James Ponce

UT President William Powers Jr. met with McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce to announce a partnership between both educational institutions last Thursday. 

The partnership, which involves sending UT social work students to South Texas to assist McAllen ISD students with personal and scholastic challenges, marks the first time UT has partnered with a school district in the Rio Grande Valley. 

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said this partnership is intended to benefit both UT students and South Texas residents.

“It’s intended to help the students and the families in the Valley who deal with unique sets of issues,” Susswein said. “There are many students who specifically want to work with Spanish-speaking populations, immigrant populations.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 93 percent of the Valley’s population is Hispanic or Latino. 

Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work, said the unique culture that exists in this region of Texas, which Mexican culture heavily influences, can provide a new kind of learning experience for UT students as opposed to staying in Austin.

“We see this as an opportunity for our students to learn an awful lot,” Zayas said. “It’s a community that’s different from Austin; it’s on the border; it has a very different cultural environment. It’s very fluid between Mexico and Texas. That would be different for a student coming from Dallas or even San Antonio.”

The two social work students chosen to work with McAllen ISD students this year are seniors Karina Ramos and Marta Morataya. The program plans to increase the number of social work students in the partnership each year, Zayas said. The students will work closely with after-school children and families who are at risk because of educational or financial challenges. 

Ponce, who focused on potential benefits of the UT-McAllen ISD alliance at a press conference Thursday, said the nature of partnerships requires teamwork.

“We recognize in order to meet the needs of all students and families — that we need to have partnerships,” Ponce said. “It’s win-win to partner with other institutions of higher education.”

If McAllen ISD students are exposed more often to UT students, barriers of educational accessibility might start to break down, Zayas said.

“Our students can influence kids in the Valley who will follow and come to UT Austin. It’s a way for us to have them feel that UT is more accessible to them,” Zayas said.