Fifteen Students, Three Teachers, and a Whirlwind Texas College Tour

Two weeks before the week-long Thanksgiving break, Vivian Tamez, a French teacher at Memorial High School and co-sponsor of the school’s Student Council, had an idea. What if she and her fellow co-sponsor, Valeria Carpenter, took a group of Memorial’s student leaders on a tour of Texas universities?

“Our kids had been talking about college, and I remembered my friend who arranged a similar trip for students some time back,” said Tamez. “So I approached Valeria, and she said, ‘This is a crazy idea; let’s do it!’”

With the students, Tamez and Carpenter actually referred to it as “Crazy Idea.” They needed the students’ approval to use some of the StuCo funds they had raised in order to pay for van rental, gas, and hotel rooms.

“The kids readily agreed and said it was an investment in their future,” Tamez said.

In two weeks, they developed the plan. In three days, they would visit nine college campuses: Incarnate Word, Trinity, University of Texas-San Antonio, and Texas State on day one, UT and Texas A & M on day two, and Sam Houston State, University of Houston, and Rice on day three. They knew the campuses would likely be closed, but they still felt it would be a great experience for the students to walk the campuses and get the “feel” of college campus life.

“A lot had to take place to put this together in two weeks,” Tamez said. “We had to get permission from our principal, Mr. Alvarez. He immediately said this was a great opportunity for our kids. We needed our bookkeeper to arrange the funding, and then we needed the support of the parents and a group of great kids.”

When Memorial High School graduates Erica de la Garza Lopez and Annie Holand Miller learned of their plan, they set to work to arrange a tour at their alma maters, A & M and UT, respectively. A trip that could have taken months to plan came together in two weeks.

Nine seniors and six juniors were selected for “Crazy Idea,” by now officially called Texas College Tour. All of them are StuCo members and are in Memorial’s Leadership class and/or are McAllen ISD student ambassadors. They realized they needed a third van, so another Memorial teacher, Jessica Kaiser, volunteered to be part of this “Crazy Idea.” Approval, funding, permission, chaperones. Check. And what did the students think about the plan?

One of the juniors, Patricia Rocha, said she didn’t hesitate for a minute. She said yes because of the opportunity.

“Some students don’t have the money or the time or the opportunity to go on college visits,” Rocha said.

Senior Fernanda Aguilera also jumped at the opportunity. “For seniors, it was really important,” Aguilera said. “December 1 was the UT and A & M deadline (for early admission). Seeing everything changed my whole perspective.”

Aguilera said she is a firm believer in “signs.” As the student tour guide, arranged by Holand Miller, took them around the UT campus, an ordinary squirrel crossed their path. The guide then told the students there is an albino squirrel on the UT campus, “and if you see it, the UT legend is that you will do well here.” Lo and behold, the albino squirrel appeared.

Aguilera had already applied and been accepted at both UT and A & M, but she had never visited the UT campus and had felt certain A & M was for her. But when she saw the legendary albino squirrel, “It was a sign. And the tour guide was shocked because she is a junior and had never seen it until that day with us.”

And that wasn’t the only sign.

Later in the tour, the students were standing, facing the UT Bell Tower, when one of the students suggested they take a picture making the Longhorn hand sign. Aguilera and four other students stood, facing the Bell Tower, all of them making the Longhorn sign. And just as the picture was being taken, the tower bell rang. While the students recognize the bell rings at particular times, they all agreed that the timing was too perfect to be a coincidence.

Alejandra Cueva, a junior, has felt a pull to attend UT; however, she had never been to Austin. “This trip reinforced my desire to go to UT,” she said. “I like the city, and the campus is beautiful.”

Like Cueva, senior David Bocanegra had never been to Austin. He said his mom, Alice, was excited when he told her about the opportunity to go on this Texas College Tour.

“She told me it was an opportunity most kids don’t have,” Bocanegra said.

