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ASU alum helps serve rural Mexico

December 15, 2009

Laura Libman’s pedigree is part analytical thinking, part business model-building, part upbringing. Mix them together and the result is ownership of a successful nonprofit foundation that is making a difference in health care services in rural Mexico.

A graduate of ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 2003, then went on to graduate from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with an MBA in international development just two years later. These two educational forays, plus an upbringing that included countless trips and extended stays in Mexico, have shaped her professional career, putting her in a position to reach out and help those less fortunate.

Today, she is president and CEO of the Tia Foundation, a small Arizona-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to driving sustainable health solutions in rural Mexico. The foundation boasts 501(c)(3) status in the U.S. and Mexico.

“This all fell together in an odd way,” said Libman, who arrived in the Valley a decade ago with a handful of college credits from the University of Wisconsin-Madison before attending Glendale Community College and eventually New College at ASU’s West campus.

“After I graduated from Thunderbird, I spent the summer in rural villages throughout the state of Guanajuato," she said, referring to a trip to central Mexico. “I went around asking the people what they needed, and I started looking at where the downward spiral of poverty starts. In the majority of cases, it was related to health issues.” 

As an example, she points to a pregnant woman who doesn’t realize her baby is positioned incorrectly for safe delivery.

“Without medical services, there is no one there to tell her this," she said. "She dies in childbirth, her husband is left alone to care for six children.  With some education, this is completely preventable.”

Libman grew up in a multicultural family that included four adopted African American siblings. She followed her father as he travelled to Guadalajara and Mexico City working on his import-export business. She spent summers on her Mexican family’s ranch. It was during these trips that she developed a deep-rooted love for the rural setting and a keen respect for the people who worked the land and raised families, most often under harsh conditions that lacked basic health care.

Her educational mix – the analytical and critical thinking she learned through her New College coursework, and the business model-building skills she acquired in Thunderbird classrooms – rounded out her professional pursuits and helped her design a charitable foundation that provides health services to the needy. In fact, her vision for Tia is to create a sustainable model that will take lessons learned in providing health services and apply them to similar outreach and assistance in education, government and social services.

But getting to this point wasn’t as traditional as graduating from high school and immediately moving on to higher education, earning an advanced degree and entering the professional world. Libman married early, had children and eventually divorced. She became a single mom with the ability to take one, maybe two college courses per semester. She was certain she’d be “cut loose” at the West campus, where her kindergarten-age son, now 22, often attended her American literature classes taught by then-assistant professor of English Darryl Hattenhauer. To this day, a picture drawn by son Nathaniel for Hattenhauer hangs in the professor’s office.

“After that experience – Dr. Hattenhauer’s encouragement, his attention and his mentorship – I was sold on ASU and this campus,” she said. “He was one of the first of many who bent over backward to help me and to push me. I had so many at the West campus who encouraged me and insisted I go to graduate school; I thought I wasn’t smart enough or was too old.”

One of those who helped Libman get back on her educational feet was Kathy Grant, program coordinator for the Learning Enhancement Center, who today is the program manager for the Student Success Center at the West campus.

“Laura faced typical challenges as a re-entry student, which is balancing work and home” said Grant, who came to ASU in 1993 as an undergraduate student in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership. “She has special qualities that were developed growing up in a loving environment of inclusiveness. Doing service motivates Laura.

“It’s amazing what she has accomplished and the speed of her accomplishments is astounding.”

Libman says the lessons she learned in her New College studies have helped her look at the bigger picture and how things fit together, work together and affect one another.

“The New College coursework was so fascinating,” she said. “It was about critical and analytical thinking. I learned to think. It was learning to take something, take it apart and put it back together. Diversity was a focus, and the professors put the lessons into context and brought you the whole world. You learned art and politics and everything that was going on when authors were writing their great works.

“A multidimensional perspective was a natural part of teaching the subjects.”

At Thunderbird, Libman’s circle of education was completed.

“You learned how to put together a good, sustainable model of business development,” she said. “Thunderbird taught us to build models that engender self-development, like what we’re now attempting to do with Tia – taking lessons learned in one area and applying them in other areas.

In presiding over Tia and providing health services to Mexico’s rural populations, Libman’s philosophy is borrowed from the Chinese proverb, “Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”

“We do want to teach them to fish,” she said. “At New College, I learned how to fish, too. I learned how to have the skills and confidence to shoot for something beyond myself.”