A “Surreal Spring Break”


FOCUS Learning Community travelers with their London Walks‘ guide after completing the Harry Potter tour (near Millennium Bridge in the photo).

During Spring Break 2017, 38 students traveled to London for a week exploring the culture, the impact of traveling, and identity. The week included multiple walking tours from London Walks, a day trip to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Bath, and forays into the National Gallery, British Museum, Tate Modern, and Cabinet War Rooms among other activities. Find out what some of the travelers learned along the way.

By India “Ingrid” Alexander ’19 | FOCUS Community Leader | Ignite Peer Mentor |Performance Studies Major | College of Liberal Arts

As someone who had never traveled farther than central Texas, I was extremely nervous to be leaving Texas, my family and other friends while going overseas. The farthest I’d ever gone was Galveston before London, so imagine my surprise when I found out I was one of the few applicants who was able to go to London. This post will be my experience mixed intermittently with the opinions and experiences of the other Aggies who traveled with me.

Day 1: March 9th

Looming travel bans and airline strikes accelerated our departure time from campus. We gathered at 8 am to board our bus to Houston to catch our flight that afternoon.


LAUNCH London Travelers Spring Break 2017 at departure


Tracks at Gloucester Road, our home station.

Day 2: March 10th


Sandra Bernal ’17 (one of the trip leaders as well as a Community Leader for Focus) had taken a picture of our first (and arguably hardest) first encounters: The tubes.

“I learned that conquering the simplest things can be the most difficult.”

Jasmine Arambula ’18, my roommate during the trip had an amazing picture to iterate what she experienced on our second day of the trip, she said:

 “On March 10th, we went to Piccadilly Circus and walked around the area. I took this picture outside of a bookstore. It was the first United States related thing I had seen since traveling to London. I was shocked and taken aback when I saw the display because it made me realize just how other countries and its people view us. This experience was the beginning of when my view as a U.S. traveler began to change. In order to fully take in the culture of another country, I had to completely understand that the United States is not the “perfect country” that we make it out to be. Every country has its flaws and we can all learn from one another when it comes down to policy, politics, society, and so forth. This helped me broaden my view as a world traveler, and it helped me remain open minded throughout the trip and onward.”

Day 3: March 11th

Quan Huynh ’18, who tends be a man of a few words gave me two pictures to describe his day:

“A simple building on the side of a street can be the next Hogwarts in somebody’s outgoing novel.”


Our Aggies found a big “Gig’Em” on the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Day 4: March 12th

Hayley Henry ’19, a past mentee, had her picture taken at the National Gallery (which was amazingly beautiful) and had this to say about this day of our trip,

 “The day we visited the British I gained a better sense of culture. There were so many artifacts from all over the world that were fascinating. That day I also visited Camden Market and discovered so many stores and food. I tried Dutch pancakes for the first time and it honestly changed by life. (This picture is from the National Gallery because I didn’t take a picture at the British Museum.)”

Day 5: March 13th

I didn’t have anyone offer up anything for this day, so this entry will be from yours truly. We went to Windsor Castle along with Stongehenge and the lovely city of Bath. As a clasical studies minor with a concentration in Roman studies,

The Roman Baths at Bath.

Bath was my favorite part. The beautiful architecture is so iconic of the Roman’s handiwork as engineers and also of how far their exploits really took them. My picture is the image of a well preserved Roman bathhouse. They believed that with the help of Sulis-Minerva the water of the bath house would cure all ailments.

Day 6: March 14th

Arianna Izaguirre ’19, one of the past mentees in our Learning community gave us this really beautiful insight on how she saw the nightlife in a different country.

“The London night atmosphere, like any place, is a different experience. There’s a different ambiance in the air in which one can detect excitement, laughter and a little bit of danger. No one is going to work. There’s no rush. People are heading off to dinner with friends and family, off to pubs for a few drinks, and then there’s me, an excited tourist soaking up as much of London as I can.

