Macarena Hernandez column: You can make a difference, as my mentors did

Aug. 25, 2012 at 3:25 a.m.
Updated Aug. 26, 2012 at 3:26 a.m.

Macarena Hernandez

Macarena Hernandez

We've heard the statistics - too many students are dropping out of high school and even fewer are going on to college. Let's not even talk about the stories that detail how our students are falling behind, especially when compared to those from China or India.

There is no doubt that when it comes to our education system, there is lots of pessimism.

So to some of you, it may seem a bit Pollyannaish, that on the eve of the first day of school, The Victoria Advocate is launching a campaign to get us thinking about education as a community commitment. I believe Victoria is just the right kind of city to embrace this challenge. It is also imperative that we do so. Our city can only continue to thrive as it grows if we ensure that all children have access to opportunities.

I became interested in education issues after I spent a year teaching at my alma mater, La Joya High School in the Rio Grande Valley back in the late 90s.

That experience helped me realize that while I could not control parent incomes and education levels - factors that largely predict a student's academic success - there was lots that I could do. In fact, many studies highlight the importance of mentoring relationships between educators and students. When students know that there are others invested in their future, they become more invested themselves. I also learned that we all needed to start encouraging kids to pursue higher education while they were still in elementary school.

Unfortunately, by the time some of my sophomore students showed up at my English literature class, they had already decided that college was not for them. A good number of those students had never had an adult - at home or at school - tell them college was a possibility.

Later, as a reporter and columnist, I wrote about education issues and interviewed educators from all over. One teacher's approach stayed with me. Marcia Niemann taught immigrant teenagers in Dallas. Because they often come to U.S. schools not speaking English and having skipped years of schooling back home, immigrant teens are at the most risk of dropping out. Even though Ms. Niemann knew about half of her students would leave Adamson High School without a diploma, she stressed life-long learning. She wanted her students to know that you were never too old to learn and that education did not end with a high school diploma. She hoped they'd eventually preach the same message to their own siblings and, one day, their own children. So she saw her job as an investment across generations.

I realize that at this point in this column, some of you may be thinking I'm sounding naively optimistic. But I can only speak from experience. As a child of immigrants - my father had a second-grade education, my mom went up to fifth grade - I know not all families can do it alone. My father and mother provided a healthy home environment and my teachers helped me navigate worlds foreign to my Mexican-born parents. In fifth grade, it was Mr. Pedro Mendoza, my Spanish U.I.L. poetry coach, who exposed me to Latin American literary giants like Gabriela Mistral and Amado Nervo. What I also learned from that experience was that Spanish, my parents' native language, was beautiful and that I should work at keeping it. In middle school, it was Dagoberto "Betto" Ramirez who taught me how to analyze poetry and short stories and no doubt influenced me to become an English major in college. Throughout my years at La Joya Independent School District, it was Nena Garza, who was then the director of the district's University Interscholastic League office, who encouraged me along and was an amazing role model - a strong and assertive, compassionate woman who seemed to always get what she wanted. They are just a few examples of those who helped me. To list all my mentors and role models, I'd need a book.

What exactly, you may be wondering, can you do? So many possibilities!

Maybe you can organize a school supply drive at your office. If you own your business, maybe you can donate books for kids who don't have any at home.

But you don't need to organize events or big donations to get started. You can commit to taking your children to the library more often. You can always volunteer at one of the local schools. Or, you can start by sending a letter to the editor thanking that teacher or mentor who made a difference in your life.

It may seem like baby steps as opposed to the sprints needed to steer us clear, but we've got to start somewhere. And, most importantly, we've got to start now.

Macarena Hernandez, the Victoria Advocate Endowed Professor in Humanities at the the University of Houston-Victoria, teaches in the Communication Department.



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