MCALLEN, Texas – Three decades after devoting his life to students and their academic dreams, Dr. Ali Esmaeili says his time at South Texas College has been blessed.
Sharing from the very beginning, the college’s commitment to transforming the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Esmaeili says he has now witnessed two generations changing the region from the ground up.
Most importantly, it is proof that the model at STC is working, he said.
“Many of our students now are second generation students, and it means we have done what we said we were going to do, which is transform this area into a more educated environment,” Dr. Esmaeili said. “Now that we know that their parents are educated, we know that their kids are being educated. This is how we know we are moving things forward.”
A Hard Life
In the beginning, Dr. Esmaeili said it was easy to connect to most students in the Valley who grew up poor because he also grew up very poor, but that did not stop him from receiving his college education.
Having previously received an Associate of Science degree from Coastal Bend College as well as a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, Master of Education and Doctor of Education from Texas A&M-Kingsville, Dr. Esmaeili said he began his career working in the field in Zapata County. He assisted with biofuel research until a chance opportunity for a teaching career arose in Roma.
Recruiters from Roma ISD were on campus at Texas A&M-Kingsville looking to hire mathematics teachers, and he jumped at the chance to begin teaching, not knowing at the time that Roma was hours away from his home in Kingsville. Dr. Esmaeili said he remembers the long drives down Farm Road 755 traveling to Roma in order to teach.
“I used to drive from Kingsville to Roma every day, which was about 300 miles round trip and 6 hours, sometimes more. I damaged three cars, and I’m sure I fell asleep several times on the road, but I still made perfect attendance that year,” he said. “As I began teaching, however, I was starting to get to know people, and how desperate some were out there financially and socioeconomically. I started reflecting about when I was young in the same situation because I also grew up very poor.”
His first education job was teaching high school freshmen who came from hard backgrounds. Many were children of migrant workers who grew up in the fields picking lettuce and tomatoes, and college was not even in the picture for most of those students, he said.
“I told them repeatedly ‘You will go to college, I will be your professor and you will become a doctor, engineer or lawyer,’” Dr. Esmaeili said. “I told them this every day for six to eight months until the students assigned a representative from the class to tell me that they all had made the decision to go to college.”
‘I Can Contribute’
For a full year, Dr. Esmaeili said he made the long trip from Kingsville to Roma until 1989 when he moved his family to Mission. He said he began to feel the many opportunities present in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Something was happening economically and socially. Every day I would see businesses popping up or a road expanding, and I immediately began to realize that something was happening in the region,” he said. “At that moment, I remember thinking that I can do something here. I can contribute, at least through education. Even though it was very difficult going back and forth, my love and passion for students started increasing.”
His commitment to his students and education drew the attention of other faculty in higher education. By 1990, Dr. Esmaeili said he was hired as a math teacher at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen as well as TSTC’s satellite campus in McAllen. That small campus in McAllen would become the foundation for South Texas Community College, and eventually South Texas College, where he has taught ever since.
“So I started teaching college algebra. I was the first one ever who taught college mathematics on this campus when it was TSTC,” Dr. Esmaeili said. “I started with about eight or nine students, that increased the next semester to 12 or 20 and then later they offered me two courses. Then in 1993, this college became a community college.”
The first few years teaching at the college were difficult. His office was located in a small storage room in the library surrounded by old typewriters and audiovisual equipment. To assemble a desk and chair, he said he cobbled together boxes leftover from his move.
In those early days, Dr. Esmaeili recalls working every day from 6 a.m. to midnight, but in hindsight says he knew he was in the right place at the right time.
“I used to come to work from 6 a.m. to midnight for many years. I would make coffee and bring donuts from HEB, and then offer them to the people in line who were registering,” Dr. Esmaeili said. “There are just a few of us left now from that time, and some of us have really paid the price time-wise from the family. They sacrificed a lot for this college, but we saw firsthand the huge number of students registering when this became a community college, and we saw the excitement among students.”
These days, Dr. Esmaeili serves as the Dean of Mathematics, Science, and Bachelor Degree Programs for South Texas College. He participates in various committees on everything from institutional effectiveness, budgeting, recruitment, persistence, graduation, and enrollment.
In his tenure at STC, Dr. Esmaeili has served as a mathematics instructor, Department Chair for Mathematics, division director, campus administrator, professional development coordinator, adjunct faculty coordinator, and as an associate dean for bachelor degree programs.
“We have been blessed,” Dr. Esmaeili said. “This community, this college has been blessed to have a leader like Dr. Shirley A. Reed and her focus. She really understands this community. She has studied this community and probably has more knowledge about this region than people who were born here and who have lived here for many years.
“Just like Dr. Reed, we have all shared in the focus of this institution which has been to transform this region through education.”
‘I did my Best for the Students’
Eventually, Dr. Esmaeili said he was able to meet up with many students from his first class in Roma once more, only this time as their college professor. All of them who attended STC were eventually able to graduate, he said.
“Every one of those ninth graders, the ones who survived, they finished, but I remember getting after them in class whenever they complained,” Dr. Esmaeili said. “I used to tell them a story that would bring tears to their eyes.
“I used to tell them that as they were sitting down in the classroom, in an air-conditioned room, their mom and dad were outside picking up lettuce and tomatoes,” he said. “As they bent over thousands of times to pick up vegetables in the fields I would tell students that once in a while their parents would look in the sky, and say, ‘Thank God, my kids are in high school. They are going to get an education. They are going to rescue us. They are going to go to college.’ This is their dream.
“I saw myself in every one of those students, and I know I did my best for them.”
This story can be found online at https://news.southtexascollege.edu/veteran-stc-administrator-sees-impact-of-education-in-the-region-over-25-years/