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High school students get a head start for college

Math and Science Academy seniors listen to a presentation about student support services last Friday in Main Building room 2.112 on the Brownsville campus. Mario Gonzalez/The Rider

Leo Castillo, a biology major and second semester student at the Mathematics and Science Academy (MSA) in Brownsville, recommends students apply to the academy.

“I would recommend them just to apply because I was like that too,” Castillo said. “I didn’t think I’d come here. I just applied to see if I’d get in. And then, I just decided, ‘Why not, I’ll come,’ and I love it here. I love it better than my old high school. I sure don’t want to go back.”

The academy will expand its program across the Valley to the Edinburg campus in Fall 2016.

MSA at UTRGV is the only academy within the University of Texas System. It is built around high school students who are in the 11th and 12th grades. MSA helps students finish their last two years of high school at a university, taking 15 to 18 college-credit hours per semester.

“We received a million dollar expansion from the state Legislature,” MSA Principal Wilma Smetter said. “So, we are opening the same academy that we have here in Brownsville on the Edinburg campus and we will cap at 50 students.”

Recruiting has already started for the fall semester.

“The goal is to expand the academy because this academy has been in existence for nine years,” Smetter said.
The academy has graduated more than 321 students who have continued their higher education.

“Last year, we had three students who drove in every day from the McAllen area,” she said. “Their moms brought them in every day and picked them up every day.”

This year, a senior is graduating the same day as his father.

“His dad is graduating with a master’s in education with an emphasis in science and [the student] is graduating with his high school diploma along with 60 college hours,” Smetter said.

UTRGV also provides the students, who are in MSA, with another two-year scholarship after completion of the program.

“The university has provided them a Mathematics and Science Academy scholarship … so that they can finish their bachelor’s in four years with zero debt,” Smetter said. “UTRGV pays for all their tuition, books and fees, which is a huge savings for their families.”

She said the students must have at least a 3.0 grade-point average to receive this scholarship.

Although the academy is geared toward the mathematics and science fields, students can major in anything they like, said Camilla Montoya, a program coordinator on the Brownsville campus.

“A lot of them major in biology to go into the medical field,” Montoya said. “We have a lot who are interested in engineering and we do have the occasional liberal arts students. They can choose any major even though we focus on math and science.”

She said the selection process depends on how many students apply.

“We try to give a chance for all of those who qualify,” Montoya said, “meaning that they have all their application documents in, that they have the test scores the university requires and that they show that they have real interest to come into the program. As far as the percentage of students who are admitted, [that] will depend every year based on how many qualified students actually apply.”

“With all the extra challenge, it has really helped me mature and become a better student. I am learning so much more than in my other high school.
Leo Castillo
Math and Science Academy student”

Melissa Peña, a program coordinator on the Edinburg campus, said MSA reaches out to students and parents through monthly meetings.

“Once a month, we usually have meetings for the parents and students who are interested,” Peña said. “And from there we follow up with students in reference to if they are applying.”

With the expansion to the Edinburg campus, the academy’s total enrollment will go from more than 100 to about 200 students.

“We will be able to serve twice as many students from the RGV as we have been so far,” Peña said.
Castillo said the academy has helped him mature and grow as a student.

“With all the extra challenge, it has really helped me mature and become a better student,” he said. “I am learning so much more than in my other high school.”

Castillo said he decided to join MSA because of the free tuition and advancement toward his college education.
“The free part was a huge factor in it but I guess,” he said. “I had an interest to become an EMT at first and I thought, ‘Wow! Two years ahead.’ That means, two extra years I can help people with EMT stuff.”

Evelin Leiva, a computer engineering major and second semester student, said MSA is the best thing that has happened to her.

“Traditional high school setting is not really challenging,” Leiva said. “It’s an amazing experience. Here, you learn to [study and read for exams] and it makes you so much more responsible.”

She said the academy has also strengthened her time management skills.

“We need to actually prepare for classes and read the textbook and as much [as] people don’t like to hear that, it’s necessary,” Leiva said. “ You just need to set aside, like, put away your phone and all the distracting technology for, like, at least two hours a day just to get ahead of your classes and read your textbook to not be distracted.”

Saturday is the deadline to apply for Fall 2016 classes.

For more information about MSA, visit utrgv.edu/msa or call 882-5742.

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