Meet the 2003 Outstanding Seniors

April 21, 2003

Five years ago, Rachael Garza asked a Maryville College admissions counselor why in the world she should leave her Washington, D.C.-area home and move to East Tennessee to study international studies.

Today, the 1999 West Springfield High School graduate is thankful that the counselor convinced her to visit. It made the difference in her decision to enroll at the liberal arts college of 1,020 students located between Knoxville, Tenn., and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

And her decision to enroll, she said, has made all the difference in her life.

“ I came to Maryville from the Washington-D.C. metro area, which is a very fast-paced, overcrowded, money-driven area,” she said. “My high school was more than twice the size of the College. Coming nine hours away to Maryville really gave me a chance to be my person, to slow down and focus on developing strong relationships with those around me.”

Garza’s independence, academic focus and personal growth were all celebrated during an April 12 Academic Awards Ceremony held at the College. As one of five finalists nominated for the Outstanding Senior Award, Garza, the daughter of Carlos and Ann Garza of Springfield, Va., listened as her advisor, Dr. Young-Bae Kim introduced her as “truly an international person.”

“ When she leaves this college, she will become another of our many graduates who are promoting tolerance and understanding in a world that becomes smaller every day,” said Kim, professor of political science.

Established by the Maryville College Alumni Association in 1974, the Outstanding Senior Award recognizes those students “whose overall record of academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities stands out as most exemplary.” Only those students with a minimum grade point average of 3.0 are considered for nomination.

Loving learning

International affairs have long been an interest of Rachael Garza.

“ I came from a culturally diverse area,” she said of her hometown. “The Washington Post was dropped on our doorstep every day. I watched the political talk shows on Sunday.”

As a freshman at Maryville, she set out to map an academic course that would prepare her for foreign service. But along the way, the College’s liberal arts curriculum introduced her to a thousand other possibilities. She will graduate in May with a degree in International Studies, but her three minors – Spanish, political science and art – are proof that Garza took advantage of every opportunity to learn.

In an essay she wrote for the Outstanding Senior Award selection committee, she said: “Since my freshman year, my classes at Maryville have continued to help me grow. Classes like Ethics and Senior Seminar have an obvious impact, but even my art classes, foreign language classes and science classes have influenced the person that I am today. I am always astounded by the interconnectedness of all the different disciplines I have studied, and of all my extracurricular activities.”

When Garza hasn’t been in the classroom, she has been in meetings of the College’s Student Government Association, mentoring a group of freshmen through the Peer Mentor program, representing students on the College’s Planning and Budgetary Advisory Committee or tutoring students in lower-level Spanish courses. She spent one summer in a French language program in Angers, France.

Each activity offered a different benefit.

“ Through Student Government, I learned a lot about administrative things like parliamentary procedure,” she explained. “I chaired student government’s constitution committee, so there I learned a lot about legislative writing, and how important it is to pay attention to the words so that proposals and laws say what you want them to say.

“ Being a Spanish tutor helped me to open up more, be more outspoken and feel more self-confident,” she added. “I was a language tutor here for three years and a summer. I enjoyed it because I met a lot of new students that way.”

Finding religion

Not only did Maryville College challenge Garza to broaden her academic pursuits: it challenged her to examine her spiritual beliefs. This, she said, has been important – and unique.

“ The general atmosphere of Maryville College is one where people encourage you to think about your spirituality. This [subject] didn’t come up in public schools.”

Before coming to Maryville, Garza said she had never been asked to articulate her beliefs. She wrote in her essay: “In the classroom, Freshman Seminar and New Testament challenged me to think seriously about religion and spirituality as a part of my life. Eventually, I was led to the Catholic Church and ended up joining the Church at Easter Vigil mass in 2000.”

The next year, Garza co-founded the Catholic Community student group at Maryville. Though affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Maryville College welcomes students of all faith backgrounds; the Catholic faith is represented in the student body, faculty and staff.

Garza and other founders of the Catholic Community have hosted weekend retreats, met weekly for Bible study and worked with the College’s campus minister to arrange for a priest to say mass monthly in the Center for Campus Ministry.

Rooted and growing

Following graduation, Garza hopes to find a job that will offer her some real-world experience and help her discern which field she would like to pursue in graduate school. Foreign service isn’t totally out of the picture, but she’s thinking about international relations, education, linguistics, social work and art. She said she hopes to travel in the next five years, especially to Asia and South America.

What she has decided on is where she would like to obtain a job: the Knoxville-Maryville area. Garza said her strong ties here make East Tennessee home.

“I enjoy the natural beauty of the area, the pace of life and the relationships I’ve established here,” she explained in her essay. “ … I think the biggest thing that Maryville College has done for me is creating a strong community atmosphere that has given me roots so that I feel more secure when I reach out to grow. I can extend myself more, knowing that I have a safety net of friends and mentors there to back me up.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2013 semester is 1,168.