Wagner, IDEA Create Opportunities for Students

by Richard Paige

May 14, 2014

The bus was supposed to take I-57 in Memphis. Instead, it stayed on I-55 toward St. Louis. All it took was that one missed turn and the memories came flooding back for David Wagner ’05.

Memories of high school in Belleville, Ill., and his time at Wabash. All those trips back and forth.

“I was getting antsy coming up here,” Wagner recalled Tuesday afternoon as he took a break from shepherding a group of high school juniors around the Wabash campus. “Driving through there, I really started to get nostalgic of everything I was seeing. It was weird being back and thinking back to all the times I’ve had in Belleville and here. It makes you appreciate what others have sacrificed for you and makes me want to give back more.”

Wagner is giving back now. He’s Principal-In-Residence at IDEA College Preparatory School in Donna, Texas, and that busload of high school juniors he was leading is on tour of the Midwest to explore options for college. In addition to Wabash, the itinerary included schools like the University of Chicago, Wheaton, Maryville University, and Saint Louis University.

Sid Vargas '14, Carlos De La Cerda '15 and David Wagner '05.Located in the Rio Grande Valley, a part of Southern Texas that sees a high school graduation rate of approximately 50 percent, the IDEA campus is certainly an outlier. Although 78 percent of the students enrolled at IDEA have parents who did not attend college, this K-12 school of 1,400 students, 99% of whom are Hispanic/Latino, boasts a college-going culture that anyone would envy.

IDEA is working. The school was just rated fifth in the state of Texas and 30th nationally by U.S. News & World Reports.  More importantly, every one of IDEA’s graduates since 2007 have gone on to college.

Wagner feels that success is rooted in the expectation that college is a realistic expectation and that individuals have the power to make that choice. This trip is an opportunity to broaden their horizons.

“We want to open opportunities up to everybody,” said Wagner, a 2012 Alumni Admissions Fellow. “It’s been a goal from the beginning to put these students in a position where they can make their own choice of where to go to college. This trip is a great opportunity for kids to branch out of the Valley and gain their own independence. It’s important to establish their own identity.”

Look no further than the Wabash student body for proof of that, as there is at least one IDEA alum in each class. One of those students is Isidro “Sid” Vargas ’14, a native of Alamo, Texas, who took the chance to branch out of the Valley four years ago and will graduate Sunday.

“I just wanted to be focused on my studies,” Vargas said of his decision to attend Wabash. “I wasn’t thinking of leaving Texas, but it was time to take a new step in my life, and I was going to get a good education.”

For Wagner, it was a pair of experiences abroad that placed him outside of his comfort zone that gave him the confidence to succeed in unfamiliar territory. He studied in Greece as a rising junior and in Ecuador as a rising senior. That boost in confidence propelled him to a Teach For America assignment in the Rio Grande Valley following graduation, a place he’s been ever since.

“Wabash prepared me for this,” Wagner explained. “The summers abroad opened my eyes to what was possible. That gave me the confidence to go to the RGV and stay in the RGV. I knew I could go to a whole new environment and feel comfortable.”

Carlos De La Cerda ’15 says that Wagner was influential to opening his eyes to possibilities of Wabash and for his future.

“That’s one reason I chose this place, there is more than a so-called college experience,” said the psychology major from Edcouch, Texas. “There is a benefit to what happens after. I knew from the clues that he gave me that it was going to be interesting and worthwhile and character building. I am convinced that this place will provide me with the tools to go out and make an impact.”

The IDEA model builds on the idea of malleable intelligence, where you can achieve anything from hard work, dedication and being diligent with your studies.

“That’s the culture we’ve set in the high and middle schools,” said Wagner. “We want the college-going atmosphere. We’re working on the through-college aspect. Finishing matters. Really, it’s students, parents, and the school working together.”

It certainly matters to Vargas, who hopes to return to IDEA and teach biology in the fall.

“I feel accomplished,” Vargas said. “I’m proud of myself. This is the next chapter in my life and I’m excited to see what comes next. I know that I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

That confidence has helped Wagner’s students teach him a valuable lesson.

“They’ve taught me that it doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said.” What matters is building the relationships around you and really pushing for the change you want to see.”


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