LAREDO, Texas – The COVID-19 global pandemic has schools across the country wading in unfamiliar waters as they plan for their upcoming fall semesters. 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath confirmed the reopening of schools but have not yet released guidelines for safely returning students to the classrooms. With much left up in the air, what is certain, is the extended incorporation of e-learning alternatives for those who decide to remain at home. 

For the Rio Grande Valley, this concept is not a foreign one. In fact, distance learning options have been available to students for over 20 years through the pioneering efforts of individuals like Blas Castañeda and Mickey Slimp, two colleagues and friends who shared the same vision of educating people no matter their location.

Castañeda, who grew up working in the fields as a migrant, experienced first-hand the tremendous disadvantages that resulted from being out of school for prolonged periods of time. He says that he developed a mental block when it came to academia, but things soon changed when he saw the suffering of those around him. His friends and fellow field hands would often speak dejectedly about their dreams of becoming a doctor or teacher, capitulating to the adversity that blocked their goals. He took this to heart, realizing the shortcomings of a traditional classroom setting and the obstacles it presents for certain students. 

Mickey Slimp

“The school could not do everything,” said Castañeda. “The schools could not provide for those of us that were on the run, for the millions of people along the border.”

Despite the odds against him, Castañeda become the first in his family of seven to finish high school. He plowed ahead until he earned his master’s degree and became the chief external affairs/economic development officer for Laredo Community College in 1975. 

By the mid ’90s, Castañeda was on the advisory committee for STARLINK, a satellite uplink project for professional development amongst colleges in Texas. It was here that he first crossed paths with Slimp, who was working as the dean of learning resources for Tyler Junior College. Through the committee, Castañeda was inspired to form a consortium of school districts and community colleges in the Valley that would share workforce skills courses online. With the express intent to provide access to even the most isolated student, the Virtual South Texas Consortium was drafted. But it would soon be overshadowed by broader efforts from the state.

Around 1996, Texas pushed for the creation of virtual colleges, concentrating on large cities like Houston, Dallas and Austin. As resources were being distributed for this initiative, Castañeda and Slimp wanted to ensure that small towns were included in the planning. 

“We knew that there were a lot of students in Texas, particularly in the more remote communities, that would never have access to degrees at the level that you would have in the major metropolitan areas,” said Slimp. “And, in order for those students to get the courses – the education that they needed – we needed better options.”

Slimp, who completed his doctoral studies in Latin America and the Appalachian Mountains, knew the transformative power an education held for those stuck in a cycle of poverty. But, reaching those in secluded areas always posed an additional hurdle.

“I really discovered early on that the things that made a difference in people’s lives was the ability to communicate and the ability to learn,” said Slimp. “And, when you’re in a remote area … you’re limited on what your opportunities are for communication and learning.” 

Blas Castañeda

Slimp and Castañeda moved quickly, teaming up with the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC) to develop a model wherein colleges could lease courses from one another. In this host-provider model, the host campus could obtain and share material produced by any provider college within the state network. It differed from the then-popular telecourse model, which, like Skype or Zoom today, featured a live, interactive feed that broadcast from one location to be picked up anywhere else in the state. Still, the prospect of an education without set time constraints proved appealing.

After garnering support from the likes of Texas state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, then-state Rep. Henry Cuellar and then-Gov. Rick Perry, the newly established Virtual College of Texas (VCT) was on its way. As the founding director and grants manager of the VCT, Slimp secured funding to have an internet instructor at each campus, trained over 1,400 teachers and purchased a learning management system for every college in the state that included testing services for students taking courses remotely. 

Once finances were in order, the TACC Distance Learning Advisory Committee focused on the curriculum.All community colleges were part of the VCT by default, and any college with a degree program could offer material to it. But, agreeing on what to accept was not easy. Castañeda said that the biggest arguments occurred during these discussions as some questioned the quality of courses from smaller campuses or those near the border.

“Oh, boy, did we fight that war!” chuckled Castañeda. 

Eventually, collaboration and consensus did occur. In some cases, different institutions came together to create new degree programs. Slimp added that, surprisingly, it was also not uncommon for larger campuses to lease material from smaller ones.

By the fall of 1998, VCT was fully operational. Castañeda said that Laredo Community College saw an increase in enrollment of about 2,000 students every semester once VCT was launched. He was thrilled with its success and for its potential in reaching young adults who had previously dropped out of school. Slimp noted that VCT was also crucial for students who sought to graduate on time, but found that the classes they needed weren’t offered, conflicted with their schedules or were full. 

The network become even more essential when Roger Poole of the Distance Education Advisory Committee moved to eliminate a rule that restricted students from earning more than one-third of their credits online. With this, the doors flung wide-open for students from every corner of the state.

Twenty years and thousands of students later, the VCT was retired – in name only. In July of last year, Judith Sebesta, the current executive director of the newly coined Digital Higher Education Consortium of Texas, or DigiTex, said she hoped the name change would reduce confusion about the organization’s purpose and structure.

As Castañeda and Slimp reflected on their trailblazing endeavor, it seemed that not much had changed for students in the Valley. The problem hiding in plain sight, with COVID-19 making it all the more pronounced, was the inaccessibility of the internet for many. When asked about the irony of establishing something that many students still cannot access due to the digital divide, both expressed disappointment.

“Here’s where I get very critical,” sighed Castañeda. “… I don’t want to tackle why it hasn’t happened. It should have happened.”

Castañeda added, “We cannot continue to fail our students.”

Slimp agreed, saying the state must do more to meet the growing technological needs of its residents. 

“Texas has been limited in terms of its support for rural infrastructure and internet services,” said Slimp. “There have been some attempts to do things, but the successful attempts have been limited. It has been mostly federal. I’m hoping that, at the state-level, in the next five years that we really are able to saturate the state with broadband.”

Both believe that access to the internet should be treated as a utility, like water or electricity, that is accessible to every household in the nation. 

“Having that ability, where we have pipelines – fiber optic pipelines – to every home in the state like they did with electrical power 80, 90 years ago, that’s where we have to go next,” said Slimp. “And, it’s going to take a major effort beyond just what corporations are doing. It’s going to have to have some kind of government participation and have local, regional entrepreneurial support to make those things happen.”

Castañeda went further, saying that he would like to see the formation of a new agency or department that is solely responsible for granting residents a technological tax credit that would go towards internet service and computers or hotspots with Wi-Fi capabilities. He acknowledges that this would require major cooperation between government entities. 

“The state government and the federal government have to work in unison,” said Castañeda. “This thing … [where] the federal government comes in and says, ‘Here’s $200 million. See how you want to allocate [it].’ No, you can’t do that. There has to be better coordination. They demand master plans and strategic plans for us at the local level. Why can’t the state governments and the federal government do that?”

Whatever may come, Castañeda says that Valley leaders must continue to focus on creating opportunities for those in the community. He extended his praise to Texas state Senators Eddie Lucio Jr. and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, and U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have intervened in support of these efforts.

“Some of the brightest brains – the brightest, intellectual individuals – are in New York; they’re in the White House … all over the place – national, international, and the corporate world – but, they came from our communities,” said Castañeda. “That tells you that the brain power is here, but we also need to do more so that that brain power can stay here.”

Slimp added, “If we really want to progress, if we don’t want to leave giant portions of our population behind – which will impact everybody – we’re going to have to bring the whole state, the whole country up to speed on these things.” 

Blas Castañeda is the owner of CTA Global Solutions and currently volunteers with Texas Border Coalition. Mickey Slimp is an associate provost at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler and coauthored “How the Internet of Things is Changing Our Colleges, Our Classrooms, and Our Students.” The book is available at Walmart and Amazon.