Dr. Irma Becerra has many accomplishments to her name. Dancing is not one of them, but D.C.’s Dancing Stars Gala could soon change that.
Marymount University’s new president is one of eight local celebrities who will vie for $10,000 on Saturday when the annual fundraising competition is held at The Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner.
“As a Cuban, dance is very much in our culture, but I did not have formal training other than when I was a young kid, I took some ballet lessons,” Becerra said. “I have not taken ballroom dancing before, so I’m about to do some accelerated learning.”
Inspired by the reality TV show “Dancing with the Stars,” D.C.’s Dancing Stars Gala pairs local celebrities with professional dancers to perform a choreographed routine with a winner chosen by a panel of celebrity judges and the audience, which is also treated to dinner, a silent auction, professional performances, and a live band.
In addition to a mirror ball trophy similar to the one given out on the ABC show, the grand prize winner receives $10,000 for a charity of their choice. The public can also help competitors raise money for charity by voting for them online in the celebrity, alumni, and corporate challenges.
Becerra’s rivals include Herndon construction industry leader George Nash, media consultant and former Fox5DC News anchor Laura Evans Mantos, current Fox5DC anchor and reporter Erin Como, HOT 99.5 radio host Elizabethany, cosmetic dentist Dr. Alex Naini, WUSA sports anchor Darren Haynes, and Miss United States 2013 Candiace Dillard.
After officially assuming her position as Marymount University’s president on July 1, Becerra was invited to participate in the Dancing Stars Gala by Maria Coakley David, one of the 2018 gala’s co-chairs and an alumna and trustee of Marymount.
Paired with professional dancer Javier Buentello for a salsa and cha-cha routine, Becerra is competing to earn $10,000 for a new fund named in honor of former Marymount President Sister Majella Berg that will provide financial support to students who take on unpaid internships.
An independent Catholic institution located in Arlington, Marymount University requires all undergraduate students to take on an internship.
“Being that service is one of the pillars of a Marymount education, together with intellectual curiosity and global awareness, many students want to take on an internship that is based on service,” Becerra said. “Most of the service internships are unpaid, so we wanted to provide some financial support for students that want to take on a service internship.”
Becerra hopes to raise $50,000 for the Marymount University Internship Fund so that it can provide stipends to 25 students in the upcoming summer. As of Wednesday, she had raised $16,580 through the D.C.’s Dancing Stars Gala celebrity challenge.
Becerra’s decision to compete in the gala reflects a life spent taking risks and exploring new territory.
Born in Cuba, Becerra and her family fled the island when she was a mere 8 months old to escape civil unrest and the risk of imprisonment in the wake of Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.
Like many other Cuban refugees at the time, some of Becerra’s family landed in Florida, while she and her parents instead settled down in Puerto Rico.
“[My parents] had to start from scratch, because they had nothing, but we saw them working hard and doing what was needed to provide for their family,” Becerra remembers.
She lived in Puerto Rico through high school and later joined her grandmother in Miami so that she could pursue a college education at the University of Miami, where she earned bachelor and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.
While working for the Florida Power and Light Company, Becerra underwent some corporate training that stirred in her an interest in adult education, prompting her to return to school to get a doctorate with the goal of eventually becoming a professor.
Becerra enrolled in Florida International University in 1990, and in 1994, she finished her doctorate to become the first woman to earn a PhD in electrical engineering from FIU.
Becerra spent almost 30 years working at FIU. She became a tenured professor in management information systems before a dean asked her to lead the university’s Pino Entrepreneurship Center, which focuses on fostering technology firms, developing entrepreneurial leaders, and encouraging community enterprises in South Florida and the Americas.
During her time at FIU, Becerra launched the Americas Venture Capital Conference, which is now a major technology event called eMerge Americas, and she founded the university’s knowledge management lab.
As an assistant professor, Becerra received grants that allowed her to develop knowledge management systems with the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Air Force Research Lab, according to her Marymount University bio.
After working as vice provost and vice president for engagement at FIU, Becerra was recruited to serve as provost at St. Thomas University, a private, nonprofit Catholic university in Miami Gardens where she also became the chief academic officer.
Becerra says her work improving retention and increasing enrollment at St. Thomas drew the attention of a recruiter who was part of search efforts for Marymount University’s new president following the departure of Matthew Shank earlier this year.
A search committee unanimously approved Becerra as Marymount’s seventh president in June.
Becerra’s decision to join Marymount was inspired partly by Sister Majella Berg, who served as the university’s president for 33 years and oversaw its transformation from a two-year college for women to a more comprehensive, co-educational university with more than 3,000 students.
“The university’s distinguished for a long history of high-quality, practical education that is underpinned by the liberal arts,” Becerra said. “…I’m really excited to be here. I think Marymount is a university that has a tremendous history, and it has a spacious future.”
Along with improving the university’s graduation and retention rates, Becerra’s vision for Marymount includes upgraded information technology infrastructure and expanded program offerings.
She particularly hopes to enhance programs of study that respond to workforce demands in the surrounding Washington, D.C., area, such as hospitality, international relations and political science, and healthcare.
With her background in mathematics and engineering, it comes as little surprise that Becerra is a strong advocate for science, technology, engineering, and math education, citing a particular interest in the impact of technology on businesses and other organizations.
“Increasingly, technology is going to be embedded in everything that we do,” Becerra said. “I think it’s important that, as we educate the workforce of the future, our students have the flexibility that will allow them to really move into new job opportunities that don’t even exist today. Having a strength in technology provides you that flexibility that’s needed today and increasingly will be needed in the future.”