One student's educational journey
By Carla Maldonado
Maria Guadalupe Ovalle '04 BAAS celebrated her 50s in a big way --- she earned her bachelor's degree from UIW despite the fact that she dropped out of school after the sixth grade. Now, Ovalle has come full circle. As a fulltime accountant, GED instructor and volunteer tutor for accounting students, she now helps others achieve their academic dreams.
Her educational journey began as a child in Monterrey, Mexico. That's when she decided she loved learning and would be one of the few girls in her town to get an education beyond elementary school.
“I lived in a poor neighborhood where economic problems were a part of everyday life. So it was a dream for children from low-income families to complete their educations because you had to pay for classes and books beyond the sixth grade,” Ovalle explains. “That's why many families only sent their sons to the next level of school, while the girls stayed home to help mom.”
Despite high hopes, the 11-year-old's dreams were dashed when her parents told her that they could no longer afford for her to go to school. “I understood, but I was frustrated. I knew I would never have the opportunity to make my dream come true --- to obtain an education and make a difference among the girls in my neighborhood,” Ovalle says.
At age 20, Ovalle married and settled in Chicago, IL, where her husband worked. “Moving to a country with a different language and culture was a painful experience. My first son, Armando, Jr., was born, yet I never felt happy living in Chicago. It was a huge city, and I missed my family,” Ovalle says.
Ovalle ‘04 worked her way through college as a school custodian.
Five years later, Ovalle's family moved to Weslaco, TX, her husband's home town. Her second son, Jaime, was born, and later Ovalle divorced. Now a single mother who didn't speak English, she was faced with a choice: return to Mexico or stay in the U.S. so her sons could continue the dream of an American education.
“It would have been easier to return to my native country, but deep in my heart, I knew I had to stay to raise and educate my children in their country, the United States,” Ovalle says. “I quickly discovered the most difficult part of raising children by myself was the language barrier.”
Ovalle stayed in Weslaco and got a job in the fields picking produce. Meanwhile, her children went to the local school. “I felt I didn't have a choice. I had to work in the fields because I didn't speak English. I felt hopeless, even worse than the day my parents told me I couldn't continue my education,” Ovalle remembers.
But Ovalle wasn't a quitter. She left the fields to clean houses and eventually got a job as a custodian with the local school district. Then, thanks to her children's encouragement and a friend who told her about night classes for the GED, Ovalle's dream was back on track.
“My boys' determination to help me obtain my GED inspired me. They helped me study by translating English into Spanish. I passed the test in 1992 when I was 40.”
That was just the beginning of the mother-son team. When Ovalle's youngest son, Jaime, was ready to attend college, she decided to attend too. Since her oldest son was married and had a family of his own, Ovalle moved to Corpus Christi where she and Jaime got jobs as custodians at Del Mar College to help pay for classes there. At first, Ovalle took ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, but her son encouraged her to take regular classes to learn English faster. Ovalle discovered she had a knack for numbers and accounting; she earned her associate's degree from Del Mar College at age 51, and got her first office job as an accounting clerk. She had something else to celebrate -- her U.S. citizenship.
Accounting classes prepared Ovalle ‘04 for her first office job.
Energized by her accomplishments, Ovalle began working on her bachelor's degree. She says she is grateful for UIW's ADCaP (Adult Degree Completion assistance Program), which helps working adults finish their undergraduate educations. “A representative from UIW talked to us about the program, offered right here at Del Mar. That got my attention. UIW made it possible for me to continue my education without having to move to San Antonio,” Ovalle says. She earned her Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences at age 53.
In retrospect, Ovalle says she didn't have time to waste --- she was usually the oldest student in her study groups. She became adept at taking notes and organizing her time, and enjoyed sharing these new skills with fellow students. She also liked to help others learn and succeed. In fact, she hopes one day to develop a program of her own that would provide students with the tools and motivation to overcome the challenges that put their educations at risk. This idea solidified as she worked with students as an employee at Del Mar's accounting lab.
“That's when I realized that it was difficult for students, especially those who had been out of school for a while, to ask for and get help. Some of them ended up quitting,” Ovalle says. “I think there is a real need there, and I think I can fulfill it.”
As for Ovalle's next steps, she plans to work on her master's degree at UIW. In the meantime, she'll continue to do what she loves best --- continue to learn for learn for learning's sake, while encouraging others to stay the course despite life's bumps and curves.