A local resident with a desire to create better educational opportunities for students in Houston and around the country was recently recognized by a national Hispanic business organization for his efforts.
Earlier this month, Heights resident Candelario Cervantez was the recipient of a Prospanica Brillante Member Excellence Award. Prospanica is an association of Hispanic MBAs and business professionals, which works to enable Hispanic professionals to achieve full educational, economic, and social potential, according to the organization. The Brillante award “exemplifies Hispanic leadership through drive and success,” according to its website.
Cervantez currently serves as head of the National Latinx Alliances on the National Public Partnership and Government Affairs Team at Teach For America, and as President Emeritus of Prospanica.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, what?’ These awards are so prestigious and really selective,” Cervantez said of finding out he had won. “The people who win these are like our next leaders that have been doing tremendous work and removing barriers. To be in that company, it was just so humbling.”
Cervantez’s drive to create opportunities for students, he said, stems from the beginning of his own journey growing up in Houston. Despite graduating with honors and at the top of his class, he said he discovered he was radically unprepared for college – both academically and socially – before attending the University of St. Thomas.
Part of that, he said, was that he simply did not know what organizations were out there to help students like himself overcome barriers that were present for some students. But a few years after graduating from St. Thomas with his MBA in business, he began working with theRice Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP) in the university’s business school, and discovered Teach for America.
He would later move to Dallas in 2012 and become a regional operations specialist for the organization’s Dallas region.
Teach For America recruits people to become TFA “corps members,” according to its website. Corps members commit to teaching for two years in a low-income community, where they’re employed by local schools before becoming part of the alumni network to help create opportunities for low-income students and families. Students from low-income families drop out of high school at twice the rate of upper-middle and high-income families, according to a 2019 study by the National Center for Education Statistics.
“I just fell in love with the organization, the vision, and the history (of Teach for America),” Cervantez said. “…At this time, I had made my mind up that I wanted to work in education.”
Cervantez said he has long characterized his work as “personal.” Teach for America’s National Latinx Alliances provides services such as college/career planning for K-12 students and caregivers in both English and Spanish, and work with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, which explores different career paths. They also partner with the Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington, D.C. to provide leadership programs and fellowships.
He said that Teach for America has also implemented similar initiatives and programs in Houston’s District C – which includes the Heights, Garden Oaks, and Oak Forest – and around the city.
“My family always told me that my inheritance was my education, so that legacy is something that I think through,” he said. “I always think about how we can continue to help remove those barriers to make it easier for the next person… You don’t know what you don’t know – and if our kids don’t know those programs are there, how can we expect them to take advantage of it?”
Ultimately, Cervantez said the most rewarding aspect of his work with Teach For America is seeing the difference in student opportunity that they can help make available. And part of that, he said, has been sharing his story about where he came from – both his accomplishments and pitfalls – and the opportunities he didn’t know existed.
Now, he’s doing everything he can to make sure future generations know the resources available to them so they can reach their full potential.
“I think it’s so important that we share our stories and get them out there…it makes (the students) see themselves,” he said. “When I see these barriers removed and our students excel, that brings me so much joy. Seeing those ripple effects is the most rewarding piece, it really lets me see that we’re making a difference.”