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Portrait of Mayte De Paz sitting near lake

One More River to Cross

Immigration and Language Barriers Could Not Deter This Education Champion

In April, College of Education bilingual education major Mayte De Paz was named a McNair Scholar recipient. The McNair is a prestigious award and the process is competitive. But Mayte has had years of practice beating seemingly insurmountable odds. She first began doing so when she was just six years old.

“When I was a child in Trojes, Mexico, I farmed with my mom and sisters. I learned how to work in the fields. We grew flowers and food, like corn and tomatoes, and raised animals,” explains De Paz.

Mayte De Paz

Mayte De Paz (Photo by: Christina S. Murrey)

The family farmed one side of a river and lived on the other. The river would rise during the day, making the return crossing laborious, even treacherous. “The walk home was wet and muddy, and each day we’d have to construct makeshift bridges by filling bags with dirt and bricks to try to make it across. Not everyone was successful making it across and would end up trapped for the night away from their homes.”

When Mayte was 12, her family moved to El Potrero Nuevo León. It was the first time she had a chance to attend school on a regular basis. “There wasn’t time to go to school when we were farming, so I was 12 years old and did not know how to read or write.” The family lived in Monterrey for five years before immigrating to the United States when Mayte was 17. She and her sister enrolled in school in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Entrance exams placed Mayte and her younger sister in their freshman year of high school.

“I didn’t know any English,” she says. “I started watching TV, reading aloud. I got an English-Spanish dictionary.” Though she struggled with reading and writing, she excelled in sciences and math. “I liked biology because I could understand it. I stayed for tutoring and my teacher would tell us about the next class. I made an 85.”

Despite the language barrier, Mayte made the B honor roll her freshman year.

Single-minded Perseverance

“But I wanted more,” Mayte says. She spent many days after school watching other students play soccer. “I wanted to play, but I was too shy to ask. Finally, I asked the coach and I went to tryouts. I felt like a bird flying. I began to play on the team. I made it to varsity. I got a jacket. I joined student council and ROTC, and I became the company commander; I joined the multicultural club too. I wanted to be part of the National Honors Society, but you had to be in the top 10%, and I didn’t have the GPA and grades. I needed an 87.9.”

She didn’t let that challenge stop her either. “Each semester I would try harder. I’d go to my counselor and she’d say, ‘Not yet, Mayte, but keep trying.’ Then finally I made it.”

Mayte was accepted at UT Arlington, “but I didn’t go because my parents said no. My parents thought I was crazy to follow a different path. But I decided that if they didn’t allow me, I would keep going for myself.”

She enrolled in community college, where she tackled yet another barrier.

“I could not pass the writing class,” she says. “If you make three major errors on the writing test—things like subject/verb agreement or fragment errors, you can’t pass. I took the test nine times. I couldn’t take English, government or history until I passed that class.” But she excelled at math. The school began to notice her math ability and she earned a scholarship. “I was happy. I finally took the writing test the last time. Fifteen students took it and only four passed. When I found out that I passed I fell on the ground crying.”

Discovering her Passion, with a Little Help

Mayte always wanted to attend The University of Texas in Austin, but she thought that goal was out of reach. “I was in community college for six years. I thought UT was for rich, really smart people; but when I decided to try to get in, my professors didn’t hesitate to support me. I even got a letter of recommendation from the community college president.”

In 2014, the math and science whiz was accepted into the Cockrell School of Engineering, which humbled her. “It’s extremely difficult to get into the school of engineering at UT. I knew it was a big honor.” She spent her first semester trying to find out what she wanted to do, pursue and be. That’s when Mayte discovered something that troubled her: “I wanted to be involved more directly with making people’s lives better, but I didn’t see myself doing that by becoming an engineer.”

Mayte sought out professors, mentors and counselors to help with her dilemma. She realized that, though she excelled at math and science, her English language skills kept her from uncovering her true academic and career passion: education.

So Mayte changed her major to bilingual education. She credits Jessica Silva [academic advising coordinator in the College of Education] with encouraging her to continue on for her Ph.D. and to apply for the McNair Scholars program. The McNair Scholars program works to increase the number of students in doctoral degree programs who are low-income and first-generation undergraduates, or students who come from groups underrepresented in graduate education. Program participants must be committed to enrolling in graduate programs with an end goal of successfully completing a Ph.D.

The biggest challenge in earning the prestigious award? “I had to write an essay,” she says, proudly. “I wrote about how I want to help the community.”

Building a Stronger Bridge

Ph.D, Candidate’s White House Internship Further Supports First-Generation Latino Students

A native of the Texas Rio Grande Valley, current UT College of Education Ph.D. student Joanna Sanchez was a first-generation college student who remembers how difficult the transition to higher education was, especially without the support of family and community. Sanchez received a Gates Millennium Scholarship in its inaugural year, 1999. The scholarship, which provides financial assistance to outstanding minority students with significant financial need, was instrumental in helping Joanna earn a bachelor’s degree in geosciences from Trinity University. She went on to earn a master’s in geographic information science from the University of Denver.

Joanna Sanchez

Joanna Sanchez

Joanna then embarked on a successful career in geographic information systems (GIS), but volunteering with the Gates program led her to discover her true calling. “Part of my responsibility as a Gates Millennium Scholar was to speak to students in the community about the program and my experience,” says Joanna. Not only did she find that engagement fulfilling, she also saw a distinct void that needed to be filled. “As in my own experience, I saw a lack of family support for first-generation students to leave home and go off into the unknown world of college. I began to understand how important it is for the families of these students to become educated about the opportunities the college journey gives their young people.”

“It’s scary for students to leave the Valley, with no support. And their families are afraid that if their children leave, they won’t come back,” she explains. “But I get to show them not only that it is possible for their kids to do well, but that, like me, they can and do come back.”

Joanna channelled her passion for supporting students and their families into a nonprofit organization that she founded in the Rio Grande Valley called Odisea. Odisea’s mission is to work with local high school students and parents to try to make the transition from high school to moving away from home for college easier. Her nonprofit work proved so inspiring that she made it her career. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational policy and planning. Her research interests include college access, minority first-generation college students and school/family/community partnerships. Joanna was named a 2014-2016 Barbara L. Jackson Scholar and, this summer, the third-year doctoral student was named an Archer Fellow.

It was the Archer Fellowship that opened the door to the White House. The program was established by The University of Texas System and former U.S. Representative Bill Archer to bring students to Washington, D.C., to participate in internships and attend classes focusing on policy, history and advocacy. Joanna took classes in D.C. this summer and found an internship in a White House program that is applicable to her research and career goals. “There are five White House initiatives on educational excellence. Each one focuses on studying educational policies and programs within a particular minority or underrepresented group. My work this summer focuses on the Hispanic community. It’s a great fit with my work at Odisea and my research. There can be a huge disconnect between local and federal efforts in the field, and I want to work on building that connection.”