BROWNSVILLE, RGV – Texas Southmost College leaders say it is a sign of their institution’s growing stature that the CEO of a company with $8.2 billion in revenues would speak at an education forum held on their campus.

TSC President Lily F. Tercero invited John Fallon, head of London-based Pearson Group, a global learning services company, to visit the Rio Grande Valley to learn from students, teachers and professors about education in a border community.

“We were honored to have Mr. Fallon speak at our forum. We hosted the event because we wanted an opportunity to talk about education with our community, to share some of the wonderful things that are happening at TSC. But, also, to simply talk about the importance of education and how we believe so strongly that everyone should have access to education,” Tercero told the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of the event.

For his part, Fallon said he had enjoyed his visit to the Valley. He said that on visits to various school districts he had been inspired by the commitment of the students he met.

“I have the great privilege of visiting schools all over the world.  You go to the townships of South Africa and some of the poorest parts of India. You hear incredible stories of people’s lives transformed through education. But, I don’t think I have been anywhere where I was struck as strongly, where it immediately came to mind, the Nelson Mandela phrase, that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world,” Fallon said in his remarks.

John Fallon
John Fallon

“To meet a young man, who arrived here four years ago, who didn’t speak a word of English, left his family, is completely on his own, has no one here with him and is graduating tomorrow not just from high school but with 35 credits which can go towards his community college degree. It is just inspiring.”

Fallon then gave another example of the sheer perseverance of students in the Valley to make it against all the odds. He said he met a young man who had only recently arrived in the Valley. He said the man had left his whole family in Honduras and who was, at the outset, reluctant to speak. “Then, he handed me an essay he had written and the very first sentence in the essay was, ‘I am here because I believe in the American Dream.’ Fallon said the young man made a big impression. “It was inspiring. It is a memory that will stay with me for a very, very, long time. It was very impressive.”

Fallon said he is excited about the future of education globally, despite sharing some startling statistics with the audience. He said there are approximately 65 million children of primary school age around the world who do not get to go to school at all. He said experts know that there are at least as many again who are in school and who, after five years of schooling, are still likely to be illiterate and innumerate.

“We have the opportunity within even my lifetime to change that. We are learning so much more from each other around the world on what makes for better and more effective teaching and learning. We can, for the first time, change the debate on education from inputs, how many new buildings we have built, how much funding we have raised, into outcomes – have we actually helped every young person in this world to have the chance to transform their lives through learning? To me, that is the most important thing we as leaders have to do, to go where the evidence and the outcomes take us. If we do that we can transform opportunities for so many more people,” Fallon said.

Asked after the forum had ended if Fallon might commit to funding any new projects at TSC, Tercero told the Rio Grande Guardian: “I think that the opportunity exists. Pearson is very committed to learning just as TSC is, so let’s hope that they will provide continued support to TSC and to our community. They are a partner with us. Let us hope they help us with other wonderful initiatives.”

Dr. Marti Flores, a vice president at TSC, said she was proud to be from the Valley and, as someone who hails from a migrant family, was dismissive of those who say migrant students cannot learn. She said that when she was returning to the Valley, after leaving the region to further her studies, people could not understand why she would want to work in Brownsville.

“They do not understand. Just because you come from a migrant family, like I did, just because you are economically disadvantaged, does not mean you can’t learn. Especially with all the tools we have at TSC. Every student here understands they are our priority, that we have an obligation to make sure everyone grows. So, Go Valley,” Flores said.

Discussing early college high schools, Flores said a key requirement for TSC is making sure students understand they are not just earning college credits to put it on their transfer request. “We are going to make sure every student enrolled in dual credit, whether it is dual enrollment or early college high school, that they must, must, must identify a program of study,” Flores said.

After that, Flores said, TSC works to ensure courses taken relate to the program of study. She said that when TSC first opened its doors it lost a couple of students that were second year students in medical programs. She explained: “Some of the courses did not belong in that program of study and so eventually they applied for financial aid. We do not want that to happen to our community. We want to make sure we know exactly what your pathway is and that we help you with that.”

