El Paso ISD students urged to harness power of education during McDonald’s HACER Education tour stop at Bowie
(BOWIE HIGH SCHOOL – Jan. 19, 2023) – The first Mexican-born woman to travel to space left 500 El Paso ISD students in awe Thursday as she shared a deeply personal story of hardship and resilience that led to her historic journey on Blue Origin last year.
Electrical engineer and space traveler Katya Echazarreta joined with CoolSpeak’s Carlos Ojeda Jr. and Ernesto Mejia for the McDonald’s HACER Education tour stop at Bowie High School. The three intertwined English and Spanish as they told humorous and heart-wrenching stories about their childhoods and how education changed their lives. The speakers also touted the McDonald’s HACER Scholarship for Hispanic graduating seniors and urged them to apply.
“I have never seen a presentation like this before,” said Bowie senior Aylin Lazalde. “I felt a connection with all of them. I’ll remember all of their stories.”
Bowie High School was one of two Texas sites selected for the McDonald’s HACER Education tour brought to El Paso by McDonald’s owner and operator Richard Castro who created the scholarship in 1985 in El Paso before it went national in 2008. Since he started the program, more than $33 million in scholarships have been awarded to 17,000 students.
“My commitment is to education and youth programs because that impacts the future,” Castro said. “There are many ways today we can pay for school and that shouldn’t be the obstacle to attending school beyond high school for either a certificate or degree.”
The son of immigrants, Castro grew up economically disadvantaged and learned to speak English while in elementary school. He credits education for his successful McDonald’s empire, which includes 27 restaurants with two on the way.
“Education can create success. Education can create wealth,” Castro said. “How did I go from growing up in a low-income neighborhood to today? The first step was education. It wasn’t easy. But it was very worthwhile.”
Castro introduced Echazarreta who made history last year when she traveled to space on Blue Origin NS-21 as a Space for Humanity ambassador. The Guadalajara, Mexico-born electrical engineer came to the United States at age 7 and dreamt of becoming an astronaut.
“I was a little Mexican girl. No one believed me. My teachers, my friends, everyone around me was telling me that I was being ridiculous,” Echazarreta recalled. “When I was in college, they were telling me that I was stealing a spot from someone that deserved it. It didn’t matter to me because I knew what I wanted.”
Echazarreta took a life changing turn when she earned a full-ride scholarship to UCLA while enrolled at a community college. She described acting as a mother figure to her siblings while living in a difficult home situation with an abusive dad, and recalled the days of having just $5 in her bank account her first week in college and eating nothing but Maruchan every day. Today, at age 27, she is financially secure.
“Education is going to change your life. I’m not telling you that you have to go to a four-year (university). It means gaining the tools necessary so that you can live a better life. Tú puedes cambiar tu vida. You have so many opportunities. Please take advantage of them.”
Her message hit home with many students, encouraging them to push through despite any obstacles they face.
“I was moved by Katya because she came from a really hard place and she pushed through every obstacle to get to where she is now,” Burges High senior Lauren Solis said. “We can’t let our background or anything else define who we are because we are capable of working hard and making our life better. Nothing is going to change unless we do – hacer más.”
Like Echazarreta, Ojeda’s high school life was far from easy. Constant criticism and disparaging words from his teachers made him believe the worst in himself.
“One teacher told me that I was the greatest piece of garbage he’d ever seen in his life. Another teacher told me I would never amount to anything,” Ojeda said. “You know what? I believed them so I acted like trash and I believed I was trash.”
Ojeda didn’t discover his real “problem” until age 23 when doctors diagnosed him with only 43% hearing. He wears four specially-designed hearing aids that connect to each other and to his phone. Without them, he can’t hear. He joked about telling his wife he can’t hear her because of “technical difficulties” but quickly turned serious.
“All the old people here are thinking that’s a good idea. But it’s not a good idea when I’m your age and everyone wants to label me a behavior problem, an attitude problem, this problem or that problem – except that the problem I have is a hearing problem.”
While Ojeda’s hearing loss was yet to be discovered, one educator changed his perception and set him on right path. She encouraged him to take the SAT and apply for multiple colleges. He got accepted to all of them and got a scholarship. Now, the man who was told he would never hold a diploma has bachelor’s and master’s degrees and founded CoolSpeak.
“In her eyes, I wasn’t trash,” Ojeda said. “She was the first adult that wasn’t a family member who treated me with love and respect. The lady saw all my short comings, saw my deficiencies. She saw what I was and what I was destined to be.”
Ojeda left the students with a message of power and the importance of their voice. They chanted back “Power. Power.”
“Your voice is your power. Vete, go. That’s what we want you to do. Don’t care about the sacrifices. Don’t care how many people say you can’t or won’t. We are here to tell you, you can and you will. You are destined.”
To apply for the McDonald’s HACER scholarship, go to mcdonalds.com/hacer. The deadline is Feb. 6.