The newest exhibit at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Union Gallery fits the institution’s President to a T … make that a T-shirt, adult small.
Diana Natalicio’s more than 30-year presidency at UTEP is somewhat of an anomaly in higher education, so the University decided to document the history of the soon-to-retire President through an equally unique metric: T-shirts.
“My Tenure in T-shirts” is an exhibition that represents more than 30 years of UTEP affinity and UTEP community. Each T-shirt tells a particular story about the University’s rich history through language, design, color and pop culture. The exhibit is open through March 15, 2019, inside the Union Gallery in room 201 Union Building East.
Throughout her three-decade tenure, President Natalicio has amassed an impressive collection of UTEP and UTEP-related T-shirts – mostly given to her as gifts. She encountered the colorful array of T-shirts tucked away in a closet in the Hoover House, the official residence of UTEP presidents and one of the most iconic historic homes in El Paso, as she began to think about post-retirement life and her move to a new – and likely smaller – El Paso home.
So why all the fuss over a collection of T-shirts? Those who work in higher education often take the power of a simple T-shirt for granted. After all, we regularly see a variety of university-related T-shirts every day on our campuses. They are a campus fashion staple. But, if you think about it, there is something profoundly important about the messages on those shirts. They are, in every way, the very idea of personal expression that is regularly encouraged on college campuses. T-shirts convey ideas and celebrate accomplishment. They document history and they unite the university community. Most of us have at least one in our closets.
Diana Natalicio has 354.
“As the number of UTEP unique T-shirts in my collection grew, I began to see that they offered a unique perspective on specific events and milestones in UTEP’s history over the past 30 years,” President Natalicio said. “Kudos and thanks to Liz Thurmond and her team for so creatively weaving them together and enabling us all to take a stroll down our UTEP memory lane.”
Several members of the UTEP family who helped with the exhibit called it a labor of love. Among them is Director of University Events Liz Thurmond, who sorted through the garments and had the gargantuan task of creating a cohesive and coherent historical narrative out of hundreds of yards of spun cotton.
She said it has been a fun and enlightening experience. Her team arranged the shirts by size and color to help with the aesthetics of the exhibit, and by their many themes – nostalgic shirts or athletics-related shirts, for example. For Thurmond, many of the shirts brought back fond memories, while others gave her a good laugh.
Some notable T-shirts include a list of 10 relatable facts preceded by the phrase “You know you went to UTEP if…” and a simple white T-shirt with the ironic phrase “I’ve been president of UTEP for 10 years and all I got is this lousy T-shirt!”
The most recent additions to President Natalicio’s collection include the Thank You for 30 T-shirt with an illustration of her iconic hairstyle, which can still be purchased at the University Bookstore, a commemorative shirt for UTEP’s designation as a Carnegie R1 top tier research institution, and a shirt celebrating the Interdisciplinary Research Building’s topping out ceremony, which took place earlier this month.
Many of the shirts visible in the exhibit and on the backs of students on campus today were distributed through the Student Engagement and Leadership Center (SELC). Nicole Aguilar, director of the SELC, said a lot of thought and consideration goes into each shirt’s design.
“It goes back to, ‘What is it that we hope to accomplish?’” Aguilar said. “Are we trying to promote something, are we trying to unite a group of people, are we trying to send a message? What is our mission behind a T-shirt?”
Aguilar added that some of the T-shirts on exhibit represent a conference or program where students had life-changing experiences, while others represent a defining moment in UTEP history.
“I think for a lot of us on campus, we’ve all been influenced and somehow impacted, whether we’ve been behind a specific T-shirt design, whether we were at that particular event or saw the evolution of that event or program,” Aguilar said.
Brianna Trejo is a senior who will soon graduate with a double major in psychology and sociology. She boasts a modest collection of about 25 UTEP T-shirts, which she plans to sew into a quilt. Trejo said her collection represents fond memories and the different stages of her time at UTEP. Her collection starts with a new student orientation shirt and ends, so far, with a Thank You for 30 shirt.
“It symbolizes the journey of where I started (orientation), like everyone else, and Thank You for 30 is symbolic of how much President Natalicio has contributed to UTEP,” Trejo said. “To be able to get that shirt in my senior year, my closing to my UTEP story along with hers, is really awesome and feels different than if I were to have graduated any other year.”
Roberto Orozco, a junior studying computer science, doesn’t have as many T-shirts as President Natalicio, but his five UTEP shirts mean a lot to him. Most recently, he said he purchased a Thank You for 30 shirt because of how much he looks up to President Natalicio.
“It’s a good feeling to be a part of this (University),” Orozco said. “I am doing hard work to still be here, to learn another language to be a part of UTEP. This shirt represents that.”
No matter what special meaning or feelings are evoked through UTEP T-shirts, there may be an old shirt or two that you may recognize in the “My Tenure in T-shirts” exhibit.
The Union Gallery is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Author: Jesse Martinez – UTEP Communications