In the fall of 1983, eighteen-year-old Lizzette Gonzalez (now Reynolds), a determined young woman from the Rio Grande Valley, arrived in Georgetown, Texas. Anxious yet excited, she stepped out of her parents’ car — gripping her only suitcase — and scanned the place she’d call home for the next four years. It was the first time she had ever seen the Southwestern University campus.

Georgetown is about 350 miles away from Harlingen, but it may as well have been 350,000 for Lizzette. It was a world away from her life back home.

The first in her family to attend college, Lizzette wasn’t sure what led her to Southwestern. A top academic student with stellar PSAT and SAT scores, she was pursued by many admissions offices and had her choice of schools. She considered other colleges, including the University of Texas, but the large size was intimidating and it didn’t seem like a fit. Southwestern offered an impactful financial aid package, and the staff worked with her closely throughout the admission process. She felt supported from the beginning, so she took a leap of faith and made her decision without even visiting the campus in person.

Lizzette admits she had no idea what to expect, which perhaps in some ways was a good thing. Fortunately, she was a quick learner, and landed in a place surrounded by faculty and staff ready and willing to help her find her way. “I had no clue how college worked. I’d never even set foot on a college campus, and although I knew I could handle the academics, I was in a completely different world.”

Like many first-year students, Lizzette thought she knew exactly what she wanted to study. Her plan was to be an accountant — a solid, respectable, professional choice that her family could be proud of. She was good with numbers after all, and there was a straightforward career path after college. However, as so often happens, her plans changed.

One of the benefits of Southwestern University is the intentional exposure to multiple areas of study. During her first year Lizzette took a variety of different courses — things she had never been exposed to back in Harlingen. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but her decision to take an Intro to Political Science class would alter her career path for life.

She fell in love with the subject – the lively discussions, the concepts, and the vast opportunities to have a true impact.  She soon realized that she had a passion for political science—and suddenly accounting didn’t seem so appealing.

Fast forward to the present: Lizzette is now VP of Policy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national organization dedicated to education reform. She spends her days directing state policy development and implementation, managing a team of leading policy experts and advisors, and maintaining current research, data and foundation positions. To say she is busy is an understatement.

With three decades of policy and legislative experience at the state and federal level, Lizzette is highly respected in her field. She served as Deputy Legislative Director during George W. Bush’s 1994-2000 tenure as Governor of Texas, and worked for the Bush Administration at the USDOE as Special Assistant in the Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs. Beginning in 2007, she held a variety of roles for the Texas Education Agency until taking on her current position with Excellence in Education last year.

Lizzette is often called upon to testify, present, and participate in interviews or panels as a subject matter expert. She juggles work, frequent travel, and family commitments with an enviable amount of energy.  She has three children, which keep her busy and leave her very little free time—but she wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, her own kids inspire her to continue her work in education reform. Lizzette has seen firsthand the downside and flaws in the system. She has experienced personal struggles and frustrations trying to get state-required accommodations for her own son with ADHD. She draws on her personal experiences and background to help others facing similar situations and to create meaningful change.

Her dream is for an American education system that maximizes every student’s potential for learning and prepares all students for success. What better person for the job than a first-generation college student from the Rio Grande Valley that experienced firsthand how education can change a life?

What advice does Lizzette give to students entering college this fall?

“Allow yourself freedom to explore and take risks. Get involved. Embrace the community around you.” She encourages young people to take classes outside their main academic discipline, and grants them permission to change their minds. “You’re not a failure if you decide pre-med isn’t the best fit for you after all.” She admitted that she initially felt like a failure when she abandoned accounting. “What would people think? Was I letting my family down? But I followed my passion, which has led me to an exciting, fulfilling career where I can truly make a difference. It was scary at the time, but absolutely the right thing for me.”

Lizzette reflects back on her time at Southwestern fondly. She grew tremendously during her time on campus, and attributes much of her success to the faculty and staff that helped her along the way. It’s a tight-knit community, and one that teaches students to think effectively, collaborate, view problems from multiple perspectives, and adapt to an ever-changing world.

“SU encouraged me to not only find my passion, but to use it to make a positive impact on my community and the world around me. The values that were instilled in me 30 years ago are still with me today. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my experience at Southwestern.”

“I feel blessed that I’m in a position to create positive change and make a difference for students across the country. I want others to have the same opportunities I did. To go to a place where they’re encouraged to explore, make mistakes, take risks and find their passions. A liberal arts education allows students to broaden their horizons and see things from multiple perspectives.”

“Southwestern can become a second family, which it was for me.”

Lizzette continues to support her alma mater in multiple ways, donating her resources and her time to ensure that the University continues to positively impact students’ lives for years to come.