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FESTIBA GEAR UP Days inspire students to follow road less travelled
Contact: Office of University Relations (956) 665-2741
Posted: 04/01/2011
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High School students throughout the Rio Grande Valley learned this week they are paving the road for future generations by furthering their education.

Freedom Writer Tony Becerra, pictured center, poses with students from Edinburg North High School who attended GEAR UP Days at UTPA Friday, April 1. The two-day event coincided with FESTIBA Week 2011.

About 1,000 high school students in GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) came to The University of Texas-Pan American Thursday, March 31 and Friday, April 1 during GEAR UP DAYS at FESTIBA (Festival of International Books and Arts) Week 2011, where they watched plays and heard authors talk about the power of writing.

Keynote speakers included John Valadez, writer, producer and director for the six-hour series "Latino Americans," premiering soon on PBS; Jennifer Cervantes, author of "Tortilla Sun" and instructor of rhetoric and professional communication at New Mexico State University.

GEAR UP students also heard from keynote speakers and "Freedom Writers" Maria Reyes and Tony Becerra, who as high school students had their writing published by their teacher in "The Freedom Writers Diary." Their diary later led to the 2007 film "Freedom Writers," starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey.

Speaking to a packed Student Union Theater, Becerra told the teenagers about the challenges he faced while going to school.

Becerra, who grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif., said he was transferred to another school in an affluent community across town because he excelled in school. But he began to withdraw socially and academically because his teachers and fellow classmates could not relate to him.

UTPA students perform plays written by Associate Professor Dr. Philip Zwerling and undergraduates in his English 4340 playwriting class for GEAR UP students visiting the University April 1.

It wasn't until he entered Erin Gruwell's English class at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School that he began to embrace his education again. Becerra said a poem he wrote about his cousin's untimely death changed his life and showed him the power of receiving an education.

Becerra said he was the first in his family to graduate from college, but his greatest accomplishment is the impact he's had on his nephew's life. His nephew will graduate from high school this year and attend UCLA in the fall.

"There was never a doubt in his mind if he was going to college ... because Uncle Tony went to college and he has to be like Uncle Tony too," he said. "My nephew does not know a time when we were not educated. He doesn't know a time when we did not go to college ... He doesn't remember the time when we were sons of peasants, because that's what we are, we're sons of peasants."

Becerra, who is a first-generation American, said his family, as well as many other Mexican families came to the United States for a better life and to progress, and now it is their generation's turn to supersede their families' expectations. He compared the process of attending and graduating college to walking a dirt road with obstacles they have to overcome, a road they must also pave for future generations.

"Nobody has ever walked on this road before," he said. "This is the road less travelled ... It's going to be worth it when your nephews, when your nieces, when your little brothers and sisters and, later down the line, your kids follow the same path. It's going to be a freshly paved, beautiful road and it's going to be easy for them to walk it and they will not know that one day, that road was made of dirt and you're the ones who paved it."

Ana Villarreal, an 18-year-old senior from Mercedes High School said she was moved by Becerra's story.

"I loved it, I thought it was very amazing, very inspirational," Villarreal said. "It's nice to hear someone else's story, because I know what he's gone through. It relates to a lot of us here in the Valley."

GEAR UP students also watched plays written by students in Associate Professor Dr. Philip Zwerling's English 4340 playwriting course. The plays were part of Zwerling's annual Ten-Minute Play Festival that showcases his students' work.

Veronica Carranza, a student in Zwerling's class, wrote and produced "Who Nose," about the theft of a celebrity's nose. Carranza, who was tasked with recruiting and training actors for her play, said she was glad she got the chance to see her characters come to life in front of an audience.

"It was pretty cool to see my words acted out," Carranza said. "I was nervous for my actors, I kept thinking, 'What if they mess up, what if the audience doesn't like it.' But I think they found it funny. Overall it went well."

Other 10-minute plays written and performed by students included: "Foreign Politics," "The Other Person in Me," "New Year's Resolution," and "The History of Mexico," written by Zwerling.

FESTIBA culminates Saturday, April 2 with its Community Day, featuring live music, a mariachi concert, literacy workshops and book readings. For more information, visit FESTIBA's website.