From dropout to master’s degree: Amy Zarate-Chavez’s journey to excellence

Amy Zarate-Chavez Amy Zarate-Chavez

Originally published by UHV Marketing & Communications

From the time when she was 17 years old, Amy Zarate-Chavez of Edna spent her time working full time after going straight into the workforce.

From a high school dropout who chose to end her education journey in the 10th grade, this past May, Zarate-Chavez was one of the proud Jaguars who walked the stage to receive her master’s degree.

“I was working dead-end jobs where I wasn’t going to advance,” Zarate-Chavez said. “I didn’t have the education to do that; I didn’t have the support to do that either.”

A pivotal moment came while working at a tire shop. She was presented with the opportunity to become an acting manager. However, due to a management change, the opportunity was rescinded. After years of feeling ‘not good enough,’ ‘not accepted’ and dealing with rejections, Zarate-Chavez said she knew a cataclysmic change was needed to improve her life.

“Amy’s journey is the exemplification of determination and the transformative potential of education,” said Dr. Bob Glenn, University of Houston-Victoria President. “Her story is an inspiration to all of us and shows that with hard work, resilience and the support of a dedicated academic community, anything is possible.”

She turned to the Adult Education Program at Victoria College to lay out the foundation that would be the start of her education. After three months of revisiting the books, she received her GED, along with a level-one Business Management Certificate and dove immediately into her associate degree.

“It was the greatest achievement because at that time, when I got my GED, I was also nominated into the Adult Education National Honor Society,” Zarate-Chavez said. “I was starting to see that I do matter. I was being accepted, and doors started opening immediately.”

In the process of getting her GED, Zarate-Chavez had to balance out the responsibilities of working full time in the daytime and in the evenings would go to school where she would take advantage of the resource labs provided at Victoria College, staying as late as 9 p.m. on any given day to study.

“Once Amy faced her fear of stepping onto a college campus, she discovered a supportive community that championed her success, starting with Victoria College’s Adult Education Program,” said Victoria College President Dr. Jennifer Kent. “Each milestone she completed at Victoria College was a reason to celebrate, but her journey did not stop there. It’s always rewarding to follow our graduates’ journeys and celebrate their successes, and we look forward to seeing what doors will open for Amy as a result of her hard work and determination.”

During that time, Zarate-Chavez said she couldn’t have broken through the hardship without the support from her husband and members of her church.

“A lot of prayers was how I was able to overcome these obstacles,” Zarate-Chavez said. “A lot of prayers. All glory goes to God.”

In 2020, Zarate-Chavez received her associate degree in interdisciplinary science from Victoria College, stamping another milestone onto her academic journey. The following semester, she enrolled at UHV immediately to pursue her bachelor's degree.

Because of the Knowledge, Exploration and You Center, otherwise known as the KEY Center, over at Victoria College, Zarate-Chavez said the transfer over to UHV was seamless.

“The KEY Center really set me up for success; they talked to me about the classes, and I came over to UHV and was greeted by an ambassador and felt comfortable immediately,” Zarate-Chavez said.

However, like many other students, Zarate-Chavez had to face an unprecedented hurdle: the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had a lot of brain fog during that time because I contracted COVID-19, but what really helped me through were the UHV professors,” Zarate-Chavez said. “There wasn’t ever a problem; they were very understanding and worked with me.”

Looking back on her time at Victoria College, Zarate-Chavez said at first, she didn’t know what route of study she was going to take. Originally, she looked into pursuing the surgical technician route, but after talking with her advisors and accounting her personality and attributes, Zarate-Chavez said her plan became clear when she met James Martinez, the Law Enforcement Academy Director at Victoria College.

“When I met Mr. Martinez, I knew,” Zarate-Chavez said. “I knew I could do this, I said to myself, ‘Latinos can do this,’ and I went full steam ahead.”

In 2022, she received her bachelor's degree in criminal justice from UHV, becoming a first-generation graduate, and cementing another academic achievement under her belt.

Zarate-Chavez then entered her graduate program with assistance from the UHV Keep on Roarin’ program, a program which grants automatic admission into a select number of master’s programs at the university.

The first semester of undertaking her master’s program, Zarate-Chavez had to undergo major surgery, which put some complications on her part to be able to study, she said. During that time as well, she was working a demanding full-time job which included nights and weekends. That put a strain on her ability to balance school and family. She credits Sara Zedaker, UHV Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, for giving her the constant support which ultimately led her to graduate with her Master of Arts in criminal justice this past May.

“Victoria College and UHV together are a powerhouse,” Zarate-Chavez said. “If you apply yourself and take advantage of the resources, you can become a powerhouse with both of them together.”

This past May, she also shared in two other milestones: her two daughters graduated from high school and plan to follow in her footsteps and go to Victoria College before transferring over to UHV, she said.

“I still can’t believe it; I still can’t believe that I was able to make it,” Zarate-Chavez said. “But I was able to do it. I did it for my granddaughter, I did it for my children, I did it for my husband, but I also did it for myself.”