Exploring life beyond the Rio Grande Valley

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For many high school students living in the Rio Grande Valley, pursuing a college education beyond South Texas is often overlooked and in the back of their minds as they are often plagued by the ultimate fear of leaving home and the dreaded question, “What if I don’t make it?” Additionally, the lack of knowledge and means to travel to explore out-of-state universities further hinders students from taking advantage of the many opportunities and possibilities beyond home.

With this in mind, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA), in partnership with the Texas Graduate Center, selected more than 30 PSJA sophomore and junior students to tour universities as part of the Summer Ivy League Tours Program. They visited Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, Brown University, Yale University, and Columbia University.

For Anna K. Sanchez, a junior at PSJA Early College High School, the experience was life changing.

“This trip was priceless as it was able to enrich me with vast knowledge regarding admissions, college life, financial aid, and what colleges look for,” shared Sanchez of her visit to Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. “I learned things that one could not simply experience by just going online. It really changed my perspective on my education.”

The tours are exclusive to MATHTEACH Collaborative partners with the Texas Graduate Center based out of Mercedes. Partnering school districts, such as PSJA ISD, support a math teacher in their Math for Teaching Graduate Program in partnership with Harvard University. Two PSJA teachers recently graduated with their master’s degrees from the program and another two are currently participating.

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-1-44-53-pm“The tours are at no cost to the district provided that our teachers get selected to earn their master’s at Harvard University,” explained Marisela Zepeda director of Advanced Academics for PSJA ISD. “The district gets two slots for student tours for each teacher selected to participate in the master degree cohorts.”

A total of three different tours took place this summer starting in June. The first tour took a group of eight sophomore students to visit the halls of Harvard, MIT ,and Brown University. For the second tour, four junior students interested in pursuing a career in the medical field were selected to learn about the Washington University St. Louis School of Medicine.

While the first two tours were completely funded by Texas Graduate Center, PSJA ISD sponsored 20 additional students and two chaperones for the third tour to Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. In addition to visiting the prestigious universities, students participating as part of the last tour also got to stroll down, the Big Apple and got a taste of life beyond the Valley.

Although the tours provide a tremendous experience for students, being selected is anything but easy. Students had to complete an online application, submit a detailed essay, and go through an interview committee.

“The PSJA Summer Ivy League Tours program is a very competitive program,” said Vera Boda, PSJA College Transition Lead. “Students are able to get a first look at prestigious universities, the many programs they offer, connect with staff, learn about the college admission process and opportunities for financial aid.”

In addition to broadening their perspectives, many students returned home with a better sense of appreciation for their education.

“This tour helped me realize the dedication and importance of my education. I can now see all the effort the PSJA Board of Education makes to help us see what is out there,” said Roxanne Flores, a junior at PSJA Southwest Early College High School. “Being from South Texas and going to New York is an eye-opening experience.”

Having explored life beyond the Rio Grande Valley, students said they were grateful for the opportunity.

“Being able to experience first-hand these different universities saved me! I hadn’t even thought of applying to Yale University before and now it’s my dream school,” said Joel Vela, a junior at PSJA North ECHS. “I am extremely grateful to the Texas Graduate Center and PSJA ISD for selecting me for this opportunity.”