"Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott once said, "helping one another is part of the religion of sisterhood."
No need to tell that to the "Trigo sisters," as they have come to be known in the College of Education at The University of Texas-Pan American. The three siblings - Iliana Trigo, Elda Trigo and Armidia Trigo Rios - all celebrated earning their master's degrees at the same time in the same field - bilingual education - at one of three UTPA commencement ceremonies held May 9 at the McAllen Convention Center.
Daughters of Martin and Paula Trigo and sisters to six other siblings (three boys and three girls), the women were all first-generation college graduates in the undergraduate programs at UTPA and currently teachers in the Edinburg Consolidated School District. They entered the master's degree program in bilingual education in fall 2006, missing only one summer session along the way.
Armidia, 31, who is married with two children and expecting another child in September, teaches third grade at Avila Elementary School. She recalled that after every class together, even while undergraduate students, they would head to Trevino's Restaurant in Edinburg, where they would reflect on the day.
"We loved to go there. We would get there and they would say 'there's your table.' It was a time to relieve our stress and to talk and have fun," she said.
Both Elda and Iliana specialized in early childhood education in the master's bilingual education program while Armidia specialized in leadership. Through their years in the program, they said there was little competition or discord with one another.
"We were a team in our graduate studies. Each one of us has a skill that we are stronger in and we adapted to each other's way of doing things," Armidia said.
Without hesitation, they jointly identified Armidia as the "bossier one" with special skills in technology and applying the required APA research format in their papers. Iliana is the more critical one - a perfectionist - who is best at writing and editing. Thirty-year-old Elda, who teaches sixth grade reading at Memorial Middle School and a mother of three, is known as the reader, a top information gatherer and the calmest of the threesome.
Dr. Hilda Medrano, professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, said she was continually impressed by their quest to do the best they could in their coursework and for each other.
"It was so evident how they supported each other in class and in life in general," Medrano said.
Despite their togetherness in achieving their common goal, they all point to the strength they received from their parents, other family members and most importantly, their faith in God, as instrumental in developing a love for education and success in their studies and professions.
"Coming from a hardworking migrant family, our parents were not educated but always knew the importance of education. They wanted a different life for us and that route was to go to school and to educate ourselves to make a difference," said Iliana, who like her sisters had an interest in teaching early in life.
Despite summers from age 10 to high school of traveling to North Texas to pick cotton with their parents during 12 hour days in temperatures that reached more than 110 degrees at times, they said they still had fun because they were with family.
"We value all we learned in those hot days. It was an experience worthwhile," said Elda, whose husband is also at UTPA pursuing an undergraduate degree in kinesiology.
They called their mother, who would sell her handmade quilts for extra income, a hardworking lady who did many things for them with very little. One of the most indelible symbols of their mother's constant support for her children was the morning tacos she prepared without fail every day for each one of them said Iliana.
"That taco gave me that energy, support, and feeling that my mom is there and cares where we are going," she said. "I told her that when I graduate you are going to graduate too."
Generous in their praise of the encouragement they got from others, all three also said they relied on the prayers of the congregation of the Christian Life Church in Edinburg, where they are all active members, and the mentorship of Department of Education faculty members like Dr. Leo Gomez, Dr. Joy Esquierdo, Dr. Jaime Curts and Dr. José Agustin Ruiz-Escalante.
Ruiz-Escalante, professor of bilingual education, said between the May and August 2009 graduation ceremonies 25 teachers will receive their master's in bilingual education, a specialization that some districts in the Rio Grande Valley are now requiring certification in. He said having three siblings receive a master's degree in the field at the same time was a unique situation.
"Nationwide only six percent of the population has a master's degree while only 1.9 percent of Latino population in this country have obtained a master's. I am very excited and proud for their achievement. This family serves as a role model for our community," he said.
As role models, the trio is not done yet. All three hope to pursue a doctorate in education and are rooting for their other three sisters - Olga (35), Elizabeth (25) and Priscilla (19)-as they work toward completing their undergraduate degrees in education at UTPA.
Priscilla, who will graduate in December 2009 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and hopes to pursue a master's in counseling, said as educators, the sisters want children to see that an education is something possible for anyone to acquire and what a difference it can make in someone's life. She added the path toward achieving her educational and career goals was one paved by the guidance of God, her parents and her sisters.
"Each of us has a different way of picking each other up. We gather around and give each other advice. We complement each other in our differences. My sisters have always inspired me by setting an example of hard work, dedication and perseverance," she said.
For more information on the master's in bilingual education program or other programs offered in the UTPA College of Education, go to www.utpa.edu/colleges/coe.