AUSTIN, Texas—It wasn’t until she was in the third grade in El Paso that first-generation American Patricia Sanchez discovered that education could be a vehicle for changing her life. The daughter of immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico, Sanchez didn’t understand the importance of grades until she became friends with a young Filipino student.
Though her parents supported her at home and encouraged her to do well in school, they had little understanding of how the American school system worked.
“My parents taught me the bigger things in life — how to be bien educada (use people skills) toward people of all walks of life, the importance of solid relationships, the value of struggle in shaping a broader world view.”
It was Sanchez’s third-grade friend, however, who ultimately taught her how to “work” the school system and move ahead in it successfully.
For example, Sanchez learned that if she was in the school band, she was automatically placed in math and English classes taught by the most challenging teachers.
By the time she was in high school, Sanchez said she knew she liked teaching and English. Her Filipino friend — now her best friend — urged her to become a college professor. And that is the path she has taken.
Sanchez graduates in May with a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and will go on to the University of California at Berkeley for a doctorate in education and social cultural studies. Commencement ceremonies are scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday (May 22) on the South Terrace of the Main Building.
She takes with her a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, which pays half her tuition and provides a $20,000 stipend for two consecutive years. The fellowships are given annually to accomplished immigrant students or children of immigrants.
Sanchez said she wants to do hands-on research with Latino people. “I plan to always live in the Southwest, most likely close to the Mexico-U.S. border,” she said. “It would be almost meaningless for me to be involved in research that does not improve people’s lives. I can’t be a mere observer or detached researcher.”
Sanchez said she plans to do “action research,” where the population being studied is involved in their own research. Such projects also involve action following the studies to improve communities and schools. Her research will be different from much that is being done because she is part of the community she will be studying, not an outsider.
“I will hopefully be bringing to academia a newer perspective, a less heard voice,” she said.
Sanchez spent two years teaching bilingual education to second graders in the Teach for America program. She worked in Los Angeles and Houston on that project.
While in Houston, she served on three community boards, including the board of the Tejano Center for Community Concerns. At the Tejano center, she was active in the organization’s creation of a charter school for 200 middle school students.
She also worked as assistant director of admissions at Rice University, where she served as an advisor to Latino and multicultural student groups.
While at UT, she worked on a film documentary that gives voice to Mexican-American adults who grew up as migrant agricultural workers. They speak of the struggles they faced as well as the resources they drew upon to achieve their current measure of educational and economic success.
She currently is preparing a presentation/workshop designed to help new immigrants take full advantage of the public school system by helping them find their way through the jargon and unfamiliar structure.
It’s the kind of help she got from her Filipino friend, who today is in a medical residency in Kansas. And, it’s the kind of help she wants to pass on.
“I was very lucky. I had parents supporting me at home and a close friend who knew how the system worked. More students and families need access to this type of knowledge if we expect formal education to be a part of successful lives,” Sanchez said.