Terri Givens a role model for the ages

LBJ School of Public Affairs professor an athlete and social leader

Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history

Terri Givens, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., stretched her social horizons simply by stepping onto the Stanford University campus.

“Walking into the freshman dorm, I saw all these dark-skinned guys,” Givens, 48, recalls. “I learned they were Indian and Pakistani. For the first time, I thought about there being dark-skinned people who aren’t African-American.”

Coming from a city where blacks made up a minuscule part of the population, Givens, now an expert on European politics who teaches at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, noticed other social subtleties on campus.

“Compared to Spokane, Stanford is very diverse,” Givens says. “It surprised me that they asked if I was interested in having a black roommate. At freshman orientation, I had the option of going to a black student party. I wanted to go out with my dorm mates.”

A lifelong athlete who radiates fitness, Givens grew up in a working-class family. Her father, a military vet from Pittsburgh, ran a custom electronics shop. Her mother, a seamstress from Opelousas, La., raised seven children.

Givens is the youngest among the siblings.

“That was great for me,” she says. “Being the youngest, my parents were much less strict with me, and they all gave me a hard time for that.”

Raised Catholic, she was very bookish on the one hand — devouring science fiction like “Star Trek” — but also very athletic, playing football with her brothers.

“I loved school, which is why I’m still in it,” Givens says. “I’d cry on the last day of school all the way home.”

Spokane, located in the arid eastern region of Washington, reminds her of El Paso.

“It was on the other side of the state from the big city,” she says. “It feels like a forgotten city.”

The local bonus was a Jesuit education at Gonzaga Preparatory School.

“The priests were open-minded,” she says. “It’s an eye-opening approach to Catholicism.”

Givens, who serves on several nonprofit boards and makes Austin’s social circuit, got involved in any activity that came her way, from volleyball and track to the school newspaper, musicals, choir, violin and election as the school’s student body vice president.

“The way you see me now was the way I was then,” she says in reedy voice reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn’s, without a trace of pretension. “I did everything.”

The Francophone runner profiled in local magazines for her ongoing competitiveness ran track at Staford while studying international relations and looking forward to study abroad.

“I always had a fascination with Europe,” she says. “I refused to be pigeonholed or stereotyped. People want to put you in a box. I had my own interests. I felt a lot of tension around that.”

Givens loved the intense discussions and interactions with other Stanford students.

“The goal was you could party hard and study hard,” she says. “I made deep friendships. In fact, my best friends today I met during those years.”

In 1986, she studied in France just as far-right parties made a breakthrough at the ballot box. At the same time, the modern anti-racism movement evolved on a continent where memories of World War II still thrummed.

“The reason the rise of the far right is so disturbing is the connection between Fascism and racism,” says Givens, whose first book was about that development. “People don’t know much about the trend in this country. They might be surprised that anti-EU and anti-Islam merged and now is against intra-EU migration.”

Givens gets back to Europe on a regular basis, mostly to Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

“People ask: ‘Why do you study Europe?’” she says. “I bring a very different perspective to the study of Europe.”

Givens met her husband, Mike Scott, a semiconductor chip designer, at Stanford while they were dating others. They bonded over jazz and stayed in touch. Later, Givens learned that Scott had broken up with his girlfriend.

“I have to admit that, in the back of my mind, I thought: ‘That means Mike’s free,’” she says with a wide smile. Scott joined Givens and friends for a New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco. “We were dancing and the next thing you know, we were kissing. We still fight today about who really kissed who. Anyway, it was obviously meant to be.”

They dated long-distance for a while — Givens attended graduate school at UCLA — then married in 1995. They have two boys, ages 12 and 9.

The family started out in Seattle, migrated to the Bay Area, then Austin, where Givens was offered a UT job and served as vice-provost for three years. They settled in chummy Aldridge Place north of the UT campus.

“We took a leap of faith,” she says of leaving behind their families on the West Coast. “We struck out on our own.”

Founder of Take Back the Trail, which provides free fitness training for East Austin women, Givens’ devotion to causes like KLRU, YMCA, Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council and the Trail Foundation follows her ingrained habits of civic involvement.

“Being active is a necessity because I’m pretty high-energy,” she says. “People ask: ‘How do you all these things?’ I’ve been doing this since I can remember.”

Another reason for the social investment: The paucity of brown faces in the leadership of UT and Austin.

“I consider myself a role model,” she says. “And I take that very seriously. But it’s also important to give back. I come from a working-class background. It’s incumbent on those of us who have had help along the way to help out as well.”

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