Migrant Student Award Winners Named at The University of Texas at Austin

April 1, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — High school students Melissa Castaño of Edinburg, Texas, and Atanacio Gomez of Eagle Pass, Texas, were named Students of the Year on Monday, March 31, by the Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Each student received a $2,000 college scholarship funded by a gift from ExxonMobil. Castaño, who has a grade average of 97.64, and Gomez, who has a grade average of 100.09, were among 40 migrant students honored in the ballroom of the Texas Union for their exemplary achievements during the university's annual Exemplary Migrant Student Recognition Ceremony.

Migrant Student of the Year 2008 Melissa Castano with her friend Gladis Saenz, also a migrant student awardee, and her migrant counselor Diana Alejos

Migrant Student of the Year Melissa Castaño is congratulated by her friend Gladis Saenz, also a migrant student awardee, and her migrant counselor Diana Alejos.

Photo: Marsha Miller

The event was attended by about 360 guests, including migrant students from 31 high schools in 21 Texas school districts. More than 1,000 Texas migrant students are completing their high school graduation requirements this year through the Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program, which is administered by the K–16 Education Center within the university's Division of Continuing Education.

This year, ExxonMobil increased its annual gift from $4,000 to $10,000, which allowed the program to award a $2,000 scholarship to each of the top five exemplary migrant students. The recipients in addition to Castaño and Gomez were Rolando Gonzalez, Leonardo Chavez and Isai Pruneda.

Gonzalez and Chavez are seniors at La Joya High School in La Joya, Texas. Isai Pruneda is from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School in San Juan, Texas. Students were selected on the basis of obstacles overcome, overall academic achievements, participation and leadership in extracurricular activities and their performance in distance learning courses in the university's Migrant Student Program.

"This ceremony was especially meaningful because it was held on the birthday of César Chávez and near the newly erected statue of César Chávez," said Dr. Felipe Alanis, associate dean of continuing education and K–16 education. "As one of the most heroic figures of our time and the strongest advocate for migrant farm workers in the 20th century, César Chávez is an inspiration to our migrant students. Having the statue on the university campus strengthens our message to migrant students that there is a place for them on a college campus."

Castaño, a senior at Johnny G. Economedes High School in Edinburg, Texas, is the oldest child of Ricardo and Maria del Jesus Castaño. She ranks 13th in a class of 537 students and is the highest-ranked migrant student in her school.

"She is a student who has a quiet demeanor and who excels in all her classes because she happens to be a very intelligent young lady," said Castaño's migrant counselor, Diana Alejos.

Migrant Student of the Year 2008 Atanacio Gomez with his mother, Maria Gomez

Migrant Student of the Year Atanacio Gomez celebrates with his mother, Maria Gomez.

Photo: Marsha Miller

Castaño attended the St. Edward's University Graduation Enhancement Program for Secondary Migrant Students last summer. She earned credit in two university migrant student program courses—U.S. Government and Economics—with grades of 91 and 97. Other academic achievements include the U.S. Border Patrol "Head of Class" Award, the "E" Award and the Superintendent's Academic Excellence Award.

Castaño works two jobs but that has not limited her involvement in extracurricular activities. She is a member of Ready Set Teach, Business Professionals of America and captain of the junior varsity soccer team, among other activities. In addition, Castaño was inducted into the National Honor Society and the Spanish National Honor Society. Through the Med Ed organization, she has volunteered more than 125 hours to her community. Castaño has applied to The University of Texas-Pan American and also will apply to South Texas College.

"My ideal is to change a life and assist the people in my community," Castaño said.

Gomez is among the top-ranking students at C.C. Winn High School in Eagle Pass, Texas. He is the son of Atanacio and Maria Gomez and will graduate in the top five percent of his class.

"Atanacio had to work hard to achieve and excel academically," said his migrant counselor, Raquel Rodriguez. "Every year they would arrive to school late in the year, and Atanacio had to pick up on the same page as everyone else as well as make up weeks of education he had missed while he was working in the fields with his family."

Gomez has been recognized as a National Society of High School Scholar and a Venture Scholar. He has earned an Honor Roll Award and an Academic All-District Award, as well as a Certificate of Academic Excellence.

Gomez is a role model in school and his community. He has volunteered annually in the Feast of Sharing, the Relay for Life, church and city cleanups, and more. In addition, Gomez has played on the varsity basketball team for four years and was team captain this year. On weekends, he works with his father as a carpenter's assistant.

"A couple of years ago, I established that when choosing my career, my ultimate deciding factor would be whether the career would provide me with an opportunity to have an impact on the lives of others in addition to my own," Gomez said.

He plans to major in biomedical science and become a pediatrician. He already has been accepted to Baylor University and has applied to The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University.

Texas has the second-largest migrant education program and the largest interstate migrant student population in the nation. Students and their families migrate annually from Texas to 48 other states to work in agricultural and other seasonal jobs.

Since it was begun more than two decades ago, the Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program has enrolled more than 21,000 students in its mission to increase the graduation rate of high school migrant students in Texas. With funding from the Texas Education Agency and gifts from the Beaumont Foundation of America, ExxonMobil, the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation and the Microsoft Corporation, the program helps Texas migrant students earn high school credits through distance learning courses that meet Texas curriculum requirements.

For more information, contact: Robert D. Meckel, Office of the President, 512 475 7847;  Peggy Wimberley, K-16 Education Center, 512-471-6037.