By Jerry Duggan
As adult education coordinator at Sacred Heart Parish in the Segundo Barrio neighborhood along the U.S. – Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, Suamy Meza is a busy woman. She oversees a robust program that provides some 250 adults with their GED annually and also provides ESL, technology and citizenship classes – an effort made possible by grants and a group of generous volunteers.
“The goal of our efforts is to train leaders in the Segundo Barrio community,” Meza said. “Acquiring academic skills and intellect is very important, but ultimately, we are in this to equip our students with the skills needed to go back out into the community and make a difference.”
Meza completed a master’s degree in higher education administration and did extensive research on the educational structures and resources that are needed in predominately Hispanic communities. The first need is support from family and community.
“A lot of people we serve come from households where education was not a priority, and understandably so,” she said. “Traditionally, in communities like these, a great emphasis is placed on hard work, which is often manual labor. College, and in many cases graduating high school, is not seen as feasible.”
Meza’s group comes from all over the El Paso community, with a spectrum of challenges.
“Many of our students have limited English proficiency, some have very limited experience with computers, and, of course, varying degrees of academic proficiency,” she said. “Still, it’s our job to meet them where they are and give them the skills they need to go out and be successful.”
Many of the program’s graduates achieve levels of success that did not seem possible prior to enrolling.
“A lot of our students get promoted at work after obtaining their GED and ESL certificates, and a good number continue on to further studies in higher education,” she said. “This is a testament to the great work our educators do.”
Meza knows how difficult it can be to break educational barriers because she lived that experience herself.
“My parents were always very supportive of me, but they did not attend school past middle school, and that is the case for many of our students’ parents,” she said. “This does not mean that they do not come from loving families, it just means that higher education was not something that was in the cards for most of them.”
Meza started to attend Mass regularly at Sacred Heart with encouragement from her mother. In time, she connected with Fr. Ron Gonzales, SJ, pastor of Sacred Heart at the time.
“He knew that I was studying higher education administration and eventually asked if I would be willing to help out. It made me very busy because I have a full-time job (Meza previously worked at the University of Texas-El Paso and currently at El Paso Community College in full-time roles in addition to her work at the parish), but I knew it would be worth it.”
In pre-COVID times, the program graduated approximately 500 students annually. This year it enrolls about 250 – a staggering success.
Meza cautions against self-congratulation and deflects praise onto the dedicated and entirely volunteer program staff.
“The teachers are what make this program, without question,” she said. “This year in particular, we are blessed to have a group of teachers who are not just willing to help but are masterful in their knowledge of their subject area. That makes life a lot easier for our students, who often come to us needing a lot of support.”
In addition, she has found that everything else in her life has fallen into place as she immerses herself ever deeper in this transformative work.
“Since I started this work at Sacred Heart, everything else has come together for me,” she said. “I feel a sense of fulfillment that was lacking before, and I take comfort in knowing that this is where I am meant to be and what I am meant to do.”