TFA alumni: ‘You strive to be a champion for students’


Special to The Monitor

Jose A. Avila was a 2016 Teach For America corps member who taught 10th grade AP World History at IDEA College Preparatory Alamo.

After teaching, he continued to serve at IDEA College Preparatory Alamo as an instructional coach and a director of college counseling in pursuit of his mission of ensuring “College For All’ was a reality for students from the community.

Avila currently serves as the National Director of Financial Literacy & Alumni Funding for IDEA Public Schools, where he contributes to efforts in fundraising for and distributing student scholarships, leads efforts of financial literacy for the district, and collaborates alongside a team dedicated to seeing students graduate from college.

What motivated you to apply to join Teach For America and choose to teach in the Rio Grande Valley?

It was my first semester at Texas A&M University, and what a surprise it was. I quickly realized that there was an opportunity gap existing between me and others at campus. I struggled to not only engage in basic classes but take part in simple tasks like taking notes. I tried to find out why and came to understand that the educational opportunities given to those in high socioeconomic communities were quite different from the opportunities I’d received growing up in the Rio Grande Valley. As I searched for help and resources, I found an alignment with Teach For America’s mission of educational equity, and that pushed me to want to give back to my community. It was to my delight that when I was accepted into Teach For America, I was placed in the Rio Grande Valley. I was excited to come back home and hopefully make an impact on the lives of students’ just like me. And my service quickly transitioned to a career that I have truly found fulfillment in.

What is one of the most surprising things you have learned about education throughout your career?

I wouldn’t say necessarily surprising, but rather reaffirming: there is a gap in opportunity between communities, one that runs along socio-economic lines. Talent is equally distributed between students, but resources and opportunities are not, which is why we must be intentional with the support and services we provide our students. We must recognize that how we prepare students in low-income communities for college is life-changing. And that knowledge makes the work that much more important! When you start working in the same communities that you grew up in and continuously see the need to fight against educational inequity, you realize that there is so much work to be done. You strive to be a champion for students and engage others in doing so as well.

How did your time as a classroom teacher inform your professional trajectory and commitment to educational equity?

Being in the classroom has been one of my favorite parts of my professional career so far. I was able to see students develop in so many areas of their lives and become active participants in society. You are able to guide them and show them that they are capable of so much!

After teaching, I became the director of college counseling at IDEA Alamo. In that role, I was able to meet with students who had doubts about going to college. They were oftentimes scared of going to a place that no one in their family had ever attended. This would lead to the beginning of the imposter syndrome many first-generation students feel when going to college. Students would question their ability to succeed and be part of a system that was at times not created for them. Nonetheless, our work is to show them they are capable. Capable of achieving and being anything they set their mind to. Knowing that their ability is endless, it pushed me to be part of the To & Through College team at IDEA. The To & Through College team ensures that students have the content knowledge and support by providing meticulous and intentional guidance on their pathway to college. I want to make sure we could directly impact students’ lives by not only sending them to the country’s best colleges and universities but help them graduate from there as well. When research tells us that most of the students who dropout of high school are of color and/or from low-income families, you cannot standby and wait for things to change. You must partake in the efforts of breaking such cycles, and education remains the leading contributor to doing just that. Having access to higher education and helping students overcome societal barriers is part of my commitment to fighting educational inequity.

If you could change one thing for students, either college students or K-12 students, what would it be?

While a rigorous and impactful K-12 education are some of the most important parts of a student’s development, financial access to higher education can create a barrier for a student’s learning. I would push for clearer and more inclusive reform on financial access for students in every college or university. When I think of the students I serve, I see the access to a college education almost always ends with finances. This is at times due to lack of financial access, financial literacy, or special circumstances a family can suddenly experience. I can vividly remember having conversations with families as a college counselor in which the student was so excited to hopefully matriculate to the college of their dreams. The family would usually ask the student to step out of the room, and they would share their concerns with me about the financial aspect of college. Their concerns were always valid. They shared how it would be impossible to cover any gap that the student would have. I always tried to reassure them of the possible financial support that the student and family could receive, and we would plan out what would be the most feasible opportunities. These conversations were constant with all types of families, and led me to partake in the work I currently do. We lead efforts in finding the best possibilities in closing financial gaps for students going to college. These efforts, though, need to be across the board. We need our government, higher education institutions, and stakeholders to actively pursue a more encompassing approach to funding higher education. Studies have shown how access to a financially stable education has higher graduation rates and higher performing students. The added stress of having to take out loans or finding solutions to close these financial gaps in college is another contributor to the opportunity gaps existing in the communities we serve.

Teach for America (TFA) is the national nonprofit organization committed to the idea that one day, all children will attain an excellent education. To this end, the organization partners with communities to inspire the next generation of leaders to address unequal educational opportunities that fall along the lines of race and class. They begin this lifelong work with an initial twoyear commitment to teach in some of the nation’s most underserved schools. Here in the Rio Grande Valley, 61 corps members work in seven districts across the region.