College of Education doctoral student Rudy Reyes shares his first-generation student experiences with Estacado High School teenagers who need inspiration.
Rudy Reyes takes in the busy hallway scene during passing periods as the associate principal of Estacado High School.
Unique styles, bobbing backpacks and chatter of all variances fills the air – but through all the differences, Reyes can spot those teenagers he needs to connect with. After all, he just recently underwent the same stressful process of applying to college, in his case, the Texas Tech University doctoral program for educational leadership.
“There's a lot of pieces and moving parts,” he said. “It reminds me that if it seems overwhelming to me as a 47-year-old educated professional, I need to have some empathy for what my students are going through when we're asking them to chase their college dreams.”
Reyes is especially sensitive when he spots students who appear to be carrying a little extra weight beyond their school duties. Uplifting them has become his specialty.
“I really feel like there's an opportunity for me to give them my story as a testimony,” he said. “I think for many teens, they want to know that better is possible, but they may not have witnessed that. They may not be able to point to somebody and say, ‘I know that person and they did it. And if they can do it, I can do it.'”
Reyes is more than happy to be that example, even if it means becoming transparent and vulnerable to convey how he felt at their age: angry.
Reyes was 17 years old and in his fourth year of high school when his father, a fulltime pastor, announced they would move from his hometown in San Antonio to Lamesa, Texas for his second church plant.
“I had never been to West Texas, but I knew God was calling me,” said Richard, Reyes' father. “I told everybody, ‘We're going to move to Lamesa and Rudy was the first to buck. He said, ‘What? No, come on, dad!”
Richard explained why they had to go, but Reyes was far from excited about this decision as it stripped him of his extended family and friend group.
“I literally didn't talk to my dad for a year,” he said. “I was so upset, petty and hurt that I guess the only thing I could take from him was my attention.”
Reyes tells his students he understands how it feels like the end of the world when confronted with challenging life events as a teenager. In his case, he and his family were on food stamps, practically homeless and living at the mercy of the congregation's generosity as his father worked to build the church from the ground up.
Beyond that, Reyes was shocked by the differences of a small town versus a city – so much so he asked his mother to homeschool him, and she agreed.
He committed to a curriculum, passed his placement test and, “ta-da.” He was done.
“My mom literally went to Kinko's to print out a sort of diploma on fancy paper with my name on it,” Reyes mused.
During Reyes' year in Lamesa, he constantly brainstormed how he could do something bigger than himself. Thirty years later, Reyes says God put him in the right place at the right time.
Chasing a College Experience
Although he was not on the best terms with his father, Reyes still wanted to stay close to his family. That led him to consider Lubbock as his next step.
“I was maturing a little bit by then,” he said. “My parents agreed to help me move to Lubbock Christian University (LCU), I think mostly because it had Christian in the title.”
This was a huge step for Reyes, since he would be a first-generation college student. He admits he and his parents did not have knowledge of the costs or curriculum involved in his pursuit of higher education.
Richard, concerned about the financial risk, prayed that his son made the right decision.
“The fact is that boy doesn't hold back when he wants to do something,” Richard said. “God gives him strength and he does his best at it.”
Reyes took out a loan, enrolled in classes, moved into a dorm, bought all his textbooks and joined the choir. He would add a car payment, insurance, gas and food expenses to this list of newfound responsibilities.
“I was standing on my own,” he remembered. “College really opened my eyes to what was out there. And that's what I love about college – it's a place of new ideas, new learning, new people, new experiences, new travel and other types of things that in my bubble I had no access to.”
He began to explore a world of possibilities he never dreamed attainable for himself, such as becoming a veterinarian. Reyes shared this ambition with his mother during a lunch conversation one day.
He will never forget her words that followed: “Why would you waste the gift you have? You are a natural born teacher. You need to invest in the lives of people.”
The evidence of this statement was spread throughout his parents' time in ministry as Reyes watched the nursery, taught children's Bible study and led vacation bible school youth camp from the time he was a child himself. He even spent some time as a youth minister.
Consequently, as his mother reminded him, Reyes' true passion had been sparked.
“When I went to college and they asked me what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to work with kids and that I would be a good teacher,” he explained. “I always loved school because it was a safe, comfortable place. It was something I was good at, so I didn't feel intimidated.”
Reyes knew he made the right choice when he fell in love with the field of education, which he said felt like home. So, when he received a call from his father around Christmas break of his first year, he was floored.
“He said, ‘Hey, things aren't working out here in Lamesa and we're moving back to San Antonio. Do you want to come with us?'” Reyes said. “I told him, ‘No, I can't move out now.' And he said, ‘OK, well finish the year and then you can move back to San Antonio.'”
Reyes almost took him up on that invitation, when at the beginning of his second year at LCU, he was called into the financial aid office.
“They told me I still had a balance and if I didn't pay this balance, I wasn't going to be able to enroll the next semester,” he recalled. “I didn't know what to do because I had already maxed out my student loans, I was already doing the work study program, I certainly didn't have any savings and I couldn't sell my car because I needed it. So, I called home.”
He was in tears when he asked his parents if they could take out a loan. At first, they said no, but Reyes explained how he had committed to college to better his future. He told them he wanted to accomplish something no one in his family had done before.
They agreed, under the condition that he never ask again.
