Perseverance embodied: From remedial math to doctoral student in applied mathematics

By the time Angel Castillo was in eighth grade, he knew education was the key to his future and the way out of his circumstances. But Angel wasn’t always so sure of his path in life.

 Angel Castillo and friends

Now a doctoral student in applied mathematics at Tufts University, Angel became a ward of the state when he was 11. His parents had been incarcerated for drug use and violations, and his aunt stepped in and became his legal guardian.

Angel was given a small space – defined by  a 4-foot by 6-foot mat on the floor – in his aunt’s mobile home, which often had no electricity or running water. At the time, several of his cousins, who also lived there, had traded their school careers for gang membership or other pursuits.

“I was a real troublemaker in seventh grade,” Angel said. “I was failing math, and I didn’t pay attention or do my homework. But somehow my teachers at the time saw something in me – an aptitude. They began to work with me and gave me a chance.”

One of those teachers was Coach Bertha Chavana at Harwell Middle School. She met Angel in a math enrichment group designed for students who struggled in math. But when Bertha asked a question, Angel always seemed to know the answer. In fact, he barely let any of the other students reply. Feeling a bit puzzled, she told the principal and fellow teacher Yvonne Johnson that Angel didn’t belong in her class.

“Angel was walking down the hall one day, and I stopped him,” Bertha said. “I told him, ‘You’re pretty smart. I talked to the principal and Ms. Johnson about you, and I told them you don’t belong in our math class, you belong in a gifted and talented program.’ Well, Angel was really upset at first I’d been talking about him, and he kind of blew me off.”

Before she knew it, Angel was blossoming.

The definition of perseverance

Despite his home life, Angel was in school every day, ready to learn, said Yvonne, his physical education teacher in middle school.

Angel Castillo and family“Angel never missed a day of school,” she said. “He was very introverted at first, but we found out he loved playing soccer, so we got him involved on the team. By eighth grade, Angel was passing classes. By the time he was in ninth grade, Angel was in the top 10 percent of his class. His GPA was more than 100 when he graduated, earning him a full ride to Texas A&M University.”

Yvonne observed Angel’s transformation and eventually became one of his most influential teachers. By the time Angel was in high school at Edinburgh High in Edinburgh, Tex., Yvonne had become the GEAR UP program teacher there,  guiding and assisting students in math and science programs and helping them plan for future education.

GEAR UP is short for “gaining early awareness and readiness for undergraduate programs.” It’s a discretionary grant program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. GEAR UP provides grants to states, as well as partnerships to provide services at high-poverty middle schools and high schools. TI works with school districts across the country that receive the national GEAR UP grants to help provide a good foundation in STEM, providing hands-on technology such as calculators, development boards and software, as well as professional development, lesson plans and curriculum.

Angel took on leadership positions within GEAR UP and was selected as student ambassador for the Rio Grande Valley at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) in 2009.

“Angel spoke about success at the GEAR UP convention,” Yvonne said. “He said he kept hearing about success, but he’d never experienced it in his life and around his family. Once he determined exactly what it meant, he knew that’s what he wanted to be.

“Angel embodies perseverance,” Yvonne said. “Many kids teach you more than you teach them. In fact, Angel was instrumental in changing a lot of things I believed about education, and I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I like to remind students in tough circumstances that their situations could always be worse. There really are no excuses.”

Angel Castillo and classmatesToday, Angel charts his own course. Analytical research is ‘his thing,’ he says. He loves to dig deeply into problems, pour his heart and soul into his work and collaborate with team members at Texas A&M University, where he completed his undergraduate degree. Now a doctoral student at Tufts University, Angel is working on his Ph.D. in applied mathematics.

Find your anchor

Looking back on his struggles, Angel says the most important thing he did was to talk to people. A little bit of encouragement and inspiration can go a long way.

“Having conversations with other students, but especially key teachers is really important,” he said. “There is always someone who believes in you, even if it doesn’t seem like it. They held me accountable and believed in me – it gave me the responsibility to do well. They believed in me and invested so much time and energy into me. I didn’t want to disappoint them. Without this, I would not have had an anchor.”

Angel’s parting piece of advice for those facing difficult times is powerful in its simplicity:

“Oh, and never give up.”