Thursday, May 30, 2024

Graduate Brenda Valdes found her inner leader at UTSA

Graduate Brenda Valdes found her inner leader at UTSA

MAY 21, 2024 — It’s a common bit of advice: Get outside of your comfort zone.

Brenda Valdes ’24, who crossed the Commencement stage to receive her Bachelor of Art in Psychology on Friday, took this advice to heart as a Roadrunner. In doing so, she found her calling as a researcher and her potential as a leader.

The Honors College graduate also found a pathway to continue her graduate studies as a McNair Scholar. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the McNair Scholars Program is a nationally recognized initiative that offers undergraduates a pathway to a doctoral degree. This fall, Valdes will begin her doctoral studies at Stanford University.

“At first, I thought it was just an extra thing to put in my (graduate school) application. In reality, McNair became a community and a support network,” Valdes recalled.

“I met other students at UTSA and through conversations we realized all of us were nontraditional students: older, parents, transfers, living off campus.”

At an early age, Valdes found herself in a unique housing set up: living on the grounds of a school, without the comforts of a traditional home.

“When I was four years old, my dad (a school custodian) got a new job in a nearby town. At the time, he was in his 20s, didn’t have a car and it was hard for him to commute to work. His supervisor allowed him to live on-site. We were going to live inside an elementary school,” Valdes recalled. “I realized that the place my parents called home did not have running water, bedrooms, a kitchen, or anything that a regular house usually has. The shelter that we lived in was two abandoned classrooms that were located toward the back of the institution. This is when as a young five-year-old, I became aware of the situation. We were experiencing hidden homelessness.”

That experience instilled in Valdes a desire to create places where she could feel at home, regardless of the situation. At UTSA, she did that as one of the founders of the Non-Traditional Students Organization (NTSO).

“I am a nontraditional student. I started school when I was 32. I met other students at UTSA and through conversations we realized all of us were nontraditional students: older, parents, transfers, living off campus,” Valdes said. “We decided to create an organization for nontraditional students. As of today, we are almost 100 students.”

UTSA Today spoke with Valdes to learn more about her, what lies ahead and how her life has come full circle.

The following story has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about the person who was most influential in your educational journey.

BV: As a mother of three, the most influential are my children, who encourage me to keep going. However, throughout my life, the person who was the most influential in my education is my father, a school janitor. He saw himself as of lower importance in the school system, but he always valued education so much. He taught me that school was first and that if I was going to do something, I had to put all of my heart into it.

How did your activities at UTSA impact your decision to pursue a doctoral degree?

BV: I started with the UTSA-IES Pathways Program, a one-year training program funded by the U.S. Department of Education that prepares undergraduates from historically underserved populations for their doctoral studies in educational research under the leadership of Dr. Guadalupe Carmona. I went to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference in Chicago in 2023. I saw the work done in educational research, and I promised myself, “One day I will present here.”

After the AERA conference, I traveled to California, to the amazing Stanford University. What a beautiful campus, I thought. This is when I decided that I wanted to continue after my BA and that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree.

At the same time, my advisor Fernando Riosmena and I were working on a research project in New Jersey classrooms. We were looking at the effects of working in teams while doing a math assignment. Last year we decided to submit our findings to the 2024 AERA. Months later we were informed that our paper was accepted to the conference. I presented with the full team in April, a year after I promised myself that one day I would present.

I think the opportunities I had at UTSA allowed me to see the leader, the professional and the researcher that was always inside me. Education helped me find what my element was. I found my calling and passion and I will always be thankful for that. Birds all the way up!

Check out UTSA’s Commencement website.

What advice do you have for your fellow Roadrunners?

BV: Don’t limit yourself. Get outside of your comfort zone, because that’s how you will grow. Dare yourself to reach your highest potential.

As a Mexican Immigrant whose English is not her first language, I overcame my insecurities by presenting a lot in front of many people. I also thought many times that I wouldn’t be able to work on a research project because that meant that I was going to be out of town for days and I wouldn’t be able to find someone to take care of my children. If I kept limiting myself to this narrative, I wouldn’t have had all these opportunities that enriched my college experience so much. I became a competitive Ph.D. applicant, and I am preparing myself right now to move to Palo Alto, California, after being accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in the world.

Tell us more about this next stage in your academic journey.

BV: I decided to continue my education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education in the Developmental and Psychological Sciences program, fully funded with living expenses included. We will live on campus, in a community for student parents. They even have an elementary in this same community. My kids, just like me, will experience what it is like to live inside an institution. However, their circumstances will be very different than mine.

Tricia Lynn Silva

UTSA Today is produced by University Strategic Communications,
the official news source
of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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