Forging a path from the Rio Grande Valley to the Forty Acres
I’m standing under the fluorescent lighting of my high school hallway in McAllen, Texas. For a moment, it’s like my last four years at UT never happened. Time moves slowly here, and the world feels small as the familiar sound of the school bell rings out. I still blend in with the mobs of students who pour out of classrooms, gossiping before their five minutes are up. But the visitor’s pass on my sweater reminds me that I’m not 17 anymore and I don’t belong here.
Just the night before, I traveled the 300 miles down from Austin to this hometown of mine in the upper Rio Grande Valley, the nearly 5,000-square-mile strip of border land made up of cities like McAllen, Edinburg, Brownsville, and Harlingen. It’s a four-county region that’s not just abstractly isolated from the rest of the U.S., but also physically isolated by a checkpoint station where men in uniform determine whether you may leave the Valley based on how well you answer the question: “Are you an American citizen?”
I’m here to visit the man who inspired me to choose UT, my former audio-visual production teacher Robert Garza, BJ ’89. He’s a die-hard Longhorn whose office gets more burnt orange every time I visit. And with each passing year, he proudly adds new faces to a board that showcases the students he sends off to UT. (At press time, there are 35.) He is just one of many dispersed throughout the Valley who have made it their unofficial duty to guide students toward UT, from those who are in the top 10 percent of their class to others who thought college would never be an option.
In this region where the Texas Association of Counties says only about 12.4 percent of the population ages 25 and up have a bachelor’s degree or higher, Garza offers students counseling on college applications, takes a select few on an annual trip to Austin, and makes sure they have his support long after they’re gone. For years, alumni like him have worked together to ensure that the new generations of RGV students make their way north—and that the university is paying attention.
“Our experience here in this whole other culture unlike anywhere else is what is going to make the university flourish,” Garza says. “To some, diversity means skin color, but to me, it’s never meant that. Diversity in thought and background is what makes something successful.”
As far back as 1993, when former UT-Austin President Robert M. Berdahl was in office, the university has kept an eye on the rapidly growing RGV, where the population of over 1 million people is estimated to be 91 percent Hispanic as of 2015.
“The RGV is a vitally important part of our state and it’s growing quickly,” UT-Austin President Greg Fenves says. “There’s a wide range of excellent students in the Valley and educating them is an important part of our mission.”
When I first arrived at UT in 2012, I could have named 60 kids off the top of my head who came with me from the Valley. I thought Valley students were everywhere. But according to the UT Office of Institutional Reporting, Research, and Information Systems, that fall saw only 352 first-year enrollments of students from the RGV (a record high) out of a class of more than 8,000. My misperception was a result of privilege in the Valley—I was part of the most rigorous high-school program available, had a father with a degree, and lived a financially comfortable life. Not going to college was never an option for me.
Since 2005, when there were 229 first-time enrollments from the RGV, the numbers have improved, if just slightly. But out of the nearly 9,000 students in the fall 2016 freshman class, only 334 come from the RGV.
“We have a lot more work to do,” UT education professor and Valley native Victor Saenz, BA ’96, MA ’99, Life Member, says when I read him the numbers. He is one of the alumni who frequently returns to the Valley to speak with prospective Longhorns. “UT can’t take these students for granted just because it’s UT. I think it’s important that the university continues to reflect and look like the rest of the state of Texas. And as one of the fastest-growing regions in the fastest-growing states, the RGV should be represented.”
But as Saenz or any of the others I spoke to know, there are numerous cultural and financial barriers that the university must factor in when reaching out to students from the region. Financially, many families in the RGV can’t afford to send their college-aged children to another city. About 30-35 percent of the RGV population lives in poverty, and the median household income as of 2014 hovered around $34,000.
Culturally, many RGV students are first-generation U.S. citizens or come from families that have never left the region. Even my own parents have never lived anywhere else. And with a dominant Latino culture presiding over the Valley, some parents fear sending their kids north and the students sometimes feel like they can’t leave.
David Garcia, director of the UT Valley Admissions Center in Harlingen, says that’s why the university sets up satellite centers. “A lot of what we do focuses around making parents see that at UT we are a big family and there are plenty of resources,” he says, less than a week after taking around 50 students to visit campus and watch the Texas-Iowa State game. “Students in the Valley are hard-working, they come from hard-working families, they’re very smart, and have so many opportunities to grow. I think it’s important that we’re here to help give them that little push.”
