When Brenda Barrio moved to the “funky little town” of Denton to attend the University of North Texas in 2003, she would have never guessed she’d be the university’s assistant vice president of research and innovation 20 years later. “One of our goals is to help more students engage in research, especially those who come from marginalized communities,” she says.

Located about 40 miles northwest of Dallas, the university has transformed since Barrio was an undergrad alongside a student body of 23,000. She recalls seeing longhorns and cows from the western part of campus, where now there are shopping centers and homes. Today, the university enrolls nearly 47,000 students. “But the nice thing is that it’s kept its essence,” Barrio says.

In 2015, UNT was designated as an R1 university, a distinction given to schools with a significant investment in research by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. It’s also an HSI, or Hispanic-Serving Institution—and one of only 12 institutions in the U.S. to have both classifications. Barrio serves on the HSI Initiative task force and leads the ELEVAR (Empower, Learn, Excel, enVision, Advance, Rise) program, which supports students with intellectual disabilities. “We are one of the most inclusive programs in the nation as our students have [the same] access to all UNT campus courses, activities, and supports as traditional students,” she says. Barrio recently traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for more programs like ELEVAR.

Barrio lives in an area of North Denton called Nottingham Woods, though it’s nicknamed “Idiot’s Hill.” There are various theories about the name, including that it came from a developer in the 1950s and ’60s who wanted to poke fun at the highly educated professors moving into the area. But the moniker is meant with affection. “There are stickers and T-shirts, and there’s a whole vibe and neighborly community that lives within Idiot’s Hill,” she says. “It’s really cool.”

A woman wearing a light pink blazer stands in front of a brightly painted mural of a skull

Photo by Cathlin McCullough

Barrio’s Denton Picks


Mr. Chopsticks

A staple since 1985, the restaurant serves a variety of Asian dishes, including sushi, stir fry, and pho, as well as a number of vegetarian options. “Mr. Chopsticks moved since I was an undergrad—it’s still close to campus but at a larger location,” Barrio says. “It’s still one of my favorites and still inexpensive.”


Jupiter House

Located on the square, the two-story Jupiter House is a go-to coffee spot. “Although I think it’s had two fires, it’s survived somehow,” Barrio says. “I still go and write or have meetings there pretty often.”


Lake Ray Roberts

Sixteen miles north of Denton inside a state park, the reservoir offers boating and fishing, and the surrounding greenbelt has miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. Barrio likes to visit with her 8-year-old son. “We can hike there, camp there, there’s a lot of kid-friendly activities,” she says.

Free Play

For fun in town, Barrio and her son head to the arcade. Free Play has a huge selection of games, from Godzilla and Star Trek-themed pinball machines to Q*Bert, Donkey Kong, and Ms. Pac-Man. “You pay 12 bucks to get in and then play as long as you want,” she says.


UNT Library Mall

Barrio’s favorite spot on campus is the central open space in front of the Willis Library, where student life hums. “There’s a beautiful fountain that sits right in the middle,” she says. “Usually all the activities­— concerts, celebrations, all those things—happen right there. I’m very fortunate that my office has a window that looks out that way.”


Texas Woman’s University Gardens

Designed in 1930 for research and education, the gardens were planned to showcase diverse plants over 7 acres. Today, many native Texas species of wildflowers and trees flourish, turtles and frogs make themselves at home in a Texas-shaped pond, and visitors can explore the greenhouse and rock garden. “If I have people in town, I sometimes go on walks there with them,” Barrio says.


Denton Arts & Jazz Festival

The event Barrio anticipates each year is the jazz festival in October, which attracts tens of thousands of attendees. Musicians play on six outdoor stages at the Quakertown Park and Facilities. “UNT is known for its music school, and the music scene here, from unknown bands to very well-known, is always happening,” she says. “The jazz fest brings everyone together.”

Texas Woman’s University Gardens
415 Chapel Drive

From the May 2024 issue

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