A teacher's journey back to the Valley

Photo by Todd Wiseman

As a high school teacher in the Rio Grande Valley, I know the struggles my students face.

After all, I was there once myself.

I grew up in the area and, like many of my students, came from a poor family. I lived most of my childhood and adolescence believing that my future wouldn’t be much different from that of most of my friends and family.

But in high school, I found a way out. One summer I interned at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and found myself surrounded by highly intelligent, dedicated individuals striving to curb health disparities among minorities.

It was there that I received these words of wisdom from my mentor: “It is not the science you do that is your legacy, but the people you leave behind to continue the work you do.”

I was inspired.

After that, I pursued pre-medicine at the University of Texas-Pan American. But as medical school applications began to flood my inbox, an email from Teach for America reminded me of my mentor’s words. Soon enough I was teaching high school 20 minutes from my hometown of Raymondville. And though I’d planned to attend medical school after my teaching commitment, I soon realized that my passion for medicine didn’t outweigh the love I felt for my students — or my determination to help put them and their families on a different path. Five years later, I’m still in the classroom.

Our state faces a critical shortage of engineers and computer scientists. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the state will need 88,000 more engineers and computer scientists over the next decade to keep our economy strong.

An enthusiast of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) myself, I find this shortage alarming. I want my state to be competitive, healthy and have a promising future, but more importantly, I want those things for my students and all children throughout the state.

STEM skills, and the jobs that come with them, open a vast realm of possibilities for students of all backgrounds. Computer science jobs have the second-highest starting salary among college disciplines. Some engineering jobs have a median income of $80,000. For students growing up with limited resources, a salary like that can be life-changing — and can alter the circumstances for future generations.

Many of my students at Mercedes Early College Academy are among the roughly 50 percent of students in town living below the poverty line. They can be anything they dream, from an astronaut to a biomedical engineer, but too often lack access to high-quality STEM opportunities.

Knowing how a STEM internship changed my life, I owe it to my students to put the same opportunities in front of them. With the support of my principal and coworkers, I’ve created a two-year college success track that helps students secure competitive internships across the country. Former students have participated in programs at Columbia University, New York University, Yale University, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University to study medicine, veterinary science, cancer research and engineering.

Last year, I received an email from a former student, Jaileene, who wrote to tell me that it was in my class where she had discovered her love for biology. “I’ve been accepted into a cancer research internship at Yale,” she wrote. “Thank you for everything.”

We can all help give students early exposure to STEM fields. Parents can find summer outreach programs or STEM activities that their children can do at home. Teachers can create an environment of inquiry-based activities, like school-wide science fairs, classes that incorporate engineering, or robotics programs, which allow students to work with computer programming and workable models. School and system education leaders can create partnerships with corporations and local universities or community colleges. Students at Mercedes Early College Academy, where I currently teach, can graduate with an associate’s degree in medical science, engineering or computer science through our partnership with South Texas College, which provides students with early exposure to STEM fields in line with the demands of the current global economy. 

Together, we can help ensure that our state and our students have a bright future. By providing high-quality STEM opportunities early in life, we’re giving our students — especially those historically underserved — the gift of limitless possibilities.

Every day I’m reminded of the power of education, both in my life and in the lives of others, and I keep that in mind as I work to help those whose voices are rarely heard.