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University of Houston-Clear Lake
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UHCL alumni trio make parents’ American dream come true
University Press Release
Michael Marquez, principal at McWhirter Elementary School in the Clear Creek Independent School District and home to the University of Houston-Clear Lake Professional Development Laboratory School, has many things to be proud of: a family, a successful career in education, a doctoral degree and time served in the U.S. Marine Corp. There is one thing, though, he says makes him most proud: having fulfilled his parents’ American dream, which wasn’t as easy as it might seem.
Marquez’s parents, Juan Carlos and Laura Vega, arrived in New York City from Buenos Aires, Argentina on March 2, 1969 with $50 in their pockets, one suitcase of clothes, the jackets on their backs and two dreams. First, they longed for a home that they could call their own; second, they wanted their children to have the education they had not.
While Laura had graduated from high school, Juan Carlos, a mechanic by trade, had only finished second grade. It was their dream that their children would have more. But chasing the American dream can be a daunting challenge, demanding mobility and a lot of persistence.
The young couple settled in New York and began a family. First came son Dean, and 11 months later, Michael. For a short while the Marquez family returned to Argentina then relocated to New York, once again. A few years later, in the mid-’70s, Juan Carlos left family behind for work in Alaska to support construction of a pipeline. While there, he spotted a Houston Chronicle article touting the Gulf Coast city’s economic boom.
Soon, the hard-working father was Houston-bound. He checked out the city’s possibilities, decided this might be the place and relocated his family, which had grown with the addition of a little girl, Cindy.
Things were going well for the Marquez family until the Houston boom turned bust in the 1980s. The family went bankrupt and lost everything. Juan Carlos headed back to New York, yet again.
Meanwhile, Michael was having a difficult time in school as an English Language Learner. “I struggled with reading and writing,” he said. “It was difficult for me. When I hit third grade, that’s when I stated to learn how to read and write. I was always behind.”
The family’s back and forth while chasing the American dream took a toll as well. In total, Michael attended four elementary schools, two junior highs and two high schools. He trailed his classmates by two years. He was a 16-year old freshman and a 17-year old sophomore. When he graduated from Dobie High School in 1990, it was the same year he turned 20.
Marquez had serious doubts about his ability to make it in college. To further complicate matters, his immigrant parents were not familiar with sending out applications, filling out student loans requests and other college-bound processes. Luckily, he was able to accompany a friends on a campus visit to Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos (now Texas State University). On the way back, home his confidence waivered yet again, and the nagging doubts won out.
“I heard a commercial about the Marine Corps – you know, ‘See the world, earn money for college, maturity.’ By the third time I heard it, I was convinced that’s what I needed to do.”
Marquez and older brother Dean, who had his own doubts about college, both enlisted in the Marine Corps and flew out together amid the growing tensions of what was soon to be the first Gulf War. During his four years of active duty, Marquez says he took a few college courses. His professors praised his speeches, but at the same time said his written presentations were terrible, further sowing seeds of doubt.
It took a Marine colonel to wake him up – quite literally. Marquez says while stationed in Turkey, a colonel woke him one night to prepare a message to be sent out. Marquez confessed he was a terrible writer. The colonel looked at him and laughed, then began to tell the young lance corporal his own story about being a troubled kid and struggling in school. Despite all, the colonel said, he had gone on to college and into a military career. Still, Marquez voiced his doubts about his own scholarly ability.
That’s when the colonel stopped him and said, “Look at it this way.” He pointed to his collar. “I’m a full-bird colonel and I had to wake up a lance corporal to send a message.” The two laughed. Marquez prepared and sent the message. That night Marquez decided, “I’m going to do it.”
He was accepted at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but quickly decided that the tumbleweed territory of west Texas was too far away from home. He then revisited the campus at Southwest Texas College and had only one question for the recruiter: “What is the student-teacher ratio for reading and English classes,” he asked.
“We try to keep it to about 30-1,” the recruiter responded.
“I’m in,” Marquez declared.
In January 1995 he began as a freshman working toward a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and bilingual education, which he completed in December 1997.
On a roll, he immediately signed on as a graduate student at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in January of 1998, and graduated in May of 1999 with a master’s degree in education administration. Why stop now? Next he enrolled in Texas A&M’s doctoral program in educational human resource development. He graduated with a doctoral degree in December 2002.
“I tell people it took me 15 years to get out of public education, but it took me eight years to go from freshman to doctorate.”
The story doesn’t end there, though. His parent’s dream was not complete. Both Dean and Cindy had also decided against college after high school. Dean had followed in his father’s footsteps, having earned his certification as a diesel engine mechanic. He had accepted an entry-level position as an apprentice technician at Cummins Southern Plains, manufacturer of engines and generators. Cindy worked as a senior secretary in the Department of Breast Imagining in Mobile Mammography at M.D. Anderson.
At Marquez’s graduation ceremony in 2002, Dean, 33 years old, married, father of two and full-time employed, confided to his brother, “You have motivated me to go back to school.”
The brother honored his commitment and earned an associate’s degree at San Jacinto Community College. He then enrolled in UH-Clear Lake, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in management in 2010. He went on to earn a master’s degree in industrial distribution at Texas A&M in 2014.
Meanwhile, Cindy watched as Dean successfully juggled work, family and school. Not to be outdone by her big brothers, she too, returned to school. Cindy also graduated from UH-Clear Lake with a bachelor’s degree in communication in 2011.
March 2, 2012, on the 43rd anniversary of their parents’ first arrival in the United States, the Marquez children, Dean, Michael and Cindy, presented the couple with a photo of the three of them dressed in caps and gowns – an American dream fulfilled.
Dean was recently promoted to general manager at Cummins Sales and Service. Cindy is now the program coordinator of mobile mammography at M.D. Anderson. In 2016, Michael was a finalist, from among hundreds of Houston area applicants, in the prestigious H.E.B. Excellence in Education program.