Emmy Pérez said she always had an inner urge to help people express themselves through writing.
That desire led The University of Texas-Pan American associate professor to teaching, where she now collaborates with students and transforms lives in South Texas through unique writing projects.
UTPA students serve as creative writing mentors at juvenile and community centers and Pérez said they improve their own writing in the process.
"Writing well is a powerful skill," Pérez said. "Those who write well will have access to more opportunities in life. It is also a skill that can help in the pursuit of social justice."
Pérez is the author of Solstice, a collection of poems, and has received poetry fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, CantoMundo, and the Fine Arts Work Center. In 2009, she received the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award and her work has appeared in numerous publications.
The longtime poet calls writing a form of inquiry that helps students better understand their lives and the world. Pérez said she appreciates the opportunity to share the power of the written word with her students.
"I am committed to teaching undergraduate students. It is a privilege to teach introductory and advanced creative writing courses," she said.
The Santa Ana, Calif. native came to UTPA in the fall of 2006. A year later, Pérez began the joint venture with Stanley Gonzales, UTPA criminal justice lecturer. The project gave students and faculty volunteers the chance to make a difference by teaching residents at the Hidalgo County Adult Boot Camp and eventually the Juvenile Detention Center how to write poetry. Pérez said writing verses is a positive outlet for the young offenders and her college students.
"In leaving the relative comfort of the University classroom, the community becomes the classroom. UTPA students can problem solve and attain important leadership skills in these off-campus settings where they lead creative writing sessions and work one-on-one with community members," Pérez said.
Prior to moving to the Rio Grande Valley, Pérez held similar writing workshops in detention centers in El Paso and New Mexico where she worked near the Navajo and Zuni reservations. Pérez was also assigned to work with women prison inmates from Montana and Oregon who were moved to the detention facility in New Mexico.
"It was an amazing experience," she said. "Working with the local community and the women prison inmates was an unforgettable experience. Nothing in my college education could compare."
Because of her familiarity with the inmates and her own experience as a published poet, the juvenile writing venture at UTPA seemed to be a natural transition. During the 2010 spring semester, Pérez decided to have her students participate in a new program for first-time offenders with the Juvenile Court Conference Committee in Edinburg. As part of their Mexican American Studies course curriculum, the students also developed projects at El Milagro Clinic in McAllen and at La Union del Pueblo Entero in Alton.
"Her creative writing courses break past the walls of the classroom and into the community," said Nayelly Barrios, Pérez's former student. "Emmy has done so much for the writing community at UTPA and she is an inspiration to me and all her students."
Abigail Ojeda, a UTPA undergraduate, said her experience serving in the mission to help the adolescents was an unforgettable one.
"I had the opportunity to witness the youth execute their creativity and it was remarkable. In all aspects, Professor Pérez is a committed and involved professor," Ojeda said. "She is a self-less individual who is committed to serving her community and most importantly her students."
It came as no surprise to Ojeda and other students when Pérez was recently selected as one of a half dozen UTPA recipients of The University of Texas System's Board of Regents' 2012 Outstanding Teaching Awards. Pérez said she is humbled by the honor and believes the prestigious recognition is a tribute to the University as a whole.
"I feel happy that UT Pan American faculty members are selected each year for these honors. I am honored to be among them, and there are many more professors and lecturers at UTPA who will receive this award in the future," she said. "I hope that these awards help shape the image of UTPA as a student-centered institution."
Pérez is among 65 faculty members from academic institutions across the UT System selected to share $1.8 million in awards. Each will receive a $25,000 cash award, considered one of the largest in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.
Dr. Pamela Anderson-Mejías, English Department Chair, said Pérez has been instrumental in helping students to succeed.
"Among the faculty in the English department, many are outstanding teachers who have incorporated service learning within their courses in literature, linguistics and creative writing, but none has done so to the extent and with the success that Emmy Pérez has achieved," Anderson-Mejías said.
Despite the accolades, Pérez said she just wants to share her craft.
"In my Creative Writing I courses I enjoy introducing students to contemporary literature and various creative writing genres. I especially enjoy guiding students through the rigorous process of writing a contemporary poem for the first time that utilizes literary techniques we have discussed in class," Pérez said. "It is especially rewarding to see their work evolve over several drafts."
The Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards program was established in 2008 as part of an initiative aimed at promoting inventive approaches to teaching at all 15 UT System institutions. In the challenge for the awards, Pérez and the other recipients were subjected to a meticulous examination of their teaching performance over three years by campus and external examiners. The process of selecting contenders was based on student and peer faculty evaluations and a teaching portfolio that showcased teaching objectives.