I quickly learned through my night experience of London that going out of my comfort zone is the way to grow. I was skeptical the entire time exploring a new place at night. I felt like I was going to be mugged, but I couldn’t let that fear and the want of being safe in my hotel keep me from experiencing the world. It’s okay to feel a little suspense every now and then and it’s okay to be afraid, but never let that hinder your sense of adventure. The Buckingham Palace had a whole different experience during the day and I’m glad I went. “


Everyone’s Here – Student Trip Leaders before departure: Wyatt Trinidad ’17, Hailey Duncan ’17, Sandra Bernal ’17, and Valerie Ortega ’18.

Day 7: March 15th
(last day in London)

The last day of the trip was extremely crazy (a few of us were late waking up) and my picture is not from the last day, but it is a reflection of how blessed I was to have been able to travel with such a great group of people to what felt like a whole new world.

Day 8: March 16th

Our return flight and bus back to campus consumed this entire day.

Ingrid Alexander ’19 originally published about the 2017 Spring Break International Immersion Experience for FOCUS Learning Community students on her own site at Surreal Spring Break.

A second group of 38 learning community students traveled the same week to Paris. Their stories will be shared in another post.

FOCUS Pre-Med Scholar receives Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees Outstanding Student Award

Brenda Castillo FA15

Graduating Senior and former FOCUS mentor and student Brenda Castillo ’17 received the Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees’ Outstanding Student Award. Brenda served as a mentor in the Huang Pre-Med Scholars community of FOCUS.

The Texas A&M Foundation Board of Trustees named Brenda Castillo and Joshua Sutton as recipients of its fifth Outstanding Student Award during a dinner on May 3 at the Sanders Corps of Cadets Center on the Texas A&M University campus. Both graduating seniors have excelled academically while distinguishing themselves as leaders at Texas A&M and in the community.

Former Foundation trustee Melbern Glasscock and his wife Susanne created the endowed award in 2012 to honor exceptional students at Texas A&M University. Besides succeeding academically and as leaders, these recipients have overcome significant personal or family financial challenges to attend Texas A&M. The Outstanding Student Award includes a cash prize of $2,500.

Read more about Brenda and this award

LAUNCH students reflect on their experience at SBSLC

Current University Scholar and University Honors Program Student Ecaroh Jackson ‘18 and FOCUS Learning Community participant Yurisa Garcia ’20 reflect on their attendance of the 29th Annual Southwestern Black Students Leadership Conference (SBSLC) that occurred January 19-22, 2017 held on the campus of Texas A&M University. SBSLC was formed as a yearly forum where African American students from across the country could assemble to engage in meaningful personal and professional development while addressing the problems and concerns that affected the Black community. Now in its 29th year of existence, SBSLC carries on that legacy and unites nearly 1,000 student participants, advisors, workshop presenters, nationally renowned speakers, and a variety of corporations and graduate institutions each January for three truly impactful days of conference activities.

By Ecaroh Jackson ’18 | University Scholar, University Honors Program | Interdisciplinary Studies major | College of Education and Human Development

Yurisa Garcia ‘18 | FOCUS, Regents’ Scholar | Agribusiness major |College of Agriculture and Life Sciences


I had the privilege of experiencing an empowering conference that not only affirmed my beliefs, but also challenged me to reevaluate them as well.  I attended multiple workshops, but the one that spoke to me was titled “Glass Half Full or Half Empty”.  Dr. Brittany Collins-Hampston, the speaker, discussed the term “framing” in great detail.  She provided the audience with advice on how to be a successful framer, which I found to be very helpful.  By the end of the workshop, I was able to effectively frame a topic into what I wanted to convey.  Throughout the conference we had a few keynote speakers that filled our meal breaks with knowledge.  One of these speakers was Brian Banks, a former football player that was wrongfully accused of raping one of his high school classmates.  He spent six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and almost lost his shot at playing professional football.  His speech demanded attention and understanding that hope is never gone.  Banks acknowledged his time wrongfully spent in prison, but didn’t dwell on the negatives of his life and reminded us to do the same.  The highlight of my time at the Southwestern Black Student Leadership Conference was when I got to hear the wise words of Angela Rye, an employee of CNN.  Her address contained a list of ways to start making a difference in the world – ways to step up and become a leader.  Her passion for helping others didn’t go unnoticed as I’ve officially put some of her ideas for success on my to-do list.  Overall, the conference was an excellent learning experience that I hope to partake in again next year.  The information received was priceless and it was well worth my time.


