A Snapshot of Excellence

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Teach for America

Teach for America continues to make a difference in the RGV

Cities in the Rio Grande Valley sometimes find themselves chagrined by headlines such The Street’s listing of the Brownsville and McAllen metros at the bottom of this summer’s rankings of “The 20 Least Educated Cities in the US.” According to Street, the McAllen region “comes in dead last…for education” among the 150 largest metro areas in the country. As is often the case with click-bait journalism, The Street’s pessimistic snapshot stops short of telling the whole story. The other half of the tale is the individuals and organizations striving to improve access to education in the Rio Grande Valley. To take only one example, consider the teachers of Teach for America, an organization dedicated to tackling educational inequality. TFA grew from one student’s thesis idea in 1989 into an educational force that has deployed more than 50,000 corps members and alumni in underserved regions. The program recruits stellar recent college grads and places them as teachers in regions suffering from low educational attainment – places like the Rio Grande Valley. One individual who has experienced RGV education both as a student and as a TFA teacher is Gabriela Ontiveros, a Weslaco native who exceeded expectations and who has used her talents to brighten the future of students in her hometown.

Gabriela Ontiveros was a diligent student during her days at Weslaco High School. At the end of senior year, she had earned a place at St. Edward’s University, a liberal arts school in Austin. There, in spite of her hard  work at Weslaco High, she had to make up ground “because there were some things that I just had not been taught.” This hard lesson on the side effects of educational inequality stuck in her mind. At the end of her first year at St. Ed’s, Gabriela received terrible news: According to doctors, pulmonary fibrosis threatened her mother’s life. In order to be closer to her mother, Gabriela returned to the Valley and enrolled at the nearby University of Texas Pan American. Once again, and in spite of family tragedy – her mother passed away from the disease – Gabriela excelled. Upon graduation, Gabriela took the MCAT and applied to medical school. She had such conviction of her future success that she applied to only one medical school (University of Texas San Antonio), unlike most other would-be doctors who – mindful of the low percentages of applicants who are actually accepted – might apply to a score of schools in hopes of being admitted to one. Gabriela’s confidence paid off. She was accepted to medical school at UTSA.

In spite of completing her college career with flying colors and being accepted into medical school, Gabriela felt something was amiss. “I was not fulfilled,” she recalled. “Yes, I was proud and happy and all those positive feelings, but I did not feel complete.” In the midst of this existential crisis, a friend introduced her to Teach for America. An intense internal struggle commenced: All of Gabriela’s prior education had been geared toward medical school, and in her hand she held the admissions letter that was her ticket to that goal.Yet, there was something about the prospect of teaching. In the end she applied to TFA just as the deadline passed; only a last-minute extension of the deadline allowed Gabriela’s application to be considered. Gabriela took the deadline extension as an omen of sorts, and her resolve hardened. With her mother having passed away, Gabriela had no intention of leaving her remaining family members. She was determined to find a path to success in her home region. The TFA recruitment process is highly selective, and success was by no means certain. Nevertheless, Gabriela again excelled, acing interview after interview on her way to joining TFA’s elite corps of teacher trainees.

From potential doctor to rookie teacher may be an unexpected career change, but upon reflection, Gabriela’s side-step was not so surprising. After all, both teaching and medicine are service professions appealing to those with a burning need to help their fellow creatures. In hindsight, Gabriela can contrast her two career options. She knew that teachers are often denigrated while doctors enjoy prestige. Yet her two-year teaching commitment with TFA exploded those societal stereotypes.

Teach for America“I learned about myself and I was able to see first-hand how a person that truly cares can change a young adult’s life,” said Gabriela. “I was blessed to be able to have the same students I had my first year and teach them my second year. I taught 130 biology students my first year and moved up with them to chemistry my second year. I knew their families, I knew their struggles, and I knew what space I held in their lives.” The same brilliance that had prepared Gabriela for medical school had also prepared her to continuously mentor her students through both biology and chemistry. Nor did Gabriela’s efforts on behalf of her students end in the classroom. Cheerleading sponsor, HESTEC robotics coach, and girl’s powerlifting coach are all extracurricular roles that Gabriela has worn with distinction.

In recent years the challenges of teaching in an increasingly stressful environment have been the subject of an army of op-eds. A skeptic might admit that teaching could attract a big-hearted person with a desire to help others, while cynically assuming that the increasing pressures of the profession would soon drive a new teacher like Gabriela away. Yet, once her TFA commitment was upon, Gabriela did not seek refuge in medical school; she dove back into the classroom for a third year. Gabriela readily owns up to the reality of the challenge: “As a teacher you have so many duties that actual teaching becomes a small part of what you do.” For Gabriela, the solution to this plethora of problems comes down to a shift in perspective: she focuses on the young human lives she has been given the privilege of molding. “You have to problem solve a lot in my profession. How do I do all this? Well, I don’t think of them as problems, I think of them as lives.” Gabriela – and many other TFA teachers in the Rio Grande Valley – is a professional life-changer.

At the end of the day, it is not afterglow of TFA’s institutional prestige that most impacts the Valley, but rather the kindly warmth of TFA teachers. Hailing from all over the United States, TFA teachers have a wealth of experiences to share with Valley students, enabling both teachers and students to think outside the proverbial box. Given the selective nature of the program, many TFA teachers have enjoyed the privilege of an elite education; TFA’s involvement in the Rio Grande Valley extends that privilege to local high school students. Dedicated, talented, and inspired teachers such as Gabriela Ontiveros are transforming the Valley through classrooms that are laboratories of excellence.

1 William Richards. “The 20 Least Educated Cities in the US” The Street, 2 August 2016. https://www.thestreet.com/slideshow/13658203/21/the-20-least-educated-cities-in-the-u-s.html

2 Teach for America. “About Us.” https://www.teachforamerica.org/about-us/our-story/our-history!