“Is that a joint in your mouth?!”

The food court cashier catches the student’s eye with a slight grin sneaking across her face.

The student has a white plastic toothpick, fat in the middle and tapered to a point on the protruding end, dangling from his mouth. It could possibly resemble the hand-rolled cigarette, but the student removes it and shows her.

“It better not be,” the cashier playfully scolds.

The unsuspecting student has just been “mothered” by Rachel De La Garza, the supervising cashier in the JPL food court. And just like that, a special connection has been made, one of hundreds she has with UTSA students.

“These kids are fantastic,” she beams. “They’re not disrespectful – they’re just wonderful.”

De La Garza loves her job as a cashier. An employee with Aramark, UTSA’s food concession company, for six years, she’s been in the JPL food court for the past three. Here, she has made friends with many of the staff and faculty, as well as students. De La Garza watches over them like a mother hen, encouraging them to eat right and playfully nagging them to study.

“I get after them, just like they’re my kids,” she laughs.

Following a 16-year stint in human resources for the hotel industry, De La Garza moved to Aramark’s accounts payable/receivable department in August 2008. Three years later she moved to her present position behind the cash register, and today she can think of no other place she would rather be.

De La Garza, a former student at two local colleges, knows the importance of young people going to college.

“Before I was married, my father told me: ‘When you have kids, give them love and an education,’ ” she recalls. “‘And keep them on that track and you’ll be doing good.’ ”

Married at 21, De La Garza welcomed her twins, a boy and a girl, six years later. Her son is a captain in the Army and is currently stationed in Alaska. He plans to retire from the Army.

Her daughter works as a pediatric speech therapist at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital. Both of her children graduated from OLLU.

De La Garza’s day begins at 5:30 a.m. She opens the gates to the food courts, turns on the lights, starts the coffee and checks the grab-and-go stock. Everything has to be ready for the 7:00 a.m. opening. Soon, faculty and staff wander in, and there are even a few students.

“It’s really surprising that they’re here,” she said. “I never went to school at 5:30 in the morning! But they’re in here, studying.”

As the day progresses, hundreds of students come through for breakfast, lunch and study-break munchies. For the students who come through her line, De La Garza is all ears.

“Believe it or not, I do listen (to the students),” she says. “And a lot of them come to my line just so I can make them laugh. I don’t always know how they’re feeling; maybe they’re feeling down, or missing their parents. But I take away a lot of happiness.”

She is encouraged, though, when she hears students talking about their classes.

“What makes me excited is when they talk about their grades. ‘Oh, the test was easy,’ or ‘It was a little tough, but I think I passed it.’ They’re sure of themselves, and that’s good.”

De La Garza plans to retire in a few years, but she doubts she will be far from her students. “I’ll probably ask Aramark to let me work part-time — I don’t think I can stay away!”

Even if she won’t be on campus, she still has plenty of reason to continue her mothering. De La Garza enjoys hanging out with her 13-month-old granddaughter.

“She’s a good kid — she’s my baby,” she says with a smile.

Another student hands De La Garza money for her purchase. There is some confusion as the student asks for change.

“I don’t owe you 50 cents, you owe me 50 cents,” De La Garza politely tells her. The student appears to be doing the math in her head before she arrives at the same conclusion.

“I hope you’re not an accounting major,” De La Garza playfully chides her. The student assures her that she’s not, and they share a laugh.

And just like that, De La Garza welcomes another student into her brood.

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