SBSLC was an amazing conference where I learned so much and had a fun time. In the beginning, I was very shy and embarrassed to get involved but others were very friendly and talkative which made it easier to mingle and participate in the workshops. Some major important concepts that I learned was the fact that we are in a world of opportunities and it is our responsibility to be prepared always for when those opportunities come upon our way. Also, how one should not be judged by what one does but how one reacts upon that situation. I grasped a lot of information from the great speakers at the conference and this really allowed me to be open minded with others. This conference not only inspired but motivated me to continue achieving my goals without quitting no matter how tough life gets. Thanks to the SBSLC conference, I am more confident and excited for the opportunities that Texas A&M University has to offer, but mostly what God has in store for me in this world. I am proud to be an Aggie that is ready to knock out any challenges that come my way. The only one stopping you is you therefore, stand up and conquer your dreams.

The University Honors Program at Texas A&M University is one of the most comprehensive of its type anywhere in the United States. Every year, Texas A&M offers more than 300 Honors classes and benefits from the participation of over 2,000 undergraduates in its programs. The University Honors Program is an ideal opportunity for motivated, curious students who are filled with Big Ideas, who long for outlets for creative expression, and who seek out intellectual challenges. The University Honors Program is a part of LAUNCH: Honors.

FOCUS (FOUNDATIONS OF CONTINUED UNDERGRADUATE SUCCESS) offers a learning community experience to first-year students who are Regents’ Scholarship recipients in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, the Department of Biology in the College of Science, and the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Students who change majors into FOCUS-related colleges, General Studies, or the College of Liberal Arts for the spring semester of the first year join FOCUS at that time. FOCUS is one of the LAUNCH: Learning Communities.

Advise Texas Extends Former FOCUS Student’s Mentoring Experience


Kassandra Pena ’15

Former Student Kassandra Peña ’15 earned her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Sociology from Texas A&M University. Kassandra shares her early doubts about her place at TAMU as a first-generation student and how mentoring led her to assist others in finding their college homes after her graduation. Formerly active in FOCUS Learning Community and as a long-term FOCUS Mentor, she currently works as a college advisor with the Advise TX College Advising Corps at Aldine High School in Houston. Advise Texas employs recent university graduates for up to two years.

By Kassandra Peña ’15 | FOCUS, FOCUS Mentor, and Regents’ Scholar | English major | College of Liberal Arts

As a freshman in college, my best friend was Doubt. I was constantly accompanied by the voice in my head that would never fail to remind me that I was crazy to think I would obtain a college degree, much less succeed in college. I came from a low-income background, and I was a first-generation college student. I had no one to rely on for advice on how to achieve academic excellence at Texas A&M. As a result, my doubt took over, and I almost failed out of college.

However, during my second semester, I was introduced to FOCUS Learning Community. Through this program I met other students with similar backgrounds as me, yet each story was unique. I met wonderful mentors who impacted my confidence and allowed me to believe in my abilities to succeed, and they inspired me to do the same for others. I realized that doubt should no longer be my friend. I wanted to be the catalyst for change in the academic stagnation my extended family had created as the norm. I wanted to change lives. As a Regents’ Scholar, I understood that out of thousands of applicants, Texas A&M chose me for this award. That fact alone was proof that there were people out there who believed in me. They believed I would be the first in my family to obtain a post-secondary education.


