Scarlett Smith shines at three full-time jobs: she’s a student, an education advocate, and a mom. With help from a Texas Exes scholarship, this future teacher is already working to close the education gap.
This summer, Scarlett Smith is teaching an engineering class at UT Elementary. Her students learn problem solving and the scientific method by designing ways to roll an egg down a ramp. When they troubleshoot solutions, they’re learning to test and re-test the way real engineers do.
Smith, 25, is excited about giving kids a head start on a subject usually reserved for college, but she’s even more passionate about getting them on the path to higher education. “My goal is to inspire kids, not just give them information,” she says. “When you have someone who believes in you, your horizon opens up.”
She should know. Smith’s own journey—from the bottom half of her high school class to the top of UT’s elite College of Education—has been anything but easy.
“In high school, I didn’t always feel that my teachers believed in me,” she remembers. “Plus I was stubborn, rebellious, and not interested in learning. You could say it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.” No one suggested she take the SAT, so she didn’t.
After high school, Smith moved from her native San Angelo to California in pursuit of a music career. She enrolled in community college to take music classes. At first, she dreaded required math and English courses; then, to her shock, she earned top grades. “I realized I was capable of more,” Smith says.
Emboldened, she applied to UT and made the cut. Smith enrolled in spring 2009 as an anthropology major. Though the workload was tough, she was up to the challenge.
But that summer, a big change arrived in the form of a positive pregnancy test. Smith says her career was inspired, not derailed, by the news.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I switched to education and never looked back,” she says. “I did it because connecting with low-income families taught me that I want to bridge gaps in urban education.”
Smith grew up in a middle-class family, but when Stella was born in February 2010, Smith struggled to make ends meet. She wasn’t just studying issues of inequality and poverty in her UT classes—she was living them. Neighbors in her low-income community started dropping by to get advice. “For example, lots of low-income, multicultural parents struggle with parent-teacher conferences,” Smith says. “I give them tips on how to communicate with teachers, how to advocate for their kids.”
Smith was scanning the list of scholarships on the Texas Exes website when she saw the Susan N. Sams Scholarship for an unmarried mother pursuing her first bachelor’s degree. “Getting the scholarship was a huge honor that I’m so thankful for,” she says. “It made me feel proud.”
Now Smith is collaborating with UT education professor Sherry Field and PhD student Liz Bellows to conduct pioneering research on teaching 9/11. Field calls Smith “exceptionally talented,” and says, “She has a sense of wonderment that makes her question the status quo.” For her part, Smith says, “Great teachers are the reason I am where I am,” calling UT professor Dotty Hall a “life-changing mentor.” Smith is on track to graduate in December.
These days, Smith says life is jam-packed and full of love. She recently got engaged to Stella’s dad, Jordan, whom she calls “my superhero.” The three of them wake at 5:30 every morning for a family breakfast. Jordan heads off to manage a restaurant in San Marcos, while Scarlett and Stella fight traffic on I-35. Then Scarlett drops off her daughter at UT’s Child Development Center on the way to class. “We’re both Longhorns,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. Being a mom fuels my fire.”
Photos courtesy Scarlett Smith