Student Teacher's UHD Degree Celebrated by Her Students
Vanessa Peña Honored at Black Elementary School
By Mike Emery
Vanessa Peña was among the more than 3,800 Gator Graduates celebrating her academic achievements on Dec. 19. Alongside her family, she watched the University of Houston-Downtown’s 68th Commencement Ceremony from the safety of her home. Before her online graduation, Peña had the unique opportunity of actually donning a cap and gown and walking before a small (and socially-distanced) audience of well-wishers.
Peña, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from UHD’s College of Public Service, participated in a mini-graduation ceremony with the faculty and students of Black Elementary (part of Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District). The aspiring educator served as a student teacher at the school and was recognized for her hard work in obtaining a degree.
“It was amazing!” said Peña. “So many people at Black Elementary were very supportive. They were always there to help when I needed it. It really meant so much for them to host this ceremony for me.”
Peña is the true model of Gator Grit. A mother of three children, including one with special needs, she balanced family, school and student teaching at Black Elementary during her final year at UHD. And she was very engaged as a student in the College of Public Service, participating in the Bilingual Education Student Organization, Be A Teacher Club and UHD’s chapter of Kappa Delta Pi (the international honor society for education students).
“Vanessa has overcome more than her share of obstacles, and she continues smiling through all of it,” said Dr. Diane Miller, Assistant Professor of Literacy. “She persisted in finishing her degree even though it took her an extended period of time. And, she has succeeded at UHD, graduating with honors.”
Peña credits mentors such as Miller for helping her achieve her dream of earning a degree. She especially is grateful for UHD Northwest, which was close to home. She also acknowledges her family for being there during her busiest moments.
“My sister stepped up and helped me with the kids,” she said. “She would stay home with them while I went to school. My husband was also a huge help as he took care of the kids when I needed to study and do homework. There is no way I could have done it without my family.”
Now, Peña is ready to apply what she learned at UHD to local classrooms, but she’s not done with college quite yet. After a year or two of teaching, she is planning on getting a master’s degree.
Although her academic journey took a few detours, she is proud to have reached the finish line. She also has advice for those who might feel they can’t finish school because of life’s many challenges.
“It’s never going to be easy, and sometimes it may feel impossible,” she said. “Just keep going. It will all be worth it in the end. It’s okay to cry sometimes. Just take a break, don’t overwork yourself, and always remember why you started.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.