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PREP students in 1979
Top photo: Cantu family, bottom row -- Road and wife, Agueda "Aggie" Cantu;
top row -- Children Rodrigo and Alexandra
Bottom photo: First PREP class, 1979, UTSA Main Campus

For the love of science: PREP students find challenges, window to future

By Joe Michael Feist
Multimedia Editor, Office of Publications

(July 20, 2009)--Editor's note: This story is reprinted from Sombrilla magazine, Summer 2009.

It was the summer of 1983 and two students from different high schools in San Antonio had plans that would change their lives. Instead of serving burgers or hanging out at the mall, the two committed to academic pursuits, studying in UTSA's Prefreshman Engineering Program, or PREP.

Rod Cantu and Agueda "Aggie" Garza found a challenging academic environment and a window on their future. And in between math and science concepts, they found each other. As PREP celebrates its 30th anniversary, Rod and Aggie are settled into rewarding professional careers and are celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary. They are the parents of two children, both of whom are PREP participants.

Raul "Rudy" Reyna, executive director of the program for the past six years, says the purpose of PREP is and always has been to provide primarily minority and disadvantaged students with intense exposure to math and science through a series of seven-week summer sessions, now in a four-year sequence.

PREP was founded in 1979 by UTSA math Professor Manuel Berriozábal, who "had an incredible vision," Reyna says. "He saw that the demographics of the nation were changing and we had a large minority population that was emerging. And one of the things associated with that is a lot of the students in those areas did not have role models in engineering and science."

Originally geared to older students, PREP over the years has shifted to middle school. "For a lot of them, by the time they get to high school it's too late; you know they've already missed the window of opportunity," Reyna says.

So PREP participants get to high school already familiar with basic logic, algebraic structures, engineering, physics, statistics and possibly pre-calculus and trigonometry.

As important as the academics, Reyna says, is PREP's emphasis on mentors/role models. College students, most of whom are minority or female, serve as mentors and tutors. "And then we have a career component where every day the kids get to hear a professional -- an engineer, scientist, whatever -- who talks to them about what they do in their careers."

Today, PREP has been duplicated on 30 campuses in 14 cities throughout Texas and at sites in California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York and New Jersey.

Reyna proudly points to the accomplishments of PREP students who have attended prestigious universities nationwide and now populate career fields from medical to research science, engineering to space exploration.

For Rod Cantu, now a principal engineer at San Antonio's Southwest Research Institute, PREP "was instrumental from an awareness standpoint." The college environment and the curriculum "gave me the confidence that I could pursue a college career," he says. Cantu earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from Texas A&M University and a master's, also in industrial engineering, from St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

Aggie Cantu says that PREP allowed her to meet "kids who were like myself. I realized I wasn't the only one who liked math and who had goals and objectives." Aggie received a degree in marketing from Texas A&M and now works for Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in San Antonio.

Encouraging their children to get into the PREP program "was a no-brainer for us," Rod says. "My wife and I are big proponents of the program. We value education, and this is a program aimed at minorities and helping them understand what's out there."

Their son Rodrigo has completed three years of PREP and will be a junior at Antonian College Preparatory High School in San Antonio. Daughter Alexandria is in her first summer of PREP classes and will be a seventh-grader at Mount Sacred Heart School this fall.

Aggie Cantu will always remember PREP not only for its academics but also for the motivated and centered students she met, one in particular. "Definitely, yes," she says, laughing. "If you want a good husband or a good wife, it's a great place to go."

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