He said he has always heard great things about UT, but he wasn’t sure about it until he visited the school. “The environment was so good,” he said. “It was amazing. The campus is beautiful, and our tour guide, Madeline, made it so much better. Now I have the confidence to go there.” Upon the group’s return, Bocanegra applied to UT.

Two of the students, seniors Michelle Naranjo and Marian Sifuentes, felt pulled to A & M.

“I thought I wouldn’t like A & M,” Naranjo said. “I had been there before and didn’t like it. But on the tour, with the people, it was more like a community. I liked Austin, but this tour opened my mind to applying to A & M.” And she did.

Sifuentes knew A & M was the place for her. “My thoughts were reinforced as soon as I stepped out of the van,” she said. “It felt like family, and it is such a beautiful campus.” She, too, experienced “a sign.”

“I tripped everywhere we went….except A & M,” Sifuentes said, as the rest of the group cracked up laughing. “Signs” had obviously been important to this group.

It was obvious that this trip had done more than open the students’ eyes to possibilities and their own abilities.

“It helped us build a bond with everyone who went on the trip,” Rocha said. “It helped us build friendships.”

The trip did a lot for the teachers, too.

“I think both of us (Carpenter and Tamez) wanted to provide the kids an opportunity to see the campuses that maybe, because of money or time, they wouldn't have been able to see,” said Carpenter. “I kept remembering how, when I was in high school, there weren’t really a lot of people telling me to dream big and to apply somewhere outside of the Valley. Jessica (Kaiser) mentioned that now we get to be that person to these kids. We get to be the ones telling them that they can achieve everything they set their minds to. I believe we met and surpassed my hope. Seeing how happy the kids were and how they were already talking about living at the dorms or applying to a school they hadn't even considered made the whole, insane trip worth it.”

This “crazy idea” isn’t a one-and-done idea. Seeing how the students reacted as their eyes were opened on their Texas College Tour has spawned the newest “crazy idea”—an East Coast College Tour scheduled for this summer.

“If the kids are this interested, why are we only doing Texas?” Tamez asked. “IDEA (Public Schools) does it. All we need to do is provide our kids with the opportunity.”

This time, the teachers have decided to team up with EF Educational Tours. June 4-9, the group will tour eight universities in Boston and in New York. The cost of the all-inclusive trip is $2700.00, and it is open to all high school students in the Rio Grande Valley. (For more information, contact Tamez at vivian.tamez@mcallenisd.net.)

They are hoping to find community sponsors who will provide scholarships so students whose parents are unable to pay $2700 can join them. There is nothing like a Community-Sponsored-and-Supported Crazy Idea!

The students, still excited about the trip and what lies ahead for them, took time to express their gratitude to the teachers who made this Texas College Tour a reality.

“They are amazing!” said Bocanegra.

“They did it for us,” said Aguilera. “They weren’t gaining anything from it, but they still dedicated their time to it.”

Tamez and Carpenter readily acknowledge that they were able to do it because of loving husbands, understanding children, and supportive families.

“I am very blessed,” Carpenter said. “Taylor, my daughter, is nine months old, and my parents help me out with her. Knowing that she is in good hands makes me feel at ease, and seeing her at the end of my day makes all my dedication worth it. I hope whenever she is in school, somebody can do this for her. I hope she feels like she is invincible and can accomplish her dreams. And I'm just lucky to have Brian, my husband, because he understands that everything I do here at Memorial is for the kids. He does more than pick up my slack; he keeps me afloat. I definitely missed them, but I reminded myself that this is bigger than me or my family. As teachers or sponsors, we get a chance to impact these kids' lives, to maybe be that person in their lives who believes in them and pushes them to be the best version of themselves.”

Tamez agreed. “If we did not have family support, where would we be?” she asked. Tamez hopes to take her oldest daughter, Memorial freshman Andrea, on the East Coast College Tour this summer.

And as she summed up the group’s whirlwind trip, Tamez said, “I think some of our best ideas are crazy ideas. We have a vision in our heads, and when we have the right kids, it all works.”