Some students are so overcome by classes, assignments, rules, and passing exams that they lose sight of the exciting opportunities that exist within and without their school walls. School is not just about academics and grades. It is about true education: having experiences, making mistakes, experimenting, trying and trying again, and testing ones limits. Throughout our lives our futures are in our hands; we decide what we are going to do, no one else. But it is when we are young and students in school that we can make and ignite our futures.

Three young people from our community have decided to purposely influence their futures. Although they are focused on their academic endeavors like students should be, their visions go beyond passing exams and just making it through another school year. They are looking forward to the rewards and opportunities that exist for those students who are willing to put in the extra effort to go beyond the finish line. These students are not satisfied to simply meet expectations set by education committees. They are looking to do something for themselves, to take a step forward ahead of their classmates.

“Education is a key factor in the success of individuals and a society,” says Andres Portillo, a student at Sharyland’s B.L. Gray Jr. High School. He knows that “education is what gives people the chance to become better, physically and mentally, by preparing them for the journey that lies ahead.” Andres views school as a gateway to his success as an adult, which is why he takes advantage of and strives to meet the highest of expectations. Andres is not simply completing assignments; he’s putting forth what it takes to excel and build his mind so that opportunity will come looking for him, which has already begun to happen. As a 7th grade student, he scored so well on the SAT that he was presented an award at Trinity University in San Antonio. Andres is investing now so that he can enjoy the future payoff.

Sarah Turley, a student at McAllen Memorial High School, enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Lamar Academy (IB), agrees that school can sometimes be grueling, but she chooses to see “school as a place where I can try my hardest and be rewarded for it.” Her teachers push her hard and she enjoys the challenges that they present. Outside of school, Sarah is captain of the Memorial Color Guard and spends about half of her summer marching outside with the band, getting out of her comfort zone, making many new friends, and honing her leadership abilities, all of which are skills that will propel her forward to opportunities not offered to those who have spent their summers sitting at home or just hanging out instead of spreading their wings.

Thomas Pietrzak’s view of success has nothing to do with huge homes, beautiful cars, or climbing the corporate ladder. “Simply put, success isn’t measured by anything tangible. It’s just an abstract idea that many people have attributed to money, power, and education as a way to define it; but the truth is there is no definition,” says Thomas, although, he says it should include an element of happiness. For Thomas, a 2010 Sharyland graduate, his happiness and success came by following his heart. He discovered his passion for computers and spent his time and energy learning about and experimenting with them. Because Thomas made a conscious decision to spend time exploring his interest in computers, learning outside of the classroom, and taking advantage of what school had to offer, he won a scholarship to attend St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.

Andres, Sarah, and Thomas are exceptional students in that they strive to go beyond the norm and challenge themselves. In many ways they are like most students living here in the Rio Grande Valley. What they are not, though, is satisfied with the status quo. They are looking for opportunities and reasons to be better than their peers, and they are ready to take advantage of all of the opportunities and trials that school has to offer. They know that they will be better for it and their lives will be that much more rewarding and exciting.

As the great Mahatma Gandhi wisely encouraged, “be the change you want to see in the world.” You only need to take advantage of the opportunities that await you and reap the rewards that come with deciding to live a better life.

Have a great 2010–2011 school year!

Lora Incardona, author of The Study Coach’s Easy Study Manual, is a local teacher who specializes in teaching students how to learn and how to use their natural strengths to make learning easier. Visit