For 15 years, Dr. Laura Trevino, an Hispanic-American charter participant in The PhD Project, has exemplified paying it forward by taking her Information Systems students back—back to elementary school settings like those they once experienced.
There, Dr. Trevino’s University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) students use fun and games to introduce children as young as pre-K to computer literacy and robotics. More than 350 such community-based projects have taken place under her tutelage, and they are a win-win: as the elementary schoolers learn, so do the college students who interact with them.
The University of Texas Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award was bestowed on Dr. Trevino in 2013 for this innovative work. The honor, which carries a monetary award of $25,000, is among the nation’s largest and most competitive award for outstanding faculty performance.
According to Dr. Trevino, El Paso is a school system with many technological shortcomings: “They don’t have people with the expertise to fix computer systems. These are excellent projects for my students, because they can go in and do all that for free.
“My students are so talented that I’m saying, ‘Why am I the sage on the stage? Why are they just listening to me? Why am I not taking advantage of the skills that these students have?’”
In El Paso public schools, Dr. Trevino’s undergraduates play a “Technology Bingo” game to teach Head Start children about computing. They build robots with elementary school children, and they build Internet safety awareness among middle school students.
“The objective is for teams to build a robot and design a presentation for children,” says Dr. Trevino, a tenured Associate Professor. “The goal is of course to interest them in robots, but the hidden agenda is to plant the seed that college can be fun and that they need to go.”
The program, she notes, also prepares her undergraduates “to be strong role models for other underrepresented minority students in the region.” When they go into high schools, it is to deliver a direct sales pitch for attending college—and majoring in business.
In El Paso, Dr. Trevino notes, “25% of the population has less than a ninth grade education. Only 11% graduate from college with a Bachelor’s degree. I can change this. I change it through my attention and support of these students.”
Over 15 years, Dr. Trevino and her students have brought their program to virtually every elementary school in El Paso, and for a 30-mile radius around it.
UTEP is an Hispanic-serving institution with many first- generation and non-traditional students. In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Trevino is faculty adviser to some nationally honored student organizations that focus on professional development.
“No student will leave my classroom without knowing how to begin the pathway to a higher level of education and promise,” she says.
This commitment extends all the way to doctoral studies: Dr. Trevino has encouraged many of her students to follow her footsteps and consider becoming a business professor.
“At UTEP, I have been able to reach thousands of underrepresented students with the message that there is no reason that YOU can’t be a business school professor or anything else that you want to be,” she says.
Dr. Trevino, who has been on the faculty at UTEP since 1996, traces her desire to teach back to third grade, when the teacher thrilled her by reading to the class the Helen Keller story. Early in her career, she became a special education teacher. Then came a stint in business, after which she recognized that she would prefer teaching college. By this time, though, Dr. Hall was a single mother of three preschool aged children. She sought advice from a favorite professor in her MBA program. “You shouldn’t even try,” the professor told her.
The professor imagined that Trevino’s family situation would be too formidable a barrier to overcome. Moreover, he cautioned, the academic rigor of earning a doctorate would simply be too difficult for her.
Dr. Trevino rejected his counsel and in short order applied— to Harvard and Stanford.
She did not get in to either, but Florida State University admitted her the following year. The children were aged one, four and five. Divorce was pending. Debt was following her.
With her family hundreds of miles away, she proceeded on her own to earn her PhD and raise three children. Partway through her journey, The PhD Project was formed, and she attended its first meeting (see Origins).
There, she says, she heard “things I had never heard before: how important I was, how much difference I could make, how I could help others follow their dreams—and all I had to do was keep on my track, share what I knew with others and reach a hand backwards.”
As a doctoral student and then a professor, Dr. Trevino did just that. No PhD Project doctoral student in her discipline enters a program, passes comprehensive exams, defends a dissertation or graduates without receiving a congratulatory email from her. She attends virtually every meeting of The PhD Project and the Information Systems Doctoral Students Association, and she rarely fails to tell the story of her personal journey. The crowd invariably falls silent when she reaches the part about the three young children and the debt. Afterwards, someone usually tells her, “I will never feel sorry for myself again.”
Dr. Trevino has become her discipline’s “go-to” mentor for single mothers in The PhD Project. “I must have gotten a hundred people through,” she jokes, “because they decide that if I could do it, they could do it.”