Empowering Dreams 

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In the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, a remarkable journey unfolds as first-generation students at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (PSJA ISD) are among those redefining the odds and shattering barriers through the transformative power of Early College. As the sun rises on the horizon of their aspirations, these students are not just dreaming; they are achieving, inspiring, and paving the way for a brighter future.

Over half of all college students in the United States are estimated to be first-generation. According to Forbes, although definitions of first-generation vary, most colleges and universities define these as students whose parents do not have four-year college degrees, including those whose parents completed associate programs or attended college but did not graduate.

Research shows that when pursuing a post-secondary education, about one in three first-generation students leave college within the first three years and face many psychological, academic, financial, and social challenges. Despite these daunting statistics, students in the Rio Grande Valley are breaking these barriers and getting a jump-start on college and their careers in high school through PSJA ISD’s Early College Program.

For Nicole Almaraz, a dual-language first-generation student and soon-to-be Early College graduate at PSJA ISD, the opportunity to graduate with an Associate Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Science from South Texas College while attending PSJA Collegiate School of Health Professions in San Juan has been life-changing for her and her family.

“Right now, I am in high school earning two years of college, saving my parents money and getting a big load off their shoulders while saving time on my education,” said the 17-year-old. “My parents are super proud of me. They tell our family in Mexico that they are very proud of me and who I’ve become. I know they’ve sacrificed so much for my education.”

As the youngest of three children, Almaraz shared how much reaching this milestone means to her and her immigrant parents, who didn’t have the opportunity to finish school. Her father didn’t complete elementary school to support his family in Mexico. Still, her mother helped provide for them while working at Bodegas. They immigrated to the U.S. in search of the American Dream and to provide Nicole and her siblings with better opportunities and a better life.

“I’m so grateful to my parents for sacrificing so much for us so that we can be here. I want to make them proud and show them it was all worth it,” said the 17-year-old. “I’m also grateful to PSJA for the opportunity to earn my associate degree and be part of the phlebotomy program.”

According to the district, the impact of PSJA ISD’s Early College Program extends far beyond academics. It’s about breaking barriers, easing financial burdens, meeting the needs of a high-demand workforce, and making a multigenerational impact among students and their families. Almaraz’s parents, immigrants pursuing the American Dream, sacrificed immensely for her education. Now, their pride in her achievements echoes across borders, inspiring her family and an entire community.

In addition to earning an associate degree, Almaraz is currently part of the PSJA Phlebotomy Technician Academy, where she is on track to earn an Industry-based Certification as a Phlebotomy Technician. Her goal upon graduation, she says, is to work as a phlebotomist as she continues to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley starting this fall.

Almaraz’s participation in the PSJA Dual Language Program and her upcoming achievement of earning a Seal of Biliteracy on her high diploma are significant accomplishments that will enhance her career opportunities. Being bilingual and bi-literate are valuable assets that will open many doors in today’s globalized workforce.

Like Almaraz, hundreds of other PSJA ISD high school students share similar stories and inspiring journeys of perseverance. Through PSJA ISD’s nationally recognized Early College Program in partnership with South Texas College, thousands of high school students like Almaraz can graduate with an associate degree or up to 60 college credit hours free of cost each year.

Yareli Hernandez, a 12th-grade student at PSJA Early College High School in San Juan, recently earned an Associate Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from South Texas College in Dec.  2023, an entire semester before receiving her high school diploma. Like Almaraz, she’s part of the PSJA Academies. She will be earning Industry-based Certifications in Phlebotomy and electrocardiogram to get a jump-start in her career while gaining a competitive edge for a future career in the medical field.

“Attending PSJA ISD has proved to be a transformative experience for me with a dedicated support system comprised of dedicated teachers, counselors and mentors,” Hernandez said. “I have flourished academically and have seized every opportunity that came my way, embracing the rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities that were offered to me.”

Similarly, Victoria Garcia, a 12th grader at PSJA T. Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School in Pharr, earned an Associate Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in December. The first-generation college student is grateful for the opportunity and the preparation she’s gained to continue pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

Garcia’s choice to also take advantage of the PSJA Dual Language Program will earn her a Seal of Biliteracy on her high school diploma. Her commitment to bilingualism and biliteracy further enhances her skills and broadens her horizons.

With the head start she received while in high school at PSJA ISD, Garcia aspires to become an elementary teacher, eventually teaching English at the high school level.

“Dual credit courses help students with the transition from high school to college,” said Victoria Garcia. “The exposure of college courses while in high school prepares students for what will be expected. We gain knowledge and the experience of taking the classes which allows for a smoother transition.”

Since its inception in 2008, the PSJA Early College Program has enabled thousands of PSJA ISD students to graduate from high school with a head start on their college work and with up to an associate degree from South Texas College.

With all high schools designated as Early College, PSJA ISD has the only wall-to-wall Early College Program in the state and nation. With an equity-focused approach, PSJA ISD’s Early College Program’s success is rooted in a holistic approach, offering rigorous academics alongside unwavering support from dedicated teachers, counselors, and mentors.