“I'm grateful they did it because they bought me some time,” he said. “I was able to apply for further scholarships and add hours in my work study.”
At one point, Reyes even took on an overnight full-time job at a hospital. When he clocked out at 7 a.m., he had 30 minutes to make it to his first class. It was not until after 2:30 p.m. he could finally go to sleep.
It was a grueling schedule, but to Reyes, his education was worth the hustle.
“Quitting wasn't an option,” he said. “I knew I needed to finish because if I didn't, I was going to regret it. That wasn't in the cards.”
Reyes played his hand right and graduated in 2001 with his bachelor's degree in elementary education. Richard remembers he and his wife cheering from the stands, crying with pride for their son.
This would have been the perfect moment for Reyes to return home to San Antonio, except he landed a job offer at Lubbock Independent School District after a mock interview and job application he completed for a class project.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no, I was just doing that for the grade. I really don't want to stay in Lubbock,'” he said. “But I ended up taking the job.”
Reyes began his career teaching fifth graders at Ramirez Elementary School. He kept telling his father maybe he would return home after he got one or two years of experience under his belt.
But after 10 years of alternating between teaching fifth and sixth grade, meeting his wife, starting a family and heading back to LCU for a master's degree, Reyes came to a startling conclusion.
He was fully committed to the Lubbock area.
“When I share my story with students, one of the things I always tell them is moving away might be one of the best things you can do,” he admitted. “I think that in itself is powerful.”
Climbing the Ranks
Once Reyes received his master's degree in educational administration in 2010, he applied to be a middle school assistant principal at Atkins Middle School.
He told his wife he did not feel confident about landing the position because he had no middle school experience at the time. To his surprise, Reyes was offered the role after his interview.
He quickly learned a lesson he has leaned on throughout his career: kids are kids.
“Regardless of how tall they are,” he said with a laugh. “It's all about relationships with kids – building trust with them, always having their best interest at heart and letting them know you're there to care for them in all regards, every step of the way.
“Just like with parenting, it's the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's not so easy, but we're still on their side and love them in all facets.”
After two years of practicing what he preached, Reyes was approached with the opportunity to join the administration at Estacado High School. Again – he felt like he was unprepared to lead teenagers – but nonetheless he was hired and has now worked there 11 years.
Reyes not only filled his position but excelled at it, winning Region 17 Assistant Principal of the Year in 2022. One of his duties is overseeing Estacado's Early College High School, which targets students who have ambitions to go to college but not necessarily the means.
“I want to make sure we have systems in place on the public-school level to help them navigate through that,” he said. “I put them in contact with our counselors, success coaches and our community and school director and make sure they have the assistance and regular checkups they need.”
As he committed to advancing his students' education, two years ago, Reyes realized he needed an additional degree himself to pursue the next step of his career. He was directed to Texas Tech's doctoral program for educational leadership, which is designed to prepare executive school leaders who can identify and implement research-based solutions to high-leverage problems of practice within a PreK-12 school district context.
In a three-year sequence of defined courses, concluding with a problem of practice dissertation, Reyes would deepen his ability to lead instructional change, identify problems of practice and implement interventions to improve student achievement.
While Reyes and his wife agreed this doctoral program would support his future, they knew it would be a financial burden as they're raising two teenagers and coming up on a fourth car payment. Thankfully, Reyes was able to apply for and receive the Helen DeVitt Jones Part-Time Graduate Fellowship.
“That fellowship has been a real lifeline for me and my family,” he said. “I'll be forever grateful they were able to assist me with my tuition and continue to do so. I know that getting a quality education is an investment not only in my community, school and profession, but also my future family.”
Since then, Reyes has developed significant research goals related to challenges he has noticed teachers cannot control, such as student attendance.
“Student attendance seems to be tied to everything we do,” he said. “I want to find out what can we do within our realm of control to get students into the classroom and in front of teachers who are eager to teach them.”
Reyes will push forward, juggling his classwork and full-time job, with plans to graduate with his doctoral degree in August 2025. From there, he will chase opportunities to better serve his community – whether that means becoming a principal, working at a central office as a superintendent or teaching at the collegiate level.
He recognizes he cannot teach and personally know every student, but he can certainly impact them by training their educators. He has seen within his family circle how the right influence can impact choices.
“As a first-generation college student, you're creating paths that weren't there before and your family should hopefully be the first people to follow,” he said. “I was humbled to see that with my two nieces and my nephew as they leaned on some of my knowledge and experiences about attending college. I hope to continue to do that.”
Reyes never expected he would become the positive presence in a high school hallway and a role model for uncertain students. But according to Richard, the personability and friendliness that exudes from his son is just “Rudy being Rudy.”
“It touches my heart to know that he has cared for these students,” Richard said. “I'm very proud of him. We need more educators that are willing to share their story of escalante – those who came from the least expected education-type environment but rose above it.”
When Reyes reflects on this accomplishment, he has a different perspective than he did as a teenager. He would like to thank his mentor, also referred to as his rock to lean on – his father, with whom he now regularly speaks.
“One of the things he has always instilled in me is I have to be prepared when God opens the door and an opportunity calls,” he said. “I know it may not be happening right now, but at some point, I have to be ready. So when I think back to those hard years, it's a season in my life that I'm grateful for because it grew me.”