LU sophomore encourages next generation of thinkers in Cardinal NEST

Lamar University sophomore Valeria Ayala sees herself in the kids she mentors as a student ambassador at Fletcher Elementary’s Cardinal NEST.

Fletcher Elementary was the latest institution to partner with LU to establish a NEST — Navigating Excellence, Success and Triumph — on Jan. 20 to encourage young students to enter STEM fields.

“My job is basically to just go there and help out in the labs and just try to entice (the students to learn),” said Ayala, who is studying forensic chemistry — an interest that was sparked by true crime investigations and methods of solving crimes. valeria-ayala.jpg

More than a teacher or a student ambassador, Ayala sees herself as a role model above all else, especially as she is Hispanic herself and a former student of Fletcher Elementary, a predominately Hispanic school.

“The bigger role is just to be there as a sort of role model because it’s a predominantly Hispanic school and since I’m Hispanic, it’s like they see a sort of role model and someone to look up to like, ‘Hey, she’s in college. She looks like me. She speaks Spanish. I can go to college,’” Ayala said. “So, it’s just like it’s something greater than the office, greater than Lamar University that we’re doing in Fletcher.”

The Fletcher Elementary Cardinal NEST is particularly special to Ayala because of her own education.

“Going back to Fletcher Elementary has been crazy, but also really nice because I see how it’s changed throughout the years and how it’s changing for the better,” Ayala said. “Kids can learn early on in life about STEM subjects and art and stuff like that. A lot of us say that we wish we would have had a NEST when we were younger so we could, from an early age, just learn about these really cool things like technology. I’m just really happy even though we didn’t get that as students.”

Ayala said she first became involved after becoming a student director with the Office of Community Relations as a part of the Nancy Evans Memorial Scholarship, which offers full scholarships, including four years of tuition, fees, room, board and a book stipend to two deserving graduating high school seniors within Beaumont Independent School District.

“I decided to come to Lamar University because I was offered a really grand scholarship,” Ayala said. “I also didn’t think I was ready to be on my own yet and I’m very close to my mom. So, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just stay at LU for right now because I’m terrified of the real world.’”

Life is a delicate balance for Ayala, who says she’s becoming accustomed to the change of pace in her experiences at LU.

“It’s been pretty insane, but not in a bad way. It’s just so different from high school and it’s just like a different change of pace,” she said. “And I’m supposed to be on top of everything because no one’s going to tell me what to do. So, it’s just like I’ve been maturing a lot these past two years and it’s been a whole lot, but it’s shaped me into the person I am and I will be.”

Because she is a student director, Ayala has become involved in the Cardinal SOAR program, or Students Occupationally and Academically Ready, which is a student commission for student access to higher education. SOAR services the Office of Community Relations, Economic Development and Student Access through service-learning opportunities on Cardinal NEST campus, in small group guidance sessions with BISD students in their NEST and at community engagement events.

“We try to help elementary students reach their highest potential in reading, math and stuff like that,” she said. “For example, last year, we had a virtual session with them, trying to help them improve their reading and their math skills.”

Ayala encourages other students to become involved in activities and roles such as Cardinal NEST student ambassador.

“It will be hard. Everything in life is hard, but it’s something new to experience and it’s just something you will learn a lot from,” she said. “And I feel like that’s what life is about — having new experiences and learning new things. So, it will be difficult, but at the end, I feel like achieving something greater than you is beyond anything else.”