Looking ahead, PSJA ISD’s commitment to empowering students remains unwavering. As the district prepares to host its 2024 PSJA College for All Conference at the Mission Events Center on October 22-24, 2024, educators, districts, and higher education institutions are invited to witness firsthand the impactful initiatives shaping futures and transforming communities.

“PSJA ISD takes pride in providing life-changing opportunities for all students,” said PSJA Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alejandro Elias. “Our college for all, equity for all approach helps us make sure we are not just educating our students but providing them with the rigor and preparation needed for them to succeed as they continue their post-secondary education and enter the workforce. We commend our students for taking advantage of these opportunities and positively impacting their families and our communities.”

In the spirit of equity and opportunity, PSJA ISD continues to welcome students from all walks of life, ensuring that every student has the chance to soar. For those seeking a brighter tomorrow, PSJA ISD’s Early College Program isn’t just a pathway—it’s a beacon of hope and possibility, bringing students one step closer to reaching the American Dream.

The district is accepting students for the 2024-2025 school year. For more information about these programs and opportunities, visit www.psjaisd.us/earlycollegeprogram. To schedule a campus tour or register, call 956.354.2167.

Reach for the Stars & Beyond

PSJA ISD Alum shares inspiring educational journey from early college to NASA

In space exploration, dreams are often fueled by a passion for the unknown and an unwavering determination to push boundaries. Bryan Acosta, a NASA, and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Alum flight software engineer, embodies this spirit of exploration and resilience. His remarkable journey from PSJA Memorial Early College High School (ECHS) in Alamo to the NASA corridors in Houston, Texas, inspires students.

According to Acosta, his academic journey first took flight at PSJA Memorial ECHS, where he participated in the PSJA Early College Program. Through the program, Acosta graduated with an Associate Degree in Mathematics from South Texas College before receiving his high school diploma in 2019.

Through PSJA ISD’s nationally recognized Early College Program, in partnership with South Texas College and other higher-education institutions, high school students can graduate free of cost with up to an associate degree or 60 college credit hours before graduation.

After graduating from PSJA ISD, Acosta continued his educational journey at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Computational Engineering and ultimately becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college. Immersed in the Texas Spacecraft Lab, he honed his skills as a flight software engineer. He drew inspiration from peers who had charted their paths to aerospace careers.

“I always had a love for space and engineering, and when I got to college, I realized I could combine both of those interests, but I honestly never saw a career in NASA being within reach,” said the PSJA Alum. “Two members of the UT Society of Professional Engineers inspired me and made me realize a job at NASA was not just a crazy dream.”

As a NASA Johnson Space Center team member, Acosta contributes his expertise to developing the Gateway Spacecraft, a cutting-edge space station poised to orbit the moon for scientific exploration. His internships at aerospace titans such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin have provided invaluable insights, enriched his understanding of the industry, and fueled his passion for innovation.

Beyond his professional achievements, Acosta remains deeply committed to fostering diversity and inclusivity in STEM fields. As vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Acosta spearheads initiatives to support underrepresented students, ensuring equitable access to opportunities for growth and advancement.

“I found that throughout college, internships, and now my job at NASA, there is a huge disparity in the diversity among engineers in the workforce,” said Bryan Acosta. I believe this disparity happens because of the difference in resources starting from K-12 education. That is why fostering diversity and inclusivity and support for underrepresented students is one of my biggest motivators to be involved as a mentor and leader in STEM-promoting organizations.”

Acosta humbly attributes his success to the college courses he took at PSJA Memorial ECHS, which allowed him to seamlessly transition into university-level coursework at UT Austin and pursue advanced studies. He emphasizes the dual enrollment program’s benefits in reducing the time and cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

“PSJA ISD has many opportunities in different career paths,” said Acosta. “I found that PSJA will work hard to help provide you with the opportunity to reach your goals. The dual enrollment program is amazing.”

PSJA Memorial ECHS is one of PSJA ISD’s numerous comprehensive early college high schools. All PSJA ISD high schools are designated Early Colleges, making them innovative institutions that allow students to attend college and high school simultaneously. Early College High Schools offer rigorous instruction and provide academic, social, and emotional support services to help students succeed.

The proud PSJA ISD alum is grateful for his opportunities and advises current students to work hard for their dreams.

“Do your research on all potential careers. There is something for everyone. Do not pursue a particular field only for money, because odds are you will be miserable throughout your education and your career,” said the PSJA Alum. “Follow your dreams no matter what anyone tells you. I didn’t think it would be possible for me to work at NASA, so I did not choose aerospace engineering. If only younger me knew of everything I would eventually achieve!”

As an open-enrollment public school district, PSJA ISD welcomes students from anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley. For more information about these programs and opportunities, visit www.psjaisd.us/earlycollegeprogram.

Cynthia Ybarra