Read the full article, "Mary Sally Matiella, A Portrait of Resiliency," in the UA College of Education's Imagine magazine online.
Also, read about the 2013 Alumnus of the Year for the UA College of Optical Sciences on the UA Blog, "Professor's Breakthrough Contributions are Recognized."
The daughter of migrant farmworkers, Mary Sally Matiella never heard much about college while she was growing up, but she did know about hard work and resiliency and developed a powerful love of learning that has carried her through life.
Today, the University of Arizona alumna is assistant secretary of the U.S. Army, financial management and comptroller, where she oversees a budget of $175 billion.
Matiella credits much of her early success in life to lessons learned at the UA College of Education, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1973. It was announced during Homecoming that she is the college's 2013 Alumnus of the Year.
"The College of Education really helped me to thrive," Matiella said from her office in the Pentagon, which is the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Born in Three Rivers, Texas, Matiella was the third of six children born to Arturo and Angelica Garza. When she was 6 weeks old, her family moved to Arizona, where Matiella’s parents worked on cotton and watermelon farms.
The family moved where they were needed – Picacho, Marana and Eloy, as well as other small farming communities.
"Those are in my childhood memories," Matiella says. By the time she was in the third grade, the family settled in Tucson, where her father worked in construction as the city boomed.
Matiella thrived in the Tucson schools – Ochoa and C.E. Rose elementary schools, Wakefield Junior High, and Pueblo High School. She was determined to do her best.
"College was never on my family's radar," Matiella says. "My older sister was the first high school graduate in the entire Garza family. They were just happy for us to graduate from high school."
In 1968, between her junior and senior years of high school, Matiella landed a summer clerical job at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. There, she met an airman from Nogales, Ariz., Francisco Matiella, whom she would marry seven years later.
"I told him that I really wanted to go to junior college," she says. "I didn't know Pima Community College was about to open, and I told him I wanted to go to community college in Thatcher, Arizona.”
He suggested she try the UA, right up the street.
"There was no way I was going to the UA," Matiella recalls with a laugh. "'It's really hard,' I told him. That seemed way out of my league."
Matiella went on to earn a Regents’ Scholarship to the UA and enrolled in the College of Education to study elementary education. There she found mentors who celebrated her successes.
"I always felt that was a place where I could succeed," she says. "For someone who is developing their self-esteem, having that kind of acknowledgement is very valuable. They were there to educate and build teachers regardless of race or gender. It was an unbiased environment."
She later pursued a Master of Business Administration, graduating in 1976. For the next 17 years, Matiella followed her husband, who was with the U.S. Air Force, around the country. Along the way, they had two children – Maria Alejandra and Francisco Jose.
Wherever they landed, Matiella found work. In Texas, she worked for the state. The family ended up in Germany in 1980, and she went to work in the federal government as a budget analyst at Ramstein Air Force Base.
When they lived in Panama, Matiella worked for the Army. In 1995, the Matiellas moved to California. There, Matiella served as director of accounting for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. Four years later, she got a call from the Pentagon.
"I was here at the Pentagon during 9-/11," she says. "I was in the building. That was very tragic."
In 2004, she became assistant chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she oversaw a $40 billion budget. She retired in 2008.
"Little by little, with all of this academic and professional experience, I was able to move up the career ladder," she says.
Eventually, the Matiellas returned to Tucson. "I have always considered Tucson my home," she said. She was in the midst of a doctoral program at the time, working toward a PhD in executive leadership from George Washington University.
But a funny thing happened along the way. She got a call from the Pentagon. U.S. President Barack Obama wanted her to be assistant secretary of the Army.
On Nov. 23, 2009, Obama nominated Matiella for the job. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 11, 2010. Matiella, who finished her doctorate in 2011, says she was thrilled to return to a position with the Army.
Matiella, who finished her doctorate in 2011, says she was thrilled to return to a position with the Army. “Working for the Army is awesome. It’s a great organization. They put their lives on the line to keep us free.”
Today, she returns to Tucson as often as possible and stays in touch with the UA.
"What I learned at the University of Arizona College of Education is the importance of mentorship – the importance of guiding change and focusing on the positive," she says.
"I learned how to work with people who are growing and learning and striving to do better. The College of Education was very, very good to me. They helped me grow and become more self-confident. They gave me the background I needed to succeed."