Education Grad Aims to be Voice for Others
As a young child, Elvia Valdez accompanied her mother daily to her second job cleaning offices. Her parents never attended college, and her dad had a sixth-grade education, but she didn’t let that stop her from dreaming.
“I knew that as I sparkled the desks of some of the most prominent business leaders and as I vacuumed the tightly fitted carpet and dusted the frames of their college degrees, I, too, had a God-given ability to shine more than just a desk,” Valdez said.
Valdez dreamed of becoming a reporter and to work in the field of communication. But she knew that she couldn’t do it without an education.
She earned a bachelor’s in communication from the University of St. Thomas in 2007, and on May 18, Valdez will earn her second degree from St. Thomas, a Master of Education in Dual Language, and join 350 undergraduates and 793 graduates at the University’s 63rd Commencement Ceremony at Reliant Stadium.
“Growing up, I thought I was going to be the next Barbara Walters,” she said. But it wasn’t the anchor’s notoriety that Valdez was after.
“I don’t admire celebrities,” she said. “I admire people with an education.”
Valdez had the chance to work in TV, doing production at Univision. As a spokesperson for Life Gift, which assists people with organ donation in Texas, she produced spots for Nickelodeon and broadcast news magazines. She currently works for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office as the Community Engagement and Special Projects Manager.
“I’ve been blessed to have a career that has allowed me to speak for other people,” she said. “That’s what TV and journalism does: it gives a platform for telling people’s stories, and it can be so powerful.”
Valdez said education is one of the most powerful things we can have, but growing up, she didn’t know if college would be a possibility for her.
“My mom made less than $10,000 a year,” Valdez said. “I was getting in trouble at school. I was labeled ‘at-risk.’”
Valdez said she did everything backwards. Fortunate to get an internship during high school at an oil and gas company, she got experience working as a professional. She enrolled in classes at San Jacinto Community College at age 22 and earned an associate’s degree at 25, while working.
As a first generation student, navigating the college process was overwhelming, as she was on her own. “It was like dropping a kid off in Times Square,” she said. “My parents didn’t know anything about college.”
After getting lost on other larger Houston campuses, Valdez chose St. Thomas for her bachelor’s degree because of the small class sizes.
“I was able to stand out in a class of 10-12 students,” she said. “You pay for what you get, and you can’t put a price tag on education.”
Valdez said she found role models at St. Thomas, Hispanic faculty members like Dr. Ginny Torres-Rimbau, professor of education, and Dr. Emiliano Gonzalez, associate dean of graduate education, who she could look up to, as well as friends who related to her experiences. She encourages other first-generation students to do the same.
“The biggest thing that helped me is that I found people who look like me – not skin color – but people who have the same story,” she said. “Find people who are first generation or other students that have to work. Build that support group.”
The University of St. Thomas is a Hispanic Serving Institution, and among the total graduates this May, about 28 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And by making college affordable through generous scholarships and financial aid, many of the graduating undergraduates, about 26 percent, are first-generation students.
With an interest in studying the multi-cultural population, and a passion for education, Valdez returned to St. Thomas to pursue a Master of Education in dual language. Her thesis this semester was personal – she studied the attitudes and social factors that affect higher education for first generation students.
Now as a mother to a three-year-old, Valdez makes sure her son knows the possibility of a college education with a room decorated with college memorabilia, including a UST pennant.
Whenever she has the opportunity, Valdez speaks to first generation students to talk about education. After graduation, Valdez plans to return to school.
“I want a doctorate in education because I believe wholeheartedly that an education empowers people to be better,” Valdez said. “In the future, I hope to write a book, help first generation students, travel the world and tell my story. The sky is the limit.”
Watch Commencement Live
Those not able to attend can watch a live stream of the graduation ceremony.