oberto 'Bob' Garza ('74) never dreamed of going to college as a kid. Frankly, he knew his family could not afford it. Many of his family members did not finish high school, so college was a long shot, and working for a major corporation didn't seem possible, either.
Despite those odds, Garza did earn his high school diploma. Shortly after, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. He hoped his four years of service to his country would help him land more promising career options. When he returned to civilian life, Garza began taking computer programming classes at a technical school in Corpus Christi.
"Out of 22 students, I was the only one who graduated," Garza says. "My instructor said, 'You really have a good aptitude for logic and programming. But, you need to go get a degree.'"
That motivation led Garza to UNT, where he enrolled in the university's budding business computer information systems program, which at the time was under the business administration department in what is now the G. Brint Ryan College of Business.
Eventually, he transitioned into full-time work at UNT's data center, which gave him hands-on experience programming an IBM 360-50, the same IBM system he would later be charged with running at Southwestern Bell, the precursor to AT&T.
"I often tell folks when we're talking about my career that UNT was a lifesaver. It allowed me the opportunity to work and go to school at the same time and prepared me to go into work at a major corporation," says Garza, who worked at AT&T for 36 years before retiring as the company's governmental relations director in external affairs in 2011.
Garza's life after AT&T hasn't slowed down much. He has remained deeply involved in the community. Just a month after his retirement, he was elected to the Carrollton City Council and served nearly six years before moving back to Denton in 2017.
Garza and his wife, Emily, who was a staff member in the physics department in the '70s, are members of the UNT Alumni Association and avid supporters of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business and UNT Athletics. Last fall, Garza was honored with the UNT Alumni Association's Outstanding Alumni Service Award for his exceptional volunteer service to UNT and the community.
"Now retired, I have gotten involved at UNT and volunteered my services because I want to show my gratitude and appreciation for what UNT has done for me," Garza says.
As a newly designated Minority-Serving and Hispanic-Serving Institution, UNT is now eligible to receive additional federal funds to support and expand programs for Hispanic students. Garza is taking an active role in helping the university to better recruit, retain and build leadership among UNT's Hispanic student population. He is partnering with the UNT administration and the Multicultural Center on a new initiative that will build a support system for low-income Latinx students, especially those who are first-generation college students like Garza.
"Oftentimes we lose a lot of these students because of unexpected circumstances," Garza says. "We want to help mitigate those obstacles that could prevent them from enrolling or staying at UNT."
Plans are still in the works, but Garza is seeking Latinx alumni who can serve as mentors to students and hopes to eventually engage alumni in all major cities to help in recruiting. An advisory council made up of representatives from divisions across the university also has been formed.
"We want to make students feel like it's the university that will welcome them," Garza says, "and make them feel like they belong."
Why did you choose UNT?
My wife's sister and brother-in-law were living in Denton at the time. My sister-in-law Hilda Charles was working in grants and budgets department in the administration building at UNT, and my brother-in-law had a job at the Denton Record-Chronicle. Having family in Denton motivated us to move there in late 1970, and I enrolled at UNT in January 1971.
What are your favorite UNT memories?
While attending UNT, we enjoyed going to football games at Fouts Field. My wife Emily and I took my daughter Julie Garza Timms ('93) to see the Mean Green when she was just a baby and now she's a UNT business alumna herself working as a teacher at Flower Mound High School! My son Robert Randall Garza ('96) also graduated from UNT with a degree in marketing and has worked for AT&T for 23 years. My brother Hector Zamora ('77) and his wife Teri ('77) both graduated from UNT as well.
I also remember my time working for the UNT data center. At the time, registration was a manual process. Departments would set up tables and students would line up in the Super Pit to sign up for classes using IBM cards. We had trays and trays of IBM cards we had to run through the system so we could get students assigned to each of their classes and create rosters for the professors. It was a huge task in which I was heavily involved.
Were there any faculty members who served as mentors during your time at UNT?
I was limited in the time I could have to cultivate my relationships with professors because I had to work, but Professor Steve Guynes, who is still teaching at UNT, was very instrumental in my pursuing of different programming languages such as COBOL, Fortran and PL/1. We often discussed my dreams of working for a major IT company using my programming skills.
A classmate, Allen Jones, also was a good support system for me. Like me, Allen served in Vietnam and was going to school and raising a family, so we had a lot in common. We still stay in touch.
How did your UNT experience prepare you for success in your career?
My first job out of college was working in accounting for Southwestern Bell in Lubbock. When I walked into the computer center, it was like I was back at the UNT data center. It was identical. It was an IBM 360-50 shop. In two days, I was running that data center like I knew what I was doing. It was a godsend. To walk into a Fortune 100 company and into a job where I knew exactly what to do, it was incredible. I owe all of that to UNT.
Working for AT&T for 36 years, what changes did you see in the industry?
Incredible change, and I felt like because of my computer background, I was able to transition pretty easily. One of the first major technology changes I was involved with was the introduction of the IBM 1287, which completely changed how telephone calls were charged. In the old system, when a long-distance call was placed, you called an operator and the operator would take an IBM card and insert it into a computer, which would translate punches into code to manually rate the call. With the IBM 1287, this rate calculation could be done without an operator, and it was my job to program that machine. While I was working for the company in St. Louis, I also helped transition the entire company's accounting system to a more functional one.