Dr. Trevino, you are a very successful role model for Hispanic students, academia and education overall. What is your personal story and how did you get where you are?
I have a pretty extraordinary story because I come from the older generation. I never had a dream or a vision of becoming a Professor. Such a thing was unthinkable back then. I was born in 1958 in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the civil rights movement and was adopted by Swedish parents. The attorney that handled my adoption told my parents that I needed a home but I was “not white”. That fact was NEVER significant to my parents and did not become significant to me until I began school.
I loved school and in the first grade, I was able to walk the 5 blocks to school all by myself. I couldn’t have been happier than being on my way with my matching thermos and lunch box, my book satchel, wondering the whole way and full of anticipation about what we would do that day. One day, out of the blue, a boy ran out of his house on the corner throwing rocks at me and calling me the N word. My first reaction was complete confusion. What had I done? Why was he calling me that? Didn’t he know I was Swedish? Am I going to get hurt?? So I ran. I ran as fast as I could and as far as I could and then went on to school and acted like nothing had happened. I didn’t know what had happened. I never knew which days he would be there and when he would not. I can still remember what it felt like to worry everyday if I was going to have to run or not. I was an adult before I told my father that story and he cried when he told me that he had followed at a distance behind me for the first few weeks of first grade and then randomly throughout the rest of the year. I cried when I realized that the days I had to run were the days he did not follow me.
It was my first experience realizing that you were treated differently based on just your skin color. I learned that you never knew who was going to call you names and threaten you. I found out that there were people who didn’t want you at their house or to be friends with their children. I learned that you didn’t get picked to be on teams and people wouldn’t sit with you at lunch. It was clear that these differences were because my skin was brown. It was apparent early on that there was a place for me with certain expectations and it wasn’t as a Professor at a research university.
When I was about eight, I read the biography of Annie Sullivan. Annie Sullivan was Helen Keller’s teacher and she used a simple water pump to connect a helpless and hopeless child to the whole world. My heart stood still and at that moment I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, just like Annie Sullivan, a teacher for the deaf and blind.
At 15, I went to work for a well-known fast food restaurant. There were no women or people of color in management and only white people could work on the microphone interacting with customers. That experience opened my eyes to what I did NOT want to spend my life doing.
I had never lost my vision of my dream to be a teacher so after high school, I entered college and majored in Special Education. However, I had a very unfortunate experience my very first practice teaching in a real classroom and was so terrified that I changed my major to Home Economics the very next day. I went to work for a large retail corporation where I was repeatedly passed over for the management training program, even though I worked for the company and was finishing up my college degree. Only white males were going through that program at the time.
After college, I married and had my first child. I was very lucky to be able to be a stay at home Mom but…I almost went crazy! I had worked since I was 15 and I didn’t like being at home. I didn’t like the isolation. I was alone a lot. I didn’t like to cook and I didn’t like to clean. Not even I was interested in anything I had to talk about. I had everything I had ever dreamed of so why wasn’t it what I expected? I decided it might be a good idea to go back to school to keep from going stir crazy. I could go at night and my daughter would never know I was gone. So I registered for some general night classes to get out of the house. When my second daughter was born and I was homebound again, I decided to go back to school and work on a graduate degree. At the small University branch in my hometown, there were only two choices for a graduate degree, business and nursing. I didn’t really like business but I could never do nursing. I registered for the night MBA courses and loved everything about it. Not the subjects particularly, but the discussions, the company, the debates, my classmates who had the exact same goals as I, and being around people that made me think. Not only was I much happier but I was also a much, much better mother.
When I became pregnant with my third child I decided I would look into a PhD degree. I asked my favorite professor from my Master’s degree about it. He told me that it would be too hard with three children and that I would not be able to do it. “Don’t even try.” Is what he said to me. That made me mad so I did it. My PhD is in Management Information Systems and I am so proud to be the first tenured female Hispanic Professor in my field.
What role did the PhD Project play in your success?
So up until 1994, my level of education was mostly a result of seeking a refuge and a distraction from everyday life. And then in 1994 I attended the very first PhD Project meeting. I was in the second year of my doctoral program. I walked into a room of 266 highly accomplished people of color. I heard things in that room that I had never heard before. That I was important. That I was needed. That I could make a difference. That I had value. I felt like I was being seen for the first time. I have attended every PhD Project meeting since then except for the 2 years that my parents passed. Nothing means more to me than having the opportunity to show these students, who think they are ordinary, who feel like there is nobody like them, that they are in fact extraordinary and the impact that they have as role models is life changing to so many people. In 2014 I became a PhD Project Hall of Fame member.
You went through your doctoral program as a single mother. What advice can you give on balancing a family and a doctoral program?
When I started my doctoral program I was 34 years old and a single mother of three daughters, ages 6, 5, and 1. Since I had no idea what I was getting into, I didn’t have much of an idea of what it would take. I didn’t know a single soul who had ever done what I was doing and I was 1,500 miles away from home and family.
People generally think about all the hardships of the situation, the logistics, management, and finances, but there are some very real benefits both to you and your family that money just can’t buy. You can’t put a value on your children watching you work hard to achieve something you want. You can’t put a value on your children experiencing that sacrifice pays off. During my doctoral program, I took my girls to school and picked them up every single day. We all sat down and did our homework together when we got home and then we cooked dinner together and talked about the day until bedtime. When I got my contract from the University of Texas at El Paso, all four of us signed it.
The advantage that I had with children over people who did not have children was that my children didn’t care if I failed a test, or missed a deadline, or messed up, and frankly there was not time to dwell on it. A doctoral program is very high pressure so a family can really help to distract from the pressure.
Why did you choose to teach at a Hispanic Serving Institution?
Part of the reason I came to El Paso was because it was shocking to me that only 12% of the population has a college education and that 25% of the population had less than a 9th grade education. English is the second language here and most are the first to speak English in their families. They have no money, no jobs, no role models, the culture does not encourage education, and their personal expectations of what they can become are so low. I knew that I could make a significant difference in El Paso as an educated Hispanic female.
95% of the students here are first generation college students and come to UTEP with an army of relatives who have put all of their hopes and dreams into seeing the first one in their family graduate from college. For every student that walks that graduation stage there are 30, 40, 50, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents, cousins, sisters, brothers, in the stands, all with posters and horns and banners, whistling and shouting, all SO proud. It is the most amazing thing to see! And for every one of them that walks that stage you know that they will not be the last and have changed the course of their families forever. To be a part of that is such a huge privilege.
You have won numerous teaching awards over the span of your career including the most prestigious award in the State of Texas, the Regents Outstanding Teaching Award. What makes you such a successful teacher?
Definitely my training from my special education years! Special education approaches utilize custom instruction, consistency, hands-on instruction, and creative approaches which challenge the capabilities of students. Strangely enough…ALL of the same things I can give my students today through the use of technology. I know that if I can make my courses interesting, challenging, useful, and relevant that not only will the students learn but they enjoy learning. Once they enjoy learning they devour the topic. Information Systems is an incredibly dynamic field and there is always something new and something interesting to learn about. I also genuinely care about each and every one of my students and want to make sure that nobody ever throws any rocks, real or figuratively, at them. Are there any other thoughts you would like to share with young people who can see themselves on your path and journey? It is a different world today and we have come a long way but there are still roadblocks that will be put in your way. The most important advice I would give would be that if you think you can, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Keep knocking on doors, keep asking, until the door opens. Find people who believe in you and want you to be successful and listen to them. Keep your eye on the prize so that the ups and downs of getting there don’t keep you from your goal. Never underestimate yourself or what you can achieve!