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Bordering the Future

Frank Guajardo always knew he would be a teacher. But he could hardly have dreamed the influence he would have on his students and their college choices. Guajardo's success in bringing young Border residents to Ivy League universities, with the financial support of alumni and private businesses, could inspire other public school teachers and students throughout the Border region.

Guajardo, a teacher in the Rio Grande Valley's Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District, 25 miles northeast of McAllen, realized in his second year of teaching high school that his students in a junior-level gifted and talented English class set relatively low sights for themselves. While their opening day essays were impressive, their post-graduation goals were not.

Several students expected to attend nearby technical schools, or state universities in Edinburg, Austin, and College Station. Others were less hopeful. Scanning their faces, Guajardo, a 1990 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, asked them to consider the Ivy League--as in Harvard, Yale, and Brown universities--among others. Most of the students scoffed.

At a student's suggestion, Guajardo offered to take a group of students on an East Coast tour. Together, the students and teacher raised about $10,000 so nine students could make a summer trip to New York, where they toured Columbia University, took in a Broadway play, and visited tourist attractions. By the next spring, six of the students had been admitted to Ivy League universities, and three subsequently enrolled.

All told, more than 20 Edcouch-Elsa High graduates have been admitted to Ivy League schools since 1993, with several others winning admission to universities such as George Washington and Stanford.

Guajardo's faith in his students has been rewarded.

"I believed my students were at least on a par with UT sophomores," Guajardo said, recalling his reading of their first essays. "They should at least apply to those other schools. But this was not part of their routines or culture. I had to hook them."

As significantly, Guajardo said, he had to win the confidence and support of the students' parents, many of whom had not attended college themselves.

In the Border culture, Guajardo said, "Families tend to be pretty tight. We're not really well-practiced in letting kids go at a young age... The reason the kids are able to go, and they're still going, is the parents trust us."

In one memorable conversation, he said, a mother of a student admitted to Yale University questioned whether her child should enroll.

Guajardo had two quick questions. "Ma'am, do you remember George Bush?" Yes, she did. "El fue a Yale. You know who Bill Clinton is?" Yes, of course, she did. "El también fue a Yale." The mother, relieved, hung up, satisfied her child would safely be getting a quality education.

While Guajardo now concentrates on another imaginative project--encouraging students to gather, write, and publish oral histories from elders in their community--he is confident local Ivy League successes will continue. Two teachers have taken over organizing the annual recruitment trip, which during 1998 included stops in New York, New Haven, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

One of the teachers, Delia Perez, was among the first of Guajardo's students to take a trip east before applying successfully to Yale University.

Perez said there are no secrets to a successful recruitment program.

"Anybody can raise the funds, plan the trip, and go through with it," Perez said. "The difficult part is finding somebody who's absolutely committed and willing to spend the hours, days, and months working on the fundraising, organizing. You need somebody who's totally committed to the students because they want the students to succeed and improve their lot in life. To get something off the ground, it's very important to have somebody willing to care."

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Bordering the Future