As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, we’re spotlighting A&M-San Antonio students who have worked hard, overcome challenges, and are now successfully chasing their dreams. This is the first of five student spotlights.
Gabriella Villegas is a first-generation student who transferred to A&M-San Antonio from San Antonio College in the fall of 2020—when COVID-19 restrictions were still in place and students were remote. Like many students, it was a challenging time for Villegas.
“It was rough,” said Villegas, a San Antonio native who grew up on the city’s South Side. “I wasn’t prepared for how hard it was. I didn’t understand a lot of my classes and it was difficult maintaining a work-life balance. It took a toll on my mental health. I thought about dropping out.”
Instead, Villegas went to the Student Counseling Center. “They just talked me through it,” she said. “They helped me set goals and realize that I was already doing a lot of things right by showing up to class every day and trying to better myself. I pushed harder, and now I have a 4.0 GPA.”
Villegas’ mother, Betty, also helped inspire her to stick with it. She started working at A&M-San Antonio in 2009, first in the Office of Student Engagement and Success and later for the University’s first president, Dr. Maria H. Ferrier. She’s now an administrative associate with the College of Education and Human Development.
Villegas further boosted her confidence by landing a job at the Student Life Office in June 2022. As a coordinator, she organizes activities with fraternities and sororities to helping plan and set up campus events. Her peers and colleagues voted her student worker of the year at last year’s Jaguar Awards Ceremony.
As a kinesiology major, she interned at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists this summer, which she has parlayed into a part-time job as a physical therapy technician. “They really liked my personality and how I talked with patients,” she said. “I’m a little sassy.”
Villegas said it was a high school injury that inspired her to pursue a career as a physical therapist. She tore her rotator cuff while playing on the Dillard McCollum High School varsity volleyball team. The injury required surgery, followed by physical therapy.
“I saw how physical therapy could make a person’s life better. It can help get rid of the pain without having to take a bunch of pills.”
She was also inspired by watching her dad recover from double-hip replacement surgery. “No one wants to see their family member in pain,” she said. “Seeing my dad, who is built like this bulldog, needing a walker just to get out of bed really drove me.”
While he resisted at first, Villegas convinced her father to go to Texas Physical Therapy Specialists, where she and other therapists helped get him back on his feet. “Now he’s better than ever. He can walk and run again. It was a wonderful thing to see.”
Looking forward, Villegas said she’s excited about her future. She recently moved out of her parent’s house and got her own place. And after she graduates in December, she’ll start working full-time at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists. She also plans to go to graduate school and ultimately work as a Doctor of Physical Therapy.
But for now, she’s focused on finishing her studies and walking across the stage. While her academic journey hasn’t been easy, she said it’s been a pivotal growing experience that has helped prepare her for whatever comes next.
“Being a first-generation student was my biggest challenge because I just didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “But I learned that while you might fail, you’ve got to get back up and keep trying. You have to put yourself out there to learn who you really are.”
Expected Graduation: December 2023