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Recent Jordan HS graduate has designs on another HISD school

2013 November 14
by HISD Communications

In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, Class of 2013 member Alejandra Ortega talks about why she sometimes felt inadequate next to her peers despite earning valedictorian status at Jordan High School, how she generated more than $700,000 in scholarship offers this spring, and which district campus she eventually wants to lead.

I understand you’re the first person in your immediate family to graduate from high school. What motivated you to pursue higher education and why is it so important to you?

Alejandra Ortega; photo courtesy Forty Acres Program

In a sense, I would say it’s my parents and their struggles. My mother earned her GED 20 years after dropping out of high school and my dad never graduated, but they both eventually made their way in life. It sounds like a cliché, but I really believe that education opens doors. A year ago, I didn’t imagine I would be attending one of the nation’s top schools, but now I have a full scholarship. I’d like to think it’s the result of all my hard work. You reap what you sow.

No kidding! I hear you raked in more than $700,000 in scholarship offers from various organizations, including Burger King, the Houston Hispanic Forum, and ten different universities, one of which offered you more than $100,000 alone. I also hear your share made up a full third of the offers your class at Jordan received. With so many great options, how did you ultimately decide where to go?

From the beginning, I thought I would go to the University of North Texas, because I knew they had a full tuition scholarship for families who earn under a certain income. And they have an education program, so I saw that as a pretty attainable scholarship. But my junior year, I visited UT for a UIL competition, and I just had a weird gut feeling. I visited UT a total of four times before I finally decided. I just knew I had to be here. I love its size, how diverse it is, and how many opportunities it has.

What’s the secret to generating so many scholarship offers? And what advice would you give to other students who want to do the same?

The main thing is just to keep applying. That’s what my college advisor, Sara Morris, always emphasized. You don’t have a chance if you don’t apply. I know of one scholarship that could go to up to 13 recipients, but only 11 people applied, so everybody got it. You just have to focus on what the particular scholarship organization is looking for. And you don’t know if you never try.

My dad told me, “Look, I can’t write out a check for tuition, but if you want it bad enough, I know you’ll get it.” And I didn’t want my financial situation to get in the way, so I kept applying. My original goal was to apply to 50 different scholarships, but I ended up applying to more than 60. Once I knew I could come to UT, I was like, “Okay, I’m stopping. Let me go help someone else with their applications.”

Now you’re attending the University of Texas at Austin as a Forty Acres Scholar. I understand that’s a pretty prestigious program. How did you first hear about it? And can graduating seniors apply for it or do they have to be nominated?

Anyone can apply for it, but I actually learned about it in a funny way. My mom is the secretary at McReynolds Middle School, and one day I was there helping her after school. My eighth-grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Lynn Graham, was telling me about the program, and how her son goes there. And I remember being like, “Well, thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t think I can get that. I’ve read some of the Scholars’ bios and those people are amazing.”

Wait a minute. You were the valedictorian of your senior class, and you received awards in graphic design, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and a slew of other subjects. You were even named Outstanding JROTC Cadet of the Year twice. Why didn’t you think were on par with any of those other kids?

I’m not really sure. It’s not that I put myself down. It’s just that I always feel like I could do more. All of those things on my résumé were just from me hearing about something and thinking, “Hey, that’s interesting. Maybe I should go do that. And maybe I should try for a leadership position.”

It was my AP Statistics teacher, Mr. Griffin Seifried, who first told me, “You know what? You don’t have to be the golden child. It’s okay to fail sometimes and make mistakes.”

What made you decide to pursue a teaching career instead of going into the military or becoming a professional artist? And with such diverse interests, how did you pick what to study?

I decided to go into teaching at an early age; I just didn’t know what subject it would be. At one point, I was pretty set on teaching math at the middle or high school level, thanks to my pre-calculus and AP Calculus AB teacher, Mr. Mahmoud Merhi, and my sixth grade math teacher, Ms. Elizabeth Schaadt. I found it fascinating how he made equations appear as a sort of art, and thanks to Ms. Schaadt, I actually enrolled in Pre-AP classes, though I was initially hesitant of how challenging the classes would be. Without that push, I’m not sure I would have actually graduated as valedictorian.

However, I switched majors recently; now I’m actually a Bilingual Education major, so I’d be certified to teach kindergarten through 6th grade upon graduation. I’m not entirely sure which grade level I would be teaching, though I’m still leaning towards teaching math in the future.

What is it that appeals to you so much about teaching?

I think teaching is an adventure every day. You know where you’re going, but you don’t really know how you’re going to get there. And that uncertainty is what I find so appealing. I enjoy helping other people reach their full potential.

I also enjoyed being on the drill team in JROTC, but I was too much of a free spirit to go into the military. One of my sergeants would always get onto me because I bounced when I marched. Graphic design and photography are still fun hobbies, and I’d like to teach them eventually. At McReynolds, I had a teacher named Barrett Doke who taught U.S. history and photography, and I admired the way he was able to pursue both passions while still passing them on to other people.

You said your mom works for HISD as the secretary at McReynolds Middle School. Did her experiences influence your career aspirations at all?

Yeah, probably. I remember staying after school with her before open houses at Dogan Elementary School, where I attended elementary school and my mom worked as a special education teaching assistant and later as registrar, and seeing the behind-the-scenes stuff. I found it really interesting. But mostly, I just like seeing the quick flash of recognition that crosses students’ faces when they finally understand something. I thought, “I could see myself doing this.”

But my dream job is to come back as principal of McReynolds Middle School one day, and I thank Jorge Arredondo for that inspiration. He was the best principal, and he became a family friend. He even came to my high school graduation. He was actually the first person to see me when I came off the stage, even before my parents.

You were recently profiled in Alcalde, the official publication of the UT alumni association. How did that come about?

I always felt a sense of inadequacy next to other members of my cohort, because some of them went to phenomenal high schools, traveled outside of the country, or had other opportunities I didn’t have growing up. But the Forty Acres coordinators became aware that I was a first-generation high school graduate, and I guess they felt otherwise. So we decided to use my profile to inspire others in my situation. I like how the article pulled in my family, and focused on how I’m able to call cohort members my friends now. It was really great.

If you know a graduate, student, employee, or other member of Team HISD who should be featured here, please email us at
3 Responses leave one →
  1. Robyn Anglin permalink
    November 15, 2013

    What a wonderful article! I had the pleasure of watching Alejandra grow up at Dogan Elementary and worked with her mother for many years at the same school. She and her parents have worked extremely hard throughout the years and I am so proud of the amazing young woman she has become!!! Great job Blanca!!

  2. Cynthia M. Smith permalink
    November 15, 2013

    This story is so touching, it brought tears to my eyes. I plan to copy this and take it home to my daughters. Two are high school juniors and one is a sophomore. I am so inspired by this young lady’s accomplishments. Best wishes to Alejandra and her family.

  3. Sherelle Foust permalink
    January 6, 2014

    I have read this story multiple times and I’m inspired every time I read it. Alejandra Ortega is an amazing and successful young lady who exudes what HISD is all about, working to achieve whoever you want to become in life and setting yourself up for multiple education opportunities. Teacher Recruitment is working to ensure that Alejandra knows HISD would be extremely proud to have her back in any classroom in the district in order to lead and motivate students, just like she was inspired in HISD classrooms!

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