I mentor and coach many active duty veterans and now those in the private sector.
Name: Lisa Carrington Firmin
Title: Associate Vice President, Veteran and Military Affairs
Company: The University of Texas at San Antonio
Major City Where You Work: San Antonio, Texas
City Where You Live: San Antonio, Texas
What’s your personal and cultural background? Where did you grow up?
Soy Tejana! I am primarily Mexican American and Native American with some European heritage. I was born in South Texas in what we affectionately call the valley, but grew up and traveled all over the world since my father was in the military. Even though we lived overseas a lot, we always came back to Tejas in between assignments to visit with our many extended familia.
Why do you do what you do for a living?
I want to help others, especially those from underserved populations. I know firsthand how hard it can be when you are an “other” and different from what society deems as the norm. I want to use my expertise and years of experience to help others so that they may not experience what I did. Originally, when I started at UTSA, I was working more broadly on that. Now, I focus specifically on helping student veterans be successful, both personally and professionally.
How did you end up in your line of work? Was it accidental or were you strategic about it?
I think that God’s hands were very strategic in the path that I have led throughout my life. I certainly believe it. Placing me at this job provided me the opportunity to work at a Hispanic Serving Institution where I can advocate and support student veterans, a large portion of whom are from underserved populations. I totally relate to those I serve. I had a long and successful career in the military, serving at key leadership roles in peacetime and in combat and upon retirement was offered an opportunity to work at UTSA. I have been in higher education for about ten years now. Initially, I focused on diversity and recruitment founding the UTSA Top Scholar program, creating the President’s Distinguished Diversity Awards program, and led efforts to add gender identity/gender expression to the nondiscrimination policy. Just a few years ago, I was asked if I would be interested in creating a new department to serve and support military-affiliated students. Of course, I said yes! I firmly believe that every experience I have undertaken in my life has led me to the next opportunity that has been placed in my path. This has been no accident; faith, hard work, education, and training all beget each opportunity I have been provided.
What factors shaped your career and business aspirations?
I always wanted to be a leader. From a very young age, I knew that college was something that could help me get there. Of course it helped that my father told me that an education was powerful and something I needed to get ahead and didn’t let me rest until I did go to college. I became the first person in my familia to graduate college. Afterward, I started looking for leadership opportunities and the military provided me the perfect leadership laboratory in real life! I wanted to prove that women could excel as leaders in the military and worked every day of my career to pave the way and be an example to others. My ultimate leadership test was in combat and I know I aced that because of how my troops treated me and of course, there is my Bronze Star. After that, I became more convinced that I needed to continue to lay the groundwork to help others and everything I have done since remains proof of that.
What does a typical day or week in your professional life look like?
I would say I do spend a fair amount of time on the following; Advocacy, Engagement, Partnerships, Collaboration, and Mentorship. There is not a day that goes by that I am not doing one of these. For example, each day I coach and mentor others to help them grow their perspective and learn how to problem-solve more effectively. My experience serving in combat provides me a unique perspective when it comes to leading and managing in a crisis. I find myself doing more direct intervention, instructing my staff to escalate issues faster in the current environment due to the impacts of the pandemic on those we serve. Each day moves very quickly when you are in a crisis so I am ensuring that we are moving out accordingly to help our student veterans.
I typically facilitate support at various levels by exercising a large network consisting of colleagues from all sectors; higher education, government, military, nonprofit and private sector. We worked to ensure student veterans still received their benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and in fact, I have been in touch with colleagues at the national level on this issue. Additionally, I serve on a national committee to advocate for minority veterans and have been meeting regularly with fellow members and advisors. I am especially concerned about how the current pandemic might affect minority veterans. Recently, I worked to ensure we could provide graduating student veterans their red, white, and blue graduation cords in person at our campus so they can wear them with graduation gowns and take photos. Even if it is a virtual ceremony, it is very important that they are able to wear their colors as veterans. We had to get special permission to hand out the cords due to the current environment, as we are all working remotely. The graduating veterans were very appreciative and came by in their cars to the campus to pick up their cords. Of course, we practiced social distancing and wore our masks.
How do you balance the work-life challenges?