FOCUS Mentors from Borlaug, Gates, Lovett, and Nash Blocks welcome the Class of 2016  to the “Mellow Yellow” Foundation for their Workshop in August 2012. Back row, left to right: Phillip Dart, Block Chair Jared Hovland, Kaitlyn Simpson; 3rd row: Marissa Perez, Chelsea Beard, Program Coordinator Grace Nelson, Kassandra Pena; 2nd row: Dallas Salinas, Sabrina Hunt, Narahi Benitez, Alma Garcia; Front row: Block Chair Analicia Leiva, Bianca Mason, and Marilyn Luna.

I became a FOCUS mentor to help students who may have similarly befriended doubt realize that they have the potential to achieve what no one in their family had before: to graduate with a college degree. I met phenomenal students who had a passion to learn after overcoming adversity, and I met various other individuals who mentored along side of me with the same passion to impact their students. I mentored with the program for three years, and when I finally obtained my degree, I knew I wanted to continue impacting students to believe in their potential.

After graduating, I became a college advisor with Advise Texas, an organization through Texas A&M that helps low-income, underrepresented high school students apply for a post-secondary education. I accepted this job with the intention of changing lives. I wanted to be the rock thrown into the lake to create the ripples of change in others so that, in turn, my students would be the rock for someone else, continuing those ripples of change and hope. I became determined to change lives, but what I never expected was for each and every one of my students to change mine.


Note: Other recently graduated FOCUS students and FOCUS Mentors also work (or worked) with Advise TX for the Texas A&M University Chapter including Edwin Aguilar, Selena Chapa, Irving Valdez, Amy Robles, Kellie Alexander, Dallas Reyes, Rachel Kincade, Shelby Wallace, Lucette Martinez, Laura Hernandez, Ernesto Cuellar, Chelsea Beard, and Devonta Lee (please let us know at focus@tamu.edu if we missed listing someone affiliated with FOCUS who worked at Advise Texas after graduating).

FOCUS (FOUNDATIONS OF CONTINUED UNDERGRADUATE SUCCESS) offers a learning community experience to first-year students who are Regents’ Scholarship recipients in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, the Department of Biology in the College of Science, and the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Students who change majors into FOCUS-related colleges, General Studies, or the College of Liberal Arts for the spring semester of the first year join FOCUS at that time. FOCUS is one of the LAUNCH: Learning Communities.




LAUNCH Graduate Assistants Present at NLCC

Current FOCUS Graduate Assistant Magdalena Mendoza ’17 and Century Scholars Graduate Assistant John Fierst ’17 will complete their Master of Science degrees in Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education in the Texas A&M University College of Education and Human Development in May 2017. Both FOCUS and Century Scholars are scholarship-based learning communities within LAUNCH: Learning Communities.

The National Learning Communities Conference (NLCC) is held every year so that those who work with Learning Communities, whether they be administrators, faculty, staff or graduate students, can come together and share ideas and hardships they are facing with their programs. This year, the NLCC was hosted by Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, GA. Student Affairs Administration in Higher Education (SAAHE) students and LAUNCH: Learning Communities Graduate Assistants Maggie Mendoza ’17 and John Fierst ’17 attended and presented at this year’s conference. Here’s their take on their experience.


What made you want to present at NLCC 2016?

Maggie: The reason we decided to submit a proposal for NLCC is because we wanted to share our experience with FOCUS and provide resources to individuals who have an interest in utilizing peer mentors within their own learning communities.

John: I had yet to do a professional conference presentation during my time at Texas A&M, so it was a professional goal of mine to do that. I had presented at conferences in my previous role at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) before coming to Texas A&M and really enjoyed it. I think it’s a way to give back to the professional community as well. You never know when another professional at another institution really needed the information that you could provide to them, and in turn, I love gaining the presentation skills experience.

How long had you been preparing for the presentation?

John: We started probably about 2 months before the conference just getting a PowerPoint document created. The real work came about 3 weeks before the presentation. Maggie and I both have tight schedules so we had to work on the presentation late into the evenings.

