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Alum Features

Intercultural LEAD alums maintain impact, community in Houston school system

Anahi Ortiz-Acosta ’19 is from Houston, so it is somewhat natural that she would migrate back to Texas after graduation from the College of Saint Benedict. But she didn’t expect as many alumni from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University to follow her.

Ortiz-Acosta graduated from YES Prep North Central High School in 2015. She chose CSB over schools in her home state as well as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, and perhaps might not have come if not for the Intercultural Leadership Education and Development Program (Intercultural LEAD). It provided networking, mentoring, academic development and financial aid for first-generation college students while bonding them in a supportive cohort.

“I didn’t consider CSB and SJU very realistically until I went to go visit,” Ortiz-Acosta said. “I think I enjoyed the fact that it was a lot smaller. That made sense for me because my high school community was small. My graduating class was, like, 106 kids. At first, I was looking at a lot of the big Texas schools, but I thought ‘Man, this is massive. There’s no way I’m going to have a relationship with my professors.’ I also wanted a place where I could meet a bunch of people that I probably wouldn’t have met before.”

She majored in global business with a minor in political science but decided as a senior to consider a career in education after an internship with YES Prep and a recruiting call from the principal at her alma mater.

Imagine her surprise then when at least a half-dozen other CSB and SJU alumni from her time in college – including four from her Intercultural LEAD cohort – also migrated to the YES Prep system, which includes 23 schools serving more than 17,000 students.

Founded in 2003, YES Prep serves grades 7-12 as a system of high-performing public charter schools. Its students, who are 97% African American and Hispanic and 85% economically disadvantaged, have a 90% graduation rate and often go on to college.

In addition to Ortiz-Acosta, who is in her third year teaching social studies, Arturo Viera Barron ’19, Rito Cortez ’19, and Alejandro (Alex) Guzman ’19 are all former Intercultural LEAD students teaching at YES Prep schools. They’re also working with two other CSB alumnae – Caroline Desert ’19 and Ashley Payne ’19, and one SJU grad – Armando Turrubiates ’19.

Desert was a peace studies major and is originally from Haiti. She participated in the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) before becoming a teacher at YES Prep Brays Oaks Secondary. Payne was a political science and government major from California who now teaches ninth-grade English at YES Prep Northline Secondary. Turrubiates was an accounting and finance major who has become an English language arts teacher at YES Prep North Central with Ortiz-Acosta.

“Arturo, Rito, Alex and I had so much in common and very similar struggles coming into college,” Ortiz-Acosta said. “We had that common bond. Most of us were out of state. All of us were first-gen. We were experiencing things we’d never faced before in our hometowns, and we became an initial group of solid friends that we knew we could count on. Our cohort was pretty close-knit, even though a lot of us were very different in our interests. We all had similar values and I think that bonded us together.

“(Intercultural LEAD) is definitely one of the things that kept me at CSB,” Ortiz-Acosta added. “When things got hard, I had mentors I could go to.”

Arturo Viera Barron ’19

Viera Barron is originally from Dallas. He worked two years on the congressional staff of U.S. congressman Mark Veasey, who represents the 33rd district in Texas, and volunteered as a citizenship instructor on weekends before moving to Houston last year. Now, he teaches economics, government and AP government at North Forest Secondary.

“My high school counselor was an (Intercultural) LEAD graduate and she kept talking to me about Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, and I was very set on staying in Texas,” Viera Barron said. “Saint John’s was actually the only school I applied to that was out of state. Eventually, I did it – largely because she kept annoying me and because of the (Intercultural) LEAD program.”

He says he’ll never forget the day he flew to Minnesota for a campus visit. It was March 14, 2015, his 18th birthday, and he was greeted with cupcakes on campus.

“They wished me good luck on my interview and, after I got back home, they offered an (Intercultural) LEAD scholarship,” said Viera Barron, who majored in sociology. “I didn’t know much about Saint John’s, but once I got to speak with other (Intercultural) LEAD scholars, I was sold. (Intercultural) LEAD made such a difference for me academically. I felt a lot of the faculty and staff from the (Intercultural) LEAD steering committee really understood what it was to be a first-generation student. They were always guiding the way and helping me find the best resources.”

Despite working for a politician, Viera Barron knew he had an interest in teaching. He had a Jackson Fellowship the summer before his senior year and thought about going to work with recent immigrants navigating their way in high school, but his political science instructors encouraged him to expand his options. After working in constituent services for Veasey, Viera Barron started casting around for the right opportunity to teach. He found it in YES Prep, where he was offered the chance to teach government and politics to prep seniors. And it’s been a comfortable spot to land with his former Intercultural LEAD peers nearby.