There are options for higher education in South Texas, including a couple of community colleges, a technical college, and the promising University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, created by the Texas legislature in 2013 by combining UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville. But like Saenz says, they’re not the same as UT-Austin.
“When I speak with these young people and their families I try to put it into context of what it means to go to a world-class university,” Saenz says. “It doesn’t make UT-RGV any lesser, [but] UT-Austin is just a different experience. The whole world is here.”
A few days before my trip to the Valley, I sit at a large table inside Kerbey Lane Cafe on the Drag. I’m having lunch with eight people I met no more than 10 minutes earlier but we’re all from the Valley and they don’t feel like strangers. We’re connected by the understanding that although we’re still in Texas, this place is nothing like home.
I’m surrounded by UT English professor John Morán Gonzáles and Letty Fernandez, BJ ’78, Life Member, who are both from Brownsville, along with a few UT students ranging from freshmen to seniors. There’s Michael Garcia, Viviana Castillo, Marla Zarate, and Alexis Arce, who are also from Brownsville, Christina Nott from Harlingen, and Brenden McDonough from Rio Hondo.
Most of them say they’ve adjusted just fine. Garcia is in the Longhorn Band, Castillo has a job to earn extra money, and McDonough is involved in multiple organizations at the McCombs School of Business.
But Nott, a senior nutrition major, and Arce, a freshman biology major and the first in his family to attend college, say coming to UT was a culture shock. I’m reminded of all the times I had to force myself not to give up and go home my first year. It’s not that my classes were particularly challenging—that was the easy part—it was that culturally, I always felt one step behind. I had never heard of things like NPR, had never seen a gay couple, thought Greek life was just in movies, and didn’t know Tex-Mex was something to be marketed. Tex-Mex was just my way of life.
This lunch is a chance for Fernandez, who co-founded the Texas Exes Brownsville Chapter nearly 30 years ago, to check in on these students she had a hand in getting here. She says it’s her way of making sure they don’t end up in what she calls “the black hole.”
“I want them to do well here,” she says. “UT did a lot for me and I want to ensure that we do whatever we can to make them succeed.”
In 2011, alumni and donors from the RGV created the Rio Grande Valley Scholars Program, which awards a $10,000 scholarship annually to students from the region with funds raised by alumni and friends. “It’s our way of taking care of our own,” Fernandez says. For 23 years, the Brownsville Chapter—and more recently, the Starr-County Chapter—has held an annual Student Send-Off for Valley students who are UT-bound. Every year since its inception, the event has welcomed the current UT president, along with guest speakers like UT English professor and author Oscar Cásares, BS ’87.
“I think that coming to a place like Austin just opens your world,” Cásares says. “There’s this vast awakening my students from the Valley go through that I went through. I think there are a lot of reasons RGV students could benefit from coming here if they feel it’s their calling.”
Sitting on the couch in Garza’s classroom, I think about all the times I dreamed about leaving home. But now, looking at my name scribbled on the wall, I want everyone I meet to know I come from the RGV. I owe who I am to this place.
“I still consider myself a proud son of the Rio Grande Valley,” Saenz says. “People are proud to be from South Texas and its strong ethos of community, family, faith, and strong work ethic.”
Nott feels the same way. She says it took leaving for her to look back at the Valley and appreciate it in its entirety. “Because of where we come from, I know that I will be successful in whatever I choose to do next,” she says.
Garza says he never doubted that I would make it to UT, but he’s even more proud that I followed his original career as a journalist. He says stories like mine are part of what keeps him going. “We need people like you out there,” he says. “You bring your firsthand experience of the Valley—an area that struggles with poverty, medical issues, education, and immigration—and that’s not something that can be taught.”
Though many people leave the Valley and never look back, many return home and build successful lives. There are countless Longhorns in the RGV who own small businesses, work in education, and are mayors or judges. But wherever they end up, many feel it is their duty to help make the Valley what we all know it could be. Simply put, we all want the same thing: for the Valley to succeed.
Illustration by Cannady Chapman
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Mitzi Irene Nuhn Dreher:
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