Maggie: We initially submitted the proposal in April and we were informed that we would be presenting in July.

What was the process like?

John: The first thing to do is see what the call for proposals at the conference you want to attend looks like. This year’s National Learning Communities Conference had a call for proposals back in the spring of 2016, and the various themes they were looking for fit with what FOCUS was doing. So we came up with a topic and presentation idea and then filled in the gaps with the information that we wanted to present. When we found out we were accepted, we then had to figure out how to cover the costs of the conference and register in time as well. NLCC coordinators were always helpful, which was great! Anytime I had a question, I got a prompt response.

Had you presented at a national conference before? If no, were you nervous? If yes, do you still get nervous?

Maggie: Nope! This was my first time. I was nervous heading into the presentation but once I began to speak all feelings of nervousness went away.

John: Yes. Yes, I do! Weirdly, I get nervous early in the day, but then when it comes time for me to present, I’m usually okay. It really helps me to prepare a lot ahead of time, and that includes scoping out which room you will be in to get a feel for the size and technological set up.

Did your understanding of the potential attendees raise any levels of anxiety?

John: At the NLCC, there are a lot of faculty present, and as a student affairs professional, that can at times be intimidating. But again, preparation is key. Maggie and I did a practice run-through with LAUNCH staff beforehand, and that helped us get a sense of what questions and comments to anticipate. At the end of the presentation, you can always exchange business cards with an attendee and get back to them later if you really do not know how to respond to their question.

Maggie: Knowing that we may have faculty in the audience was a bit stress-inducing but nothing too major. We talked about the Learner-Centered framework within the classroom which I believe allowed us to have some common ground.

How do you feel the presentation went?

Maggie: Overall, I believe the presentation went well. We had several questions and several people stay after the presentation who asked additional questions.

John: I think it went great! We had 60 minutes, and planned to have about 20 minutes for questions, but we ended up having about 50 minutes of content, so our time for questions was a little short. But overall, I think our presentation was clear and professional.

Was there feedback on your presentation?

John: We did have multiple attendees come up and thank us for the presentation and even ask if we could email them later on to get more information. That kind of feedback is always appreciated, especially as young professionals. Our paper evaluations also indicated a high level of satisfaction and impact from our presentation. The few constructive comments that we did get were totally valid and could help us in our future work.

Maggie: Yes, we received several surveys from individuals who attended and they were all positive.

What were some of the takeaways from the conference?

Maggie: FOCUS is doing great! We are doing a great job utilizing peer mentors within our program and that there is always room for improvement.

John: The sessions I attended mostly focused on peer mentoring since that is the bulk of my work. Based on what other professionals in the field are doing, I came away from the conference feeling confident about the high quality of our work in LAUNCH Learning Communities, and I also got some great tips on how to engage peer educators in a first year seminar setting.

Cerci’s Journey Toward Medicine

Current FOCUS Community Leader Cerci Hammons ’18 is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences and mentors other pre-medicine freshmen in the Huang Pre-Med Scholars community. Selected competitively, the Pre-Med Scholars within FOCUS receive added programming and mentoring as FOCUS Scholars in the Aggie Doctor Initiative in the College of Medicine.  Cerci tells her story of becoming an Aggie and invites support for her next adventure as part of the A&M Germany Biosciences Semester.


Cerci Hammons ’18

By Cerci D. Hammons ’18 | FOCUS – Aggie Doctor Initiative FOCUS Scholar and FOCUS Community Leader | Biomedical Sciences major | College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

“My name is Cerci Hammons, but more importantly I am the loudest and the proudest member of the fighting Texas Aggie class of 2018! A-A-A WHOOP!” I have waited so long to find the appropriate moment to use that wildcat because I feel as though I have earned it!

