A dedicated Mustang, Perkins was a homecoming for Melissa Garza

As a devoted and enthusiastic SMU alum, Melissa Garza has returned to campus for all but four Homecoming weekends in the past 27 years. She even co-chaired the 25th reunion for her undergraduate class. When she decided to pursue a seminary education a few years ago, coming home to SMU as a Perkins student made perfect sense.

“SMU was instrumental in making me who I am,” she said. “I found my niche, my people, my voice at SMU.”

Garza, a third-year M.Div. student, received a full tuition scholarship for her undergraduate education as a University Scholar; now she’s attending graduate school as a Perkins Scholar.

“The scholarship has been a blessing especially this last year since I was laid off due to COVID,” she said. “SMU and Perkins have been so good to me, and I’ve always been a strong believer in giving back.”

Recently, Garza took on yet another Homecoming duty. She came to Dallas to help host the Perkins tent at this year’s SMU Homecoming. As a veteran of so many past Homecomings, she was already equipped.

“I was excited to be able to pull my SMU decorations out again,” she said. “It’s a great way for the Perkins family—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—to have fellowship outside of the classroom.”

Garza currently serves as the Houston-Galveston program rep for the Perkins Student Association (PSA). When the H-G program gathered for a week of in-person classes this fall–for the first time in 18 months–she took a leadership role to welcome everyone back.

“Since we had been exclusively learning online for so many semesters, this was the first face-to-face week for many students,” she said. “I kind of adopted the role of ‘welcome committee.’”

Garza assembled welcome bags with SMU face masks, Perkins swag and a guide to Houston to help students find their way around. She invited The United Methodist Texas Annual Conference to host breakfast for two of the 10-hour class days. To encourage community building and take advantage of Houston’s diverse faith community, she arranged unofficial field trips to St. Basil the Great Greek Orthodox Church and St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church.

“I got a lot of positive feedback on those, so I have other extra-curricular activities in the works for our second face-to-face week in November,” she said. “I feel there was a special need to build community because we had been so far apart due to COVID. The face-to-face weeks are really important to H-G students.”

Seminary marks the beginning of a second career for Garza. After graduating from SMU in 1994, she worked as a graphic designer, most of those years at United Way of Greater Houston, until a layoff due to COVID in 2020.

“I felt like I had the call to ministry,” she said. “It was not a dramatic call. It’s been part of who I am for a long time. I just hadn’t been ready to step out until three years ago. But I have always had a great love for The United Methodist Church.”

Garza’s post-graduation career plans are still in flux, but she’s considering working in campus chaplaincy or hospital chaplaincy.

“From my classes, I’ve learned that pastoral care is not just focused on a congregation … it’s serving people who are in need and who want hope,” she said. “I feel like that is what I’m led to do – to offer hope, to spread the word of God in a way that is just loving and supporting.”

Garza enjoys mission work; pre-COVID, she traveled every summer to Jamaica, which is like a second home to her.

“We go to an area in the St. Mary parish near Port Maria,” she said. “I’ve had the joy of watching the kids there grow up over the years.  The people are lovely. Their discipleship is like nothing I’ve seen. In praise and worship and love – the people there are truly a community.  They really understand what it’s like to be the community of God on earth.”

On one of her first trips, Garza painted a mural on a wall at Free Hill Primary and Infant School.

“Every time I show up the pastor says, ‘Here’s your painting project,’” she said. She continues to enjoy painting – it’s a hobby as well as a spiritual practice.

When she arrived at Perkins, Garza regretted that her grandmother, a woman of strong faith and an advocate for education, had not lived to see her attend seminary. A reading in her first-semester Christian Heritage class led to an “aha” moment – a conviction that, somehow, her grandmother is still with her.

“I came across a phrase in The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, that said, ‘In Him they confide every undertaking, for man, indeed, proposes but God disposes, and God’s way is not man’s,’” she said. “It reminded me of something my grandmother used to say: ‘Uno propone y Dios dispone.’ [Editor’s note: Proverbs 16, translated, “One proposes and God disposes.”]

When I read this passage – it was a real joy.”