The Education of Jackie Aguilera
By Sheryl E. Taylor
She considers herself one of the remaining originals as a third-generation Houstonian. She grew up on the Northside (now Near Northside) and East End’s Second Ward.
University of Houston-Downtown alumna Jackie Aguilera believes that her upbringing with a family that was pro-education prepared her for her destiny. She praises her grandparents who were champions of education.
“They (grandparents) were self-made, self-educated and determined self-learners who always knew that education was the key,” she said. Raised by a single mom, Aguilera also credits her mother and uncle for inspiring her to fight for one’s beliefs. “
My mother and my uncle grew up in the 50s and 60s. My uncle was about standing up for the red, white and blue through military service, and my mother was about standing up for the red, white and blue with flowers in her hair protesting a controversial war,” she said laughing at their differences to accomplish a common goal. "But I knew that fighting, standing up and following your beliefs to do what is right as well as being a part of the fabric of this country was so important because of them.”
There were times when Aguilera felt the pressure of a multicultural “juggling act” that blended the ethnic background of her grandparents (from Mexico and Basque) and her father’s (from Puerto Rico) as well as being a second-generation American in Texas. Added to her cultural identify challenges, she was also a lesbian born into a very strict and religious family, which posed another juggling act in itself.
“My family was born during a time when assimilation was the push...what many called the white-washing of cultures in America ... melting into a common identity called American. This was the perceived way for many to succeed,” emphasized the oldest of three. “This also meant your sexual identity. Conformity was the norm for everything. I conformed almost in every way except when it came to being a lesbian. I found my rainbow pride and my brown pride at UHD, a place where I didn’t have to be ashamed of either. I was born here and identify as a Chicana or Mexican-American. And I’m out and proud. How great is that?”
Choosing UHD gave Aguilera a new perspective.
“UHD was huge for me,” she said. “When you’re first-gen, you are in survival mode and your family is doing the best they can to help you to navigate the system. UHD gave me a second chance to kick start my education.”
Aguilera’s time as a Gator exposed her to “so much diversity, multiculturalism and most of all a sense of pride. You didn’t have to be two different people,” she said. “You were all of you at UHD!”
At UHD she worked as an English tutor and eventually a College Success Instructor with first-generation students from other countries, who were labelled at-risk, in reading/writing and exam preparation to excel in their studies. “Being able to help students with the skills they needed and seeing them succeed and excel in their studies ... really fueled and fired me up,” she said. In 1989, she earned a bachelor’s degree in General Studies degree with a major in English and a minor in Sociology from UHD.
After UHD, she served a brief stint in retail, followed by a position at Houston Community College in Adult Education, which led to the Houston Read Commission in response to what was known as the “urban literacy crisis.” At the Commission she led many literacy initiatives, wore many hats and she founded the Financial Literacy Carnival—an initiative picked up by McGraw-Hill that became a state-wide funded financial education project.
“All the things I experienced during and after UHD kept telling me that I was meant for education an that I could run, but couldn’t hide,” she said.“ I knew that I wanted to be a part of a process. It was a community effort in raising me and when that happens, you must always give back.”
Aguilera earned a master’s degree in Cultural Studies at Texas Christian University and her involvement in literacy initiatives never waned. In 2008, Aguilera co-founded Houston Money Week, a city-wide financial empowerment initiative. She also later worked on a project to implement the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas’ English @ Work Program. In 2018, she helped organize the Houston Area Adult Literacy Collective provider network and the Adult Literacy Partners of Houston, an award-winning team of providers piloting new apps for adult learners. She spent a number of years in Houston’s Third Ward working in a grassroots adult literacy school, East Side University, where she served as president for almost three years.
She recently landed at The Mayor’s Office for Adult Literacy as a Project Manager to facilitate projects that will optimize service models for adult literacy in Houston, including the Houston Adult Literacy Blueprint, developed in partnership with the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation that was launched this past June.
“We’re working on policy and advocacy, and I work with a multitude of adult literacy providers affecting thousands of adults and their families across the city, ”she noted. “We’re achieving phenomenal things that are benefitting more than I ever imagined. It’s humbling. Being a part of positive change is what my life’s work is supposed to be about.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD)—the second largest university in Houston—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 more than 15,000 students; boasts more than 60,000 alumni and offers 45 bachelor’s, nine master’s degree programs and 16 fully online programs within five colleges (Marilyn Davies College of Business; Humanities & Social Sciences; Public Service, Sciences & Technology; and University College).
For the fourth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report ranks UHD among universities across the nation for Best Online Criminal Justice Programs (No. 27 and No. 15 for Veterans) and Best Online Bachelor’s Programs.
UHD has the most affordable tuition among four-year universities in Houston and one of the lowest in Texas. U.S. News ranked the University among Top Performers on Social Mobility and a No. 1 ranking as the most diverse institution of higher education in the southern region of the U.S. The University is noted nationally as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution and Military Friendly School. For more on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit www.uhd.edu.