Although this is the introduction that every Aggie student will use it is important to remember that not all Aggies were able to get to this point in the same way. As a child, I faced much adversity to the point where college didn’t seem as though it would be an option. My father fell very ill while I was in elementary school and my mother suffered from a very bad drug addiction that left us homeless. However, by high school I was able to find my footing despite how complicated life had become, and I decided that I wanted to become an Aggie first, and a doctor second. I became the first person in my family to go to college, and that meant a lot of pressure. As time went on the pressure seemed to subside, and I began to feel like I belonged in Aggieland. My transition from feeling like an outsider to a family member wasn’t a smooth one. FOCUS played a huge role in that transition – FOCUS was probably the most deciding factor.

Before I came to Aggieland I was told that I would be put into FOCUS as a Regents’ Scholar, and then I applied to be in a special track, Huang Pre-Med, to which I was accepted. Dr. Wimberley, Mrs. McIntosh, and Dr. McIntosh were all over the Huang Pre-Med block and I can honestly say these three people along with a few others were my guardian angels during my transition because home was hard and things were still complicated and bad. When I first came to Texas A&M I was overwhelmed, and had an immense case of culture shock because there weren’t many people that looked like me, but in the end that didn’t matter nearly as much as I thought it did. My freshman year was a tough one, I did not connect with anyone, and I did my work and kept to myself as I thought it should be. I came off as cold and confused to many people my first semester, but that might seem a worthy price because at the end of my fall semester I finished with a 4.0! Amazing, right? Not nearly as amazing as I thought it would be because I had no friends to show for the time spent on campus.

My second semester turned out ten times better than in the beginning. Dr. McIntosh and Mrs. McIntosh took a special interest in me and gave me a second chance, they brought me out of my comfort zone and I started to open up little by little. Then I made friends, and I was happy and I could honestly smile for a little while until the end of that semester during finals. The day before my first final of my second semester I found out that my father had passed away, and to no surprise that broke me. I could no longer study, nor function, I was contemplating dropping out. As you can see, I didn’t drop out because I had a very good friend who talked some sense into me, who also talked me into becoming a mentor and said it would be really good for me. I stayed and I tried my hardest and I passed everything that semester with an A or a B, and I was proud and relieved. In the end I wound up picking up an art minor to honor my father because he always taught me art and to pursue it.

Although it was a very tough summer for me, I still decided to be a FOCUS Mentor for the Huang Pre-Med community for the fall semester. I am glad that I decided to because the past year and a half have brought me nothing but joy! I can tell my story and share what it’s like. I can be a mentor, and I can share my problems, and my good times, and I can help other students stay on the right track. In two and a half years I have gone from a cold, quiet, and confused freshman, to a bubbly, talkative, silly junior who does all that she can to make college fun for everyone. I went from being that freshman scared of asking questions, to the junior that everyone asks their questions to. I am now that person who will cheer you up in a moment’s notice, and won’t ever complain when things are wrong.

I still aspire to be a doctor and I still have a long road ahead of me. However, some doors are still opening, and just recently a door opened for me to participate in a study abroad opportunity for Spring 2017. The name of the program is Germany Biosciences 2017.  This semester long study abroad is going to help me with my career plan and all of the classes will count toward my degree. The A&M Germany Biosciences Semester includes a class on the History of Human and Veterinary Medicine in Europe, Biomedical Physiology I, Pharmacology, Biomedical Explorations through Narrative, and Directed Studies in Bonn Germany with field trips in Germany and other European Union countries.

I want to pursue this study abroad because it means that I can show my nieces and nephews and my current freshmen that anything you fight for can be yours, you can do whatever you work hard for, and it is possible. I want to show others in my community that you can overcome the obstacles, you just have to believe, and it’s possible. Although the Biosciences Semester is an exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I cannot fund it on my own. I primarily support myself here in college, and it is proving to be difficult to save money and maintain what I need. This is difficult for me, but I am asking for help.  I have created a GoFund Me page to collect any donations anyone can spare and the link to my page is http://www.gofundme.com/cerci2017 and anything you can spare will help, everything adds up! I appreciate whatever you can give, it means the world to me and my family! I thank you in advance for your support.