St. Mary's University

Twenty Years of PREP Work

For more than 14 years, San Antonio teacher Marisa Medellin (B.A. ’00) has spent her summers teaching technical writing to promising middle and high school students. But for Medellin, it’s not just about giving these kids a leg up in math and science. It’s about giving them the same chance she was given 20 years ago.

PREP students show off their bridge project

Medellin is one of the many educators who spend their summers teaching students enrolled in the San Antonio Prefreshman Engineering Program (PREP) held each summer on the St. Mary’s campus. Her introduction to the program came 20 years ago when she was a member of the first PREP class at St. Mary’s.

“Then, there were just 60 of us enrolled—now there are almost 300,” said Medellin, a teacher at Premier High School. But she does not think of her summers in a PREP classroom as a sacrifice. “It means I get to give back what was given to me. Someone else was willing to be selfless in trying to teach me how to be successful,” Medellin said. “Every summer, it is not a question of whether I will do it. It is just something that I do. Plus, you see the students’ sacrifices, too—to come here, study and work hard.”

PREP is a three-year mathematics-based summer program that targets minority and female middle school and high school students. Historically, these demographics are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career fields.

The “egg walk” contest

The program builds an academic foundation leading to enrollment in Advanced Placement or honors classes so that the students can excel in high school and prepare for college. PREP is now a national program, but it started 30 years ago at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In 1992, St. Mary’s began hosting the third-year San Antonio students.

Rafael Moras, Ph.D., professor of engineering and director of the St. Mary’s PREP program, has been leading the program since it started here. Moras noted that hosting the program’s third year, which is more competitive and includes the best students, is a benefit to the students and to St. Mary’s. He estimates that as many as 12 percent of the PREP students end up enrolling in St. Mary’s. While they are in PREP, the students take classes like geometry, trigonometry, statistics and technical writing, and learn from daily speakers who tell them about the career possibilities in the STEM fields. They learn to be both competitive and collaborative as they work in teams and compete against each other.

“What this does is give them additional math and science that they wouldn’t get in school for four years. We give them an edge,” Moras said. “And if they don’t end up going into STEM fields? Well, then, what’s wrong with taking a little extra math?”

One of the most challenging parts of the program isn’t the math or science itself. It’s the writing. Each student must produce a technical writing term paper, collecting the statistics and then reporting them. Moras noted that it is not enough to just know math and science—they also have to communicate effectively.

The “penny boat” competition

“It is so important for them to be able to write and present their ideas,” he added.

Angelica Lopez’s first experience at St. Mary’s was as a middle school PREP student. She went on to become the salutatorian of Somerset High School’s 2005 class.

“PREP was definitely an introduction to what was possible for me,” Lopez said. She applied to Rice University, Trinity University and St. Mary’s, and had her pick of the three.

“But I knew St. Mary’s was right—a friendly campus and tough courses. I worked with Dr. Moras to map out what my education plan would be.”

Lopez graduated from St. Mary’s in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, and completed a master’s degree this year in engineering systems management. She has spent this summer interviewing for jobs, and, of course, working with the PREP program as Moras’ office manager. Like so many other PREP graduates, Lopez felt compelled to give back to the program that gave her so much, and her own experiences with PREP help her do that.

“I just spoke to a parent who was asking questions about how her child was doing and how to handle the challenges of PREP. I told her to encourage her child to come speak to me – I have been there,” she said.