It is hard to balance work-life and I venture to say that there is never a true balance. You just have to find what works for you and your family. For me, working and helping others is not so much work, but my life’s purpose. For example, in what you would call my off duty time, I founded a company, my own LLC. This was done primarily to help others and protect my intellectual property. My first project was a series of workshops, titled Transition with CLASS, for the youth at my church. CLASS defined as Communication, Leadership, Attitude, Situational Awareness, and Scholarly Pursuit. It is a series of workshops to help the senior youth transition more seamlessly to college. Of course, I did not charge for my work. I did the work pro bono and am happy to be able to serve my church and mi pastora in that way.
I gain great satisfaction in teaching, training, coaching, and mentoring others so that they can be successful. Providing tools to help others grow is important to me and I believe stems from my background and how I had to struggle and had little to no mentorship or role models professionally. It is easy to take life for granted and slip into routines. I learned some hard lessons about how precious life really is while serving in Iraq. I try not to take things too seriously, laugh as much as I can, and what truly brings me joy is being with my grandchildren. They are so special and all the stories you hear from your tias before that said wait till you have grandchildren, your life will change, they are all true. My son says I see his kids more than I did him. He says I was gone way too much when he was growing up. He was right. I cannot change the past. The military is a hard life for families, but I can certainly change the future, and spending more time with mis nietos is right up there!
What advice do you have for others in the business sector trying to make it day after day?
Make sure it is something you truly love doing and part of a bigger plan, because the road is long and fraught with obstacles along the way. You will never stick it out if it is not truly something that you really want to do. I would also encourage everyone to have more than just a Plan A, which for me was the military. We all need to have a Plan B and Plan C. I am on Plan B right now as I work in higher education and have already made some inroads into my Plan C with the formation of my LLC a few years ago. Plan C will afford me the opportunity to spend more time with my familia and still help others on a more limited basis.
Did your background/ethnicity create any obstacles for you? Any advantages? How so?
Are you kidding me? As a Mexican American woman (Latina) in the Armed Forces, every day was a challenge. You have to remember I came into the military many years ago, retiring in 2010. Let’s just say when I first came in the military I was told and reminded quite frequently that I didn’t belong. I became an “other” and that lasted pretty much my entire career. I really do not want to go into all the negative experiences that I underwent because they were not pleasant. I am sure you can imagine how difficult it was being the only woman or Latina among many men at most of my units, especially early on in my career.
One advantage was that I was constantly underestimated and instead of staying mad or offended, I leveraged that and used it. As I rose up the ranks, I began to see less and less people who looked like me, both in terms of my gender and ethnicity. That is when I realized that I could make a difference and started becoming a more vocal advocate. I recall one time at a base in North Dakota, a young Latina enlisted airman came up to me and said, “Ma’am, I was planning on getting out of the service after my first enlistment until I saw you. I had no idea that Latinas could achieve your rank and leadership level”. This happened to me a lot. So, I stayed in and tried to make a difference and mentor as many women and men as I could. One good thing about the military is that everyone, and I mean everyone, gets paid the same if you are the same rank. It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man, if you achieve a certain rank, you get the pay of that rank. I cannot say the same for outside the military.
What inspires you in your work life? What turns you off?
Seeing those I have helped along the way achieve success really inspires me to keep on. I celebrate their triumphs and their promotions like they were my own! I mentor and coach many, some still on active duty, some veterans now in the private sector, and women of color in all sectors. What turns me off is incompetence or lack of ganas in anyone.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell my younger self what it took me years to figure out via the school of hard knocks, training, and education. My top three pieces of advice for others as well as my younger self:
1) Be competent,
2) Define Success for Yourself, and
3) Know Yourself.
If you could have dinner with any person—living or dead–who would it be? Why?
I would like to have dinner with my great, great grandfather. He was born and lived in Mexico and I’m sure he had a tough life of sacrifice. It would be an honor to learn firsthand from an elder in my familia how life was back then and how some of our customs evolved over the years. My generation was the first to complete high school and go on to graduate from college. My familia has come a long way from very humble beginnings. It would be amazing to share our own stories with each other and to let him know that his and the sacrifices made by others in our familia, lay the foundations that helped change the trajectories of our lives. I imagine he would be surprised to learn that his great, great-granddaughter served in the military, all over the world, at the Pentagon, and in combat.
What is your favorite quote/saying?
“Watch your thoughts; they become words,
Watch your words; they become actions,
Watch your actions; they become habits,
Watch your habits; they become character,
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny”
I have tried to live my life with this as my mantra. There is some dispute as to who said it first, but the following have been given credit for saying it: Lao Tzu and Frank Outlaw.