You might say that Antonio Garcia ’01 was destined to become a leader. “My father passed away when I was just a baby,” he says. “It was just me, my mom, and my grandmother. I felt very protective of our little family and knew the importance of contributing to the household. I began working when I was 12 years old.”
Garcia’s growth as a leader continued in high school when he was co-captain of his wrestling team in his senior year. Still, the idea of attending college seemed formidable. “My family emigrated from Colombia and I was part of the first generation to go to college,” he says. “Montclair seemed like a good fit because my cousin had enrolled there. As for majors, I didn’t have a lot of guidance. I always thought of myself as entrepreneurial and saw myself as a leader, so I decided to study management.”
There were a few bumps in the road for Garcia, however, “I didn’t get accepted on my first application,” he recalls. “My high school counselor helped me on my second try, but I had to start out as a non-matriculated student.”
Garcia persisted. A life insurance benefit left by his father helped cover the cost of his education, but Garcia still needed to work to make ends meet. By the time he graduated, his debt load was growing. It is small wonder that the promise of economic security led him to a job in finance.
There was only one problem: he didn’t like it. “I found the field to be too money-oriented,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling rewarded on a deeper level.”
In addition to his corporate job, Garcia was coaching a junior wrestling team in Bergen County. One of the parents saw his gift for working with youth and suggested he consider pivoting to a career in education. Perhaps, she suggested, he might consider substitute teaching as a way to give the field a try.
Garcia continued coaching and tested the waters as an early education teacher substitute. It clicked. “I saw the power of public work,” he says. “It felt really good to know that I was making a positive impact in the community, and on people’s lives.”
Garcia completed New Jersey’s alternate route track to teacher certification and joined the faculty in Teaneck, New Jersey. In addition to teaching at the elementary and middle school level, Garcia began to build his resume by supervising the district’s math and literacy summer program. He was a lead teacher for Saturday test preparation programs, chaired the School Improvement Committee, analyzed curriculum and school data, and coached the high school wrestling team.
The more involved Garcia became in the life of the district, the more he thought about how he might approach managing a school. He decided to earn a master’s in Educational Leadership and Administration from Kean University in 2008, and when an opportunity arose to become assistant principal for Passaic Public Schools, he went for it. Within a few years, he had turned around one of the worst-performing schools in the district and helped to graduate the Class of 2018 with the highest graduation rate in recent history. He also helped open a school in the neediest section of the city. The true reward for Garcia was connecting with youth, helping them to see, and pursue their own potential.
In 2020, Garcia became the principal of Passaic County Technical Institute (PCTI), the County’s magnet high school for students interested in technical vocational careers. It was an opportunity to help Passaic County’s youth get the education they deserve. “PCTI offers nearly 4,000 students 14 educational pathways on a 55-acre campus,” he notes with pride. “Students have access to so many opportunities for growth – sports, diverse extracurricular activities, and exceptional academic programs. There is something here for everyone.”
“There is prestige in attending PCTI,” Garcia continues. “We are providing a college experience before students even get to college. Students who choose to enter the workforce after high school will be just as prepared to succeed as those who go on to college.”
Even though Garcia left the field of finance in his rearview mirror, he still draws on his Montclair management education. “At Montclair, I studied the history of management, how organizations work and what it means to be an effective leader,” he says. “Now that I am in a leadership position, I see the parallels between what makes a corporation successful and what I need to do to lead people and the school into the next decade.”
“I rely on my understanding of law and policy, but I also need to connect to my colleagues,” he says. “I want them to continue to grow, and this involves accountability, collaboration, building trust, and demonstrating my own commitment to the work. It is so important to lead by example.”
The example Garcia sets includes continuing his own education and engaging in communities beyond PCTI. In 2021, he completed a Certificate in School Management and Leadership at Harvard University. And he remains involved with Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity Inc., which he pledged while an undergraduate at Montclair in 1998.
“Joining the fraternity was a turning point in my college experience and in my life,” he says. “It took me from hanging around with my town friends to becoming a brother in a group of Latino males with similar stories to mine. Alumni would visit to mentor us and help guide us into life after college, too. It was transformative to meet, for the first time, a Latino male who was a successful professional.”
The brotherhood continues to gather for holidays, family picnics, community service projects, and to work with and mentor undergraduates throughout the state. “We do a lot of positive work in the Paterson area,” he says, adding that he is currently serving on the organization’s alumni advisory board for North Jersey. In 2010, Garcia was named Lambda Theta Phi Brother of the Year.
Garcia is thoughtful about his college years, about his involvement in Greek life, and about the influence of both on his journey to adulthood and professional success. “Montclair State University and Lambda Theta Phi offered me opportunities to meet a diverse group of executives and learn about different careers and corporations,” he says. “The University celebrated multiculturalism, bringing people together and showing us what the world outside our communities was like. I also learned to become independent while developing good core values.”
Garcia is astounded by the growth of the University – “there are buildings where I used to park!” – and is excited to see President Jonathan Koppell’s commitment to community service. “As an educator, I appreciate the importance of encouraging students to engage in organizations and community service. These things add value to your career preparation and help lead to a successful, rewarding life.”