South America, where she was employed due to her Spanish-speaking abilities. Her ultimate dream, however, was to work in Japan in the business world, and she had learned Japanese while at the UA.
“I remember having a dream of going to Japan and working there after I graduated,” she said. “But in South America, I was just referred to as ‘la niña’ by those I worked with. It was very off-putting because although I was young, and Latina, I knew I was more than that.”
She returned to the US and earned an MBA from Harvard University in 2004. After additional education, she chose to return to Tucson. Gaxiola said she thought that in a smaller city – and her hometown – she would be able to reach more people and have a greater impact on her community.
Gaxiola opened her own business with her father in South Tucson called QuikHelp, which focused on helping the Latino and bilingual community interpret various legal documents. She also became the chairwoman of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, implementing projects to assist growing businesses. Then, in 2011, President and CEO Lea Marquez Peterson named her the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Business Woman of the Year. Gaxiola was still working at the chamber when Hart hired her as a special adviser last May.
In a memo to the University of Arizona community, Hart addressed Gaxiola’s role at the university.
“With her unique mix of corporate and community experience, Tannya will help the UA build lasting community partnerships throughout Southern Arizona and the world,” Hart said.
In addition to this role at the university, Gaxiola was awarded the Arizona Daily Star’s 40 under 40 in 2011, was named the Tucson Woman of Influence by Inside Tucson Business and was recognized during Hispanic Heritage Month in 2011.
Now, Gaxiola travels to various Arizona counties with Hart to advocate for the importance of education and funding for students’ education at the university. She also works closely with residents around campus whose homes in historical neighborhoods are suffering from university construction.
Now, having established herself at the UA, Gaxiola said her passion for community outreach continues to grow. Without her family’s strong work ethic, she reflects, her success would not be as monumental.
“I worked hard. It’s as simple as that. There are no tricks of the trade or anything based on luck or magic,” she said. “I worked hard to get to where I am not only as a woman, but as a Latina. I’m extremely proud of that.”