It's hard to predict where a degree from the U will take its recipient or where the recipient will take the degree. That's certainly the case with Mickey Ibarra MED '80, who couldn't have known that his master's in education from the U would ultimately lead him to an office in the West Wing of the White House.
But as Ibarra points out with a laugh, an undergraduate degree in political science and a graduate program that specialized in behavioral disorders were the perfect preparation for a job in Washington, D.C. One of fewer than 20 people who hold the rank of Assistant to the President the highest White House rank possible Ibarra is the nation's Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. With a touch of modesty, he says his ranking indicates the level of support the current administration has given not to him but to an office, first established by President Nixon in 1969, that implements its policies at local and state levels. "Clearly the President and Vice President get it," he says. "They know that local governments must be our partners in anything we want to do successfully."
Maintaining that partnership is a twofold responsibility: Ibarra's staff tries to build support for the President's initiatives and, at the same time, responds to the concerns of local governments. Basically, he says, they are "master facilitators." That can mean working with the mayor of Dallas, Texas, on a Brownfield Showcase Community Grant (a grant also received by Salt Lake City); addressing the difficulties that arise with the closing of Kelly Air Force Base; and directing county agents in Florida to the appropriate contacts within Washington's vast administrative network.
Just last year, responding to a call from Salt Lake City mayor Deedee Corradini and Utah governor Mike Leavitt, Ibarra helped manage the transfer of land at Fort Douglas to the U to be used for student housing and the athletes' village for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Working with the Army and the Office of Management and Budget, he facilitated an administrative transfer of the land after President Clinton vetoed funding of the land bill.
So how did a former resource teacher in special education at Hillcrest High wind up "facilitating" at the White House? Ibarra says his path points to the value of his education. The son of a Mexican migrant worker, Ibarra spent his youth in foster homes, at one point living with a couple in Provo for several years. His undergraduate degree came from BYU, paid, he notes, through the GI bill for his service in the U.S. Army. He began teaching in Utah County in 1977 at a public alternative high school for at-risk students, and then moved his teaching responsibilities to Salt Lake County. He attended the U while he continued teaching a part-time arrangement he bemoans, noting that it discourages many teachers from continuing their educations throughout their careers.
As a teacher, Ibarra became involved in the Utah Education Association and later with the National Education Association. From the NEA's state office in New Mexico, he moved to the main office in Washington, D.C., in 1984. By 1990, he was the political manager at the NEA training ground for his current position.
Still, it's almost impossible to be prepared for life in the White House, which, Ibarra says, is unlike any place he's worked. "For the first 90 days, I wondered if I could make it. The sheer volume of activity, the higher stakes, the scrutiny from the press, Congress, constituents, and the public, as well as the constant sense of urgency, make it completely different from other positions," he says. "I came here wanting to make a difference, so now I struggle with how best to accomplish that with an 80-hour workweek." At least one beltway publication, Governing, has called the Intergovernmental Affairs office a much more accessible and useful place since he took over, so Ibarra seems to be achieving that goal.
His motivation comes largely from fear of failure, the same fear that propelled him through school. "It's a natural and normal fear," he says. "It means that you care about the outcome. I've found it's best to channel that energy into preparing yourself well." While Ibarra surely learned the value of preparation as a teacher, it's clear that other abilities serve him well in his current capacity as "partner" to the local little guys: he is a natural diplomat, and he is deeply committed to the accessibility of government, public service, and, most importantly, education as a means to the "American dream."
His diplomacy, for example, keeps him from discussing party politics in Utah ("I'll leave that to Elder Jensen"). Instead, he emphasizes that his office serves all constituents, and that his brand of politics is "more about people, less about parties." He even manages to harmonize both his alma maters, maintaining that he roots for both BYU and the U.
But he is more passionate about the topic of education, and there his approval of President Clinton's agenda is obvious. "Education remains the President's number one domestic priority, as it should be. Our higher-education system is the envy of the world, but frankly, our K-12 system is not. So we need to work on getting students better prepared academically." It's an issue that speaks to him on a personal level. "When the President was running for office, he said he wanted to keep the American dream alive for everyone that worked hard and played by the rules. Part of that is to make college more affordable and, therefore, accessible to more people." For Ibarra, the Pell Grant program increases (grants and loans to lower-income students), the HOPE scholarships (tax credits for two years' tuition at a community college), and the work-study increases the Clinton administration has supported mean that students don't have to rely on the GI Bill that provided him a college education. Those without the means still have access to the higher-education experience.
These days Ibarra is reliving some of his college memories as his 18-year-old daughter begins her own higher education at Northern Arizona University. He sent her off with some fatherly advice: "We agreed on four goals: to graduate in four years with a bachelor's; to graduate debt-free; to learn to live independently and responsibly; and not to hold a job her freshman year." But the lecture was clearly delivered with a great deal of pride. "It's a wonderful experience to realize that your child has embraced a value that you hold so dear in this case, education."
For Ibarra, seeing his family's principles aligned with those he professes as essential to building a successful citizenry is truly rewarding. "These goals can be the first step on a path toward a degree, toward homeownership, toward a better life for your community and for your children like my daughter has had."
And as Ibarra has found out, it's impossible to predict where that path might lead perhaps, inadvertently, straight to the White House.
Theresa Desmond is managing editor of Continuum.
Copyright 1999 by The University of Utah Alumni Association