“We try to get together for birthdays or any of the big events in the Houston area,” he said. “I’m grateful for them and I would do anything for (Intercultural) LEAD, just because it’s done so much for me. Academically, financially, emotionally, spiritually – you name it.”

Rito Cortez ’19

Cortez is from South St. Paul and was a biology major at Saint John’s. Cortez roomed with Turrubiates, who recruited him to Houston for the fall of 2019. That’s how Cortez became a junior-high science teacher at YES Prep Hobby, which has students through eighth grade and is in the process of expanding each year en route to 12th grade.

“I was, like, sure, why not?” Cortez said. “I had no real reason to stay in Minnesota. I had no reason to leave at the same time. But I was 22. Who cares? Now, number one, I don’t have to worry about snow. I can literally just get up and go to work in the morning. I don’t have to scrape off my car or anything. But there’s also a lot to do in Houston and I’m close to anything I need.”

He came to Saint John’s as part of an Intercultural LEAD cohort, but also to play football. After hip and knee injuries cut short his opportunity to play, Cortez began to focus more on Intercultural LEAD.

“That’s when my relationships with the other students really began to flourish and we built a strong connection,” he said. “(Intercultural) LEAD made a big difference for me in school and also in figuring what I was going to do afterward. I was originally pre-vet. My first year in college, nobody could tell me to do anything. There was never any pressure from my parents to do well in school and I really struggled with that. In high school, I didn’t study that much. So, as a freshman, I didn’t take my classes seriously. Fortunately, I overcame that and, while I changed my career path, I was just looking for something I could do for a little bit after graduation, but I enjoy it – I really do.”

He expects to remain at YES Prep for perhaps another five years, or at least until he has his student loans paid down. He wants to stay at least long enough to see his first group of students through their high school graduation. He also enjoys coaching girls volleyball, and boys basketball at the JV and AAU levels. He’s also fostered a rivalry with Guzman, who is the varsity basketball and volleyball coach at YES Prep East End, a rival school about 10 minutes away.

“Alex and I always talk about what it’s going to be like when our school grows out to that level,” Cortez said. “I’m going to tell my players that we could lose every single game but as long as we win that one against East End, we’ll have a good season.”

Alejandro (Alex) Guzman ’19

Guzman, who teaches ninth-grade biology, is from Immokalee, Florida, an unincorporated community about 30 miles southeast of Fort Myers. He came to Saint John’s as the son of Mexican immigrant parents, thanks to the Immokalee Scholarship Fund, Intercultural LEAD and the Rose Marie Lyden and Joananne Argus Marshall Scholarship in partnership with SJU. The latter was established in 2016 by Naples residents John Lyden and Jack Marshall, and Guzman said without them he would never “in a million years” have had the opportunity to attend Saint John’s.

Originally a nursing major, he switched to nutrition because he enjoys working with kids and harbors thoughts of becoming a pediatric dietician. But, for now, he’s a teacher and a coach.

“I never saw myself being a teacher,” Guzman said. “But I’ve enjoyed working with kids through mentoring programs and Saint John’s got me to look at things through a different lens. We all have different perspectives. I’m from a small town and my students are from a big city. My goal is to help them see things more openly, just as my world opened by my experience at Saint John’s.”

He says he particularly enjoys teaching kids who are new to high school, how they are curious and eager but also somewhat scared of the new experience.

“I’ve been able to help establish a culture of hard work and being disciplined,” Guzman said. “I tell the kids ‘Don’t see me as a teacher and I’m not old enough to be your father, but I’d like to provide the guidance of an older brother if you haven’t had that.’ Everything they’ve gone through, I probably experienced that or worse where I came from. I was able to get through college and I want them to have that same opportunity. The strongest thing you’ll ever have in this world is your education.”

He plans to teach at least one more year at East End. In the fall, he will be the grade-level chair among his fellow teachers and he also promised his first class he would see them graduate.

Of course, graduation doesn’t mean the end of school ties. Just ask all those CSB and SJU alums teaching at YES Prep.

“We were all good friends in college, and I think we found some of what we were looking for here,” Ortiz-Acosta said. “Teaching is very hard, but it also can be very rewarding. There are probably more CSB and SJU graduates who teach at YES Prep, too. It’s just that I don’t know them all.”

Anahi Ortiz-Acosta ’19

Rito-Cortez

Rito Cortez ’19

Guzman

Alejandro (Alex) Guzman ’19