Educational access vital to Texas economic future, Poindexter lecturer says

State Senator Jose Rodriguez, El Paso, presents 2017 Poindexter Lecture. 

Photo by Steve Lang

By Steve Lang, 

News and Publications

Jose Rodriguez literally left the fields to become the only member of his migrant family to receive a college education. Fifty years later, he worries that the same opportunities he obtained may soon be unavailable for others in similar situations.

Rodriguez, El Paso, a two-term State Senator and former El Paso County Attorney, addressed “The Influence of Higher Education on Your Life and Career” as the 2017 John B. Poindexter Speaker Series lecturer. He spoke Friday evening (Oct. 20) in Sul Ross State University’s Marshall Auditorium.

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez, Eagle Pass, was also scheduled to speak, but was unable to attend due to a death in the family. The John B. Poindexter Speaker Series, sponsored by by the College of Education and Professional Studies, highlights outstanding individuals who have been successful in their respective professions and allows them to share their stories with the students, faculty and staff at Sul Ross and in the community at large.

Rodriguez likened his path to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” noting that as a teenager, his “fork in the road” was choosing to help his family by continuing to work in the fields or making financial sacrifices necessary to attend college.

“Looking back, I know I made the right decision,” he said. “I know many of you did the same.”

As the son of migrant workers, Rodriguez traveled the western half of the U.S. from Texas to California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana, among many stops. He was encouraged by his mother, who had no formal education, to attend school.

“My mother, frankly, saw my going to school as an opportunity,” he said. “Success to her was me getting a job anywhere I could wear a white shirt, this from a woman who never spent a day in school…..I stand here today as the only one of seven children who graduated from college, and I decided to take my mother’s dream a little farther than just wearing a white shirt.”

Rodriguez graduated from Pan American (now University of Texas-Pan American) University, and later  received his law degree from George Washington University.

But during a question-and-answer session following his address, Rodriguez doubted that either degree would have been as obtainable today. He received a scholarship from a Minnesota sugar beet company to help defray costs of attending Pan American, and credited Affirmative Action for making his law degree possible.

“I don’t think those kinds of programs are available today,” he said.  

Currently, he said, higher education opportunities are being squeezed by state and federal funding reductions; cuts that heavily affect Texas’ growing minority populations.  

“We have made strides (in educational access), but not enough,” he said. He noted that despite Texas’ 40 percent Hispanic population, only seven of the state’s 31 senators are Hispanic, and the Senate population includes only eight women and two African Americans.

“The future of Texas demographics rests on minorities,” he said, and quoted former State Demographer Steve Murdock: 

“Texas needs to ensure that all Texans have the skills and education to be competitive in the increasingly international economy.”

Rodgriguez said, “You who live in this border region know that the future is upon us, but many resist change. Texas needs to be new again, but the new Texas must have equal opportunities for all.” He cited “value-added degrees” as the prevailing thought in many political circles, noting a reluctance to fund “research for the sake of research,” focusing instead on research more apt to result in financial gain.

“While I value education for its material gain (increased earning potential), I value education even more on its own terms,” he said. “I don’t want an educational system where students are run like widgets through a factory and not really learning what they need to learn.” Great literature, philosophy and the Classics are essential to a well-rounded education, and “we also need research to increase knowledge for knowledge sake, not just for money.”

“Education is valuable in engaging the world and the people around you,” Rodriguez said, re-emphasizing the ever-growing global economy. 

Adequate support for public education also enhances economic growth, health care, increased employment opportunities and other benefits.

“We need equity that distributes resources in a way that allows the same opportunities for students at Sul Ross as at any other university,” Rodriguez said. 

“We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t invest more in education at all levels,” he added. “We are going to hurt ourselves if  we do not have a trained, educated work force in today’s high-tech, communication-driven economy.”

Rodriguez, who served as the El Paso County Attorney for 17 years, was first elected to the Texas State Senate (District 29) in 2010. He represents El Paso, Hudspeth, Culberson, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties, spanning more than 350 miles of the Texas-Mexico border. 


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