President Dr. Heather Wilson sitting with Staff Writer Erik Acosta. Photo courtesy of The Prospector.
President Dr. Heather Wilson sitting with Staff Writer Erik Acosta. Photo courtesy of The Prospector.
Gianluca Cuevas

Exclusive Sit Down Interview with President Dr. Heather Wilson: Full Q&A

Staff Writer Erik Acosta sits down for an exclusive interview with President Dr. Heather Wilson.

In 2019, Dr. Heather Wilson became the 11th President of UTEP and has been considered a prominent image for the university. From reaching milestones, such as becoming one the first women in the Air Force to running for the United States Senate, she shared with me exclusive details about her journey that successfully led her to UTEP Presidency.

Erik Acosta: Your father was in the Air Force, your grandfather flew for the Royal Air Force in World War One. What was that moment that you knew that you wanted to follow in their footsteps?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: I grew up flying it when I was really little with my dad. I actually don’t remember not flying. He and his best friend had a Piper Cub, and his best friend had a dairy farm. So they take it off on the field and you had to make sure the cows were out of the way and and take off on a field behind their farm. And which to I can remember my dad taking us flying where you had to put a pillow in the front seat of a piper, which is a very small airplane to be able to see out. And then he start the propeller and take us flying and his friend would as well. And so I never remember not flying.

President Dr. Heather Wilson: So my dad died when I was young, but my grandfather was still alive. And he was kind of a hero to me and very important to me. He was an R.A.F. pilot, as you said, but he was also a barnstormer in the 1920s and 1930s and opened little airports all around New England. And so so I grew up around aviation, when I was a junior in high school, they opened the Air Force Academy to women, and I remember seeing it on the news one night when and, you know, in the black and white television in my mother’s room, I remember where I was when I saw that the first class that allowed women  entering the Air Force Academy. And that sounded kind of interesting.And so it was probably when I was a junior in high school that I started thinking seriously about this Air Force Academy a serious  thing.

Erik Acosta: Dr.Wilson, you were the first woman to command basic training and the first women of a Vice Wing commander.How does it feel for you to know that you’re a pioneer in the workforce and leading women so they can follow your footsteps?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: So it was the number two person in the wing of 4400 cadets or so. I would say that at the time, I just, you know, I just wanted to do the job. I think I was aware that there were there were certainly people there, not so much my classmates, but sometimes some other officers who weren’t exactly convinced that women should be in the military or that they should be officers.I was determined to kind of prove them wrong by being competent.And I knew somehow that I was also maybe changing the minds of people around me by just doing the job.

Erik Acosta: What was some of your struggles and lessons that you learned during your time in the Air Force and how that has shaped you today?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: Probably the thing that shaped me most, particularly as a young person, but  you know, really stays with you are the core values of the Air Force integrity, first service before self and excellence in all we do.

Erik Acosta: Do you think that you have passed down your knowledge to any of your children or your nieces or your grandkids? And how does that make you feel?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: I think our our kids grew up with that strong sense of you know, your responsibility doesn’t end at the front porch. You have a responsibility to your community. You have to serve in some way. But my granddaughter, who’s now two. One of her favorite things is airplanes and that that just breaks my heart.

Erik Acosta: Dr. Heather Wilson, some people may not know, but you ran for the U.S. Senate 2008 and 2012 for New Mexico, but didn’t win that election. How were you feeling around that time, did you feel loss in your sense of direction? How do you pick yourself up from that?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: Well, I didn’t feel like I fell down. I had a lot of interns over the years and I had some on my Senate campaign as well. And to me, there’s no time for bitterness. I mean, both the strength and the weakness of self-government is one in the same. The people get what they choose, but they get to choose. It’s their choice and I’m absolutely okay with that. But one of them said to me, his name was Evan, he was from Texas Tech. And and he said, you know, Dr.Wilson or Congresswoman Wilson at the time, he said, you’re really good with students. You should be a college president. And I said, Well, Evan and then he said, Texas Tech is recruiting a president and you should apply. And I said, Well, Evan, I don’t think Texas Tech is looking for me, but thank you. And then several several of the other students kind of chimed in and and we had this interesting little talk. And I thought, you know, I had actually been contacted once before about a college presidency when I was serving in the Congress. And I said no, but I started thinking about it. And then I started looking around and I liked the idea that it appeals to my sense of service. I do love working with young people. And it’s, you know, universities are complicated so you don’t get bored and so I started looking around and at first I didn’t think it would be a great fit.

President Dr. Heather Wilson reminisces in the interview about her journey to become UTEP’s head figure. Photo courtesy of The Prospector. (Gianluca Cuevas)

President Dr. Heather Wilson: But South Dakota Mines was a really good fit and when I went up for my interview, I hadn’t had a job interview for like, you know, 12 years or something. And they asked me all those questions, that they say, prepare for these questions. Yeah, I didn’t do that. But one of the questions was to describe a time you failed at something and what you learned from that. I had just lost a race for the United States Senate. And, you know, one of the highest profile races in the country that year. And I lost. But it didn’t even occur to me that that was a failure because I didn’t think of it that way. And but I probably should have picked that anyway. Anyway, they hired me.

Erik Acosta: Speaking of South Dakota mines, yeah, you’ve been there for four years, it’s safe to say that UTEP has been your favorite presidency.

President Dr. Heather Wilson: They’re both very different. So South Dakota Mines was much smaller. I like the research mission here a lot. I would say the one thing that I liked about South Dakota, other than the summers was because it was smaller. I had more direct interaction with students and I did like that. And I think while I meet more students here, I don’t get to interact with so many of them all the time because it’s bigger. And and so so I have to make a point to always stay connected to the students here. So and that’s important to me.

Erik Acosta: Dr. Heather Wilson, you’ve been here for four years now. Do you feel like you have accomplished everything you set your mind to in the first day. And what are some goals you have left?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: So I will never accomplish everything. I will die with a list on my refrigerator. So that the pandemic was not in my first year plan. I like the process the university went through on developing a strategic plan. And I think we have a good sense of our mission here, really solid set of goals here. And I’m a pretty values driven, mission focused, people oriented person and so the strategic plan really is what we’re trying to do.

Erik Acosta: UTEP has seen a good year in 2023 but also some troubles around the community. How’s it been this year for you personally and emotionally in terms of running the university this year?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: It’s a wonderful year really has been. And I get to be like the number one cheerleader for a great university and people accomplish things. And part of my job is to just point those things out. It’s been a wonderful year.

Erik Acosta: Homecoming week is just around the corner. Can you tell me why this year is just so special than previous years?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: I think all of them are special. I like spending time with the distinguished alumni and hearing their stories. And then there’s all you know, there’s a lot of fun things around homecoming but I think it’s the alumni coming back.

Erik Acosta: What was Heather Wilson to see herself ten years from now?

President Dr. Heather Wilson: Ten years from now, I will be 72 years old and so I’ll tell you, my husband. He knows that I like to run things and get stuff done. And he wants me to keep working because otherwise I will be running him and telling him to get stuff done. So I will probably continue to be active. I just I like doing things so as long as I’m able to that’s. I’m comfortable with that.

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