UTSA’s first student regent

BySilvia Foster-Frau
KIPP alum Jaciel Castro kneeling and offering snacks to a small child

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Growing up in poverty, living with 43 other kids in an orphanage run by his family, coming to the United States undocumented, struggling to learn English in America — some come of age with some of these challenges. Jaciel Castro faced all of them.

It was from that background, and with mixed feelings of “anger and opportunity,” that the University of Texas at San Antonio graduate student applied to serve on the UT System’s Board of Regents. In June, he became the 11th student regent — and the first from UTSA — to be appointed to the board.

“I don’t think they were happy with how strong I was,” Castro, 30, said of the interviews that led to his appointment. “But it’s just that nobody needed to explain to me our challenges — I know them. I lived them.”

Bureaucratic hangups in planning his master’s program at UTSA sparked his desire to apply — that, and the university’s 18 percent four-year graduation rate at the time (now it’s at 22 percent) weighed on his mind.

After he added his application to 16 others, Castro and one other student were picked by UT System Chancellor William McRaven as finalists. McRaven interviewed both and sent them to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office for a final interview.

In March, Castro received the call letting him know he was selected to be a student regent: a nonvoting, yearlong position in the governing body that oversees the UT System.

“Ecstatic,” was how he felt, he said, adding, “How many first generation kids from the slums get to sit at a table with billionaires every month?”

Castro is not just a first generation college student. He is a certified Engineer in Training, or EIT, on the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. He has two bachelor’s degrees — one in structural engineering from the University of Houston and another in organizational development from Texas A&M University.

He started his own dance company in Houston — it has since closed — and is working toward a masters degree in finance at UTSA with a concentration in real estate finance and development. Next fall Castro will begin pursuing another masters in urban and regional planning.

Along the way, he married his wife, Amanda, in April 2013, the same month he moved to San Antonio. Their second child, a daughter, arrived weeks ago.

The marriage allowed Castro to become a permanent legal resident in 2015 after two years in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which gives temporary protection to residents like himself who entered the United States illegally as children. If Castro becomes a U.S. citizen, he’ll be able to clear up his parents’ immigration status as well.

The regent job is nonpaying, but it allows him to represent every student in the UT System, bring up new topics and offer opinions on how its 14 universities and health institutions should be run. Castro reads copiously — sometimes 1,000 pages a month, he said — to prepare for the meetings, and regularly weighs in on controversial subjects.

“Regent Castro has a very inspiring personal journey,” said Francie Frederick, the board’s general counsel, in a statement provided by the UT System. “And his life experience is shared by many other students who work to effectively balance study, employment, and family.”

Castro is performing a public service by bringing to the board “his interest in and insights about higher education,” Frederick added. “His hard work, intense preparation for meetings, and opinions are valued and respected by others on the Board of Regents. Other Student Regents have had personal and academic milestones during their Board service, but Regent Castro is the first to welcome a new baby during his term.”

Castro said he had his reservations about joining the board and was “actually very worried” when he took his seat on June 1.

“I (used to be) undocumented, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to represent my community well, that I wouldn’t be able to speak out with confidence for DACA students in the pipeline,” Castro said.

He said he was “concerned about my responsibility, for my ability within a year to actually push initiatives,” and he had to deal with the lingering “fears of exposing people you love,” referring to his parents, who are both still undocumented.

Castro has lived with those fears a long time. His family moved from Morelia, Mexico to Houston without legal papers in 1998 when he was 10. In school, he struggled to learn English and keep up with his peers. By eighth grade, he still tested at a fifth-grade level.

A mentor at his KIPP charter school campus helped him through high school and into the University of Houston. There, he joined a ballet club, where he discovered a passion for the arts. But he still had difficulties academically, flunked some classes and soon dropped out.

Wracked with guilt, he didn’t tell his parents.

“My mom always said the things that will change (kids’) lives around is the relationships they build around their life and the education they get. ‘No matter what happens in your life, you have to get an education. I don’t care what you do or how long it takes you.’”

Those words weighed on him for the six months he was out of school. He started a contracting business for engineering firms — the best work he could find considering he was undocumented and could not get an internship or steady job — and re-enrolled at UH.

“I needed to create my future,” he said.

Now, he’s on a mission to open people’s minds to his community and others who have had obstacles in their paths. He’s an administrator at KIPP’s San Antonio network, doing community outreach. He’s involved with UTSA’s folkloric dance group, and he wants to start a nonprofit to help low-income and underprivileged students become industry leaders.

He wants to break down the barriers that separate people, by bringing them art and music and also, just by listening.

“Now, there’s many things I could give — I could tutor, give money to charities. But if you ask, ‘How do you receive? How do people love you?’ That list gets small,” he said. “That, to me, is the most valuable to giving back — to receive from others their love and care. To listen to them and hear their voices.”