Flores added that TSC’s advisory teams are “incredible.” She said they understand the programs of study and work with the deans, program directors and faculty “to make sure our students are on track every step of the way, as best they can.”

Another important aspect of life at TSC, Flores said, is that everyone at the college, regardless of title, from President Tercero down, has to get involved in community service. “It is that important to us. That is how we are going to build TSC, by helping our community,” Flores said.

In her interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Tercero explained the rationale for getting everyone involved in community service. “When we started we had a chance to build the college from the bottom up, to re-establish TSC. I told my team, we have a wonderful opportunity to create a community college that is focused on student success, on open access, on innovation and on community service, and all of us can make a difference in this world and we should. That is where this came from.”

Tercero said TSC has been growing ever since it opened its doors as a stand-alone institution in the spring of 2013. Before this, TSC was intertwined with UT-Brownsville. “We are very excited to be back. We are here to serve our community. We want our community to know that TSC is providing a quality education, and an open access education.” Tercero said the number of students being served by TSC stood at 4,700 this spring. “Every semester we have had a jump in enrollment and I foresee that in the future as well, as the community begins to learn about the wonderful things that are happening here at TSC. This forum will help that.”

During her remarks at the forum, Tercero said she hears, from her conversations with school superintendents, of too many cases of Brownsville students going to school without being properly fed. She described hunger in the Brownsville community as a “powerful barrier” to a good education.

Lily F. Tercero
Lily F. Tercero

“We have children going to school who are hungry. Think about that. How in the world can our children learn if they are hungry? They can’t. If they are hungry year after year they continue to get further and further behind in their education. And so I think all of us have to find a way to solve that problem, if we are truly going to create a society of highly educated, highly-skilled, individuals,” Tercero said. She said she realized this is a social issue to deal with, not an educational one. “But I feel compelled to do what I can,” she said.

Tercero said TSC has “adopted” a local school every year and gives Christmas gifts and other supplies to help students in need. “My heart breaks when I hear the principal telling me that he has gone to visit a young child’s house and it does not have windows or a decent floor. It breaks my heart. I know it is a socio-economic thing but I cannot forget that. So, everything I can do to help I am going to do the best we can. Our students are helping in some of those areas. I want to commend our students in the year and a half we have been going. They have made a difference.”

Interviewed afterwards about hunger among Brownsville students, Tercero said: “I have had this story shared with me by others. But, on the other hand, I also know that because we are all working together to improve education, my dream is that that won’t be happening much longer.” Tercero said she would venture to guess that Brownsville is not alone in the United States when it comes to child hunger. “The reason I brought it up is because when you have a child or even a young person in a classroom and they are perhaps not listening or paying attention it might not be because they do not want to. That is the message I wanted to give. It is not that they do not want to study. Perhaps there are other life circumstances that are getting in the way.”

Another subject Tercero touched on in her remarks at the forum was a wireless service to allow the public to access the Internet for free. Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez was in the audience. Tercero gave a shout out to him. “The City of Brownsville, I learned the other day, is doing some wonderful efforts in the area of technology. They are working to make technology available in the parks.” Tercero said her vision, when she arrived at TSC, was to be part of community that has complete wireless available throughout the city. She said this would fit in with TSC’s mission statement on innovation and technology. “So, that is what I would like us to strive for mayor, and I think we can get there, mayor, especially with the efforts that you are doing in the parks system. It would be fantastic for us to do. It is exciting. This community is moving.”

Asked about the public Wi-Fi project afterwards, Tercero said: “I know that discussions are underway through other initiatives that are going on. I think we should not be too far away if we work hard and work collaboratively. I think it can be a reality in the very near future.” Asked if there are students at TSC that do not have access to the Internet at home, Tercero answered affirmatively. “Since now our whole world, our whole life, our whole nation is so technologically oriented, why not, is the question I ask. Why not have this city wired. Why should we not strive to do that? There are a few communities in the country that do have that, why not here in Brownsville?”