DENTON (UNT), Texas — A first-generation college graduate, Leslie Jimenez wants other students to know that education can change their lives.
Jimenez, who expects to earn a master’s degree in higher education from the University of North Texas’ College of Education in August, has been chosen to share her story and become an advocate for education as part of the inaugural class of the GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy. She was one of 30 people from across the country selected for the 12-month leadership academy, a program of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.
“I want to send the message that education is the key to success — an opportunity for everyone no matter what your background is,” said Jimenez, who originally joined the GEAR UP program in seventh grade in California. “You can contribute to your community and advocate for education to try and strengthen others.”
Jimenez’s mom worked two jobs to support her children, Jimenez said, and to make ends meet, Jimenez’s family stood in line for hot meals at churches. She credits the love and support of her mom — who died earlier this year — for helping inspire her and her siblings to attend college.
“My mom would tell us, ‘I wish I could provide more for you,’” she said. “She sometimes would add on a third job, but it was still not sufficient, and she would say, ‘This is why you need to go to college — to strengthen yourself and strengthen others.’”
Her sister earned a college degree a year ago, and her brother graduates from college this month, she said.
In preparation for the yearlong GEAR UP Alumni Leadership Academy, Jimenez will attend a weeklong training session in June in Washington, D.C., to learn about leadership development, social media advocacy, narrative advocacy and grassroots advocacy. She will then return to her home state of California to speak to students in low-income communities to encourage them to pursue education and educate people about GEAR UP, a federally funded program that aims to help low-income students by providing academic tutoring, college tours, parent engagement programs and more.
Jimenez, a 2005 graduate of Anaheim High School, earned a bachelor’s degree with a double major in psychology and law and society from the University of California, Riverside before enrolling in UNT’s College of Education for her master’s degree in higher education. She chose UNT for the strength of its higher education program and for the university’s diversity, affordability and helpful faculty and staff, she said.
“I got that feeling when I stepped on campus — when you just know that is the spot for you,” she said. “I belong here.”
Jimenez said she hopes to pursue a career as a university professor. She wants to help others change their lives through education.
“It’s very easy to give up,” Jimenez said. “But if you work hard and stay determined, you can better yourself and empower other students too. You can be a beacon of hope.”
About UNT’s College of Education
UNT’s College of Education prepares students to contribute to the advancement of education, health and human development. Founded in 1890 as a teacher’s training college, UNT now enrolls more than 4,000 students in the College of Education, which consists of four departments — counseling and higher education; educational psychology; kinesiology, health promotion and recreation; and teacher education and administration. UNT’s College of Education certifies about 1,000 teachers a year — making it the largest producer of new teachers in the North Texas region. Students are also prepared for careers as researchers, counselors, leaders, physical activity and health promotion specialists, child development and family studies specialists and more.