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ASU graduate joins Teach For America to give back

June 10, 2013

Biological sciences major Matt Estrada found his high school science education lacking when he first came to Arizona State University and discovered that some of his classmates had studied anatomy before. Flash forward four years and the 2013 ASU graduate and new Teach For America corps member hopes to motivate students coming from a disadvantaged background like his to pursue a college degree despite the odds.

“It was definitely eye-opening,” said Estrada, the first college graduate from his family. “I didn’t really see that disparity until I got to ASU and talked to everyone else and saw how different their experience was from mine, just due to the fact of where my high school was.”

Before stepping into his classroom this fall, Estrada is training at TFA’s Phoenix summer institute with approximately 700 other corps members from eight regions through July 6. The Phoenix institute is one of 11 such intensive teacher training institutes being conducted nationwide this summer. Based on ASU’s Tempe campus, Estrada said attending the institute feels very much like home before he heads to O'Callaghan Middle School in Las Vegas, Nev.

Recently, he appeared on the weekly public affairs program, “Horizonte,” on Eight, Arizona PBS to discuss ASU’s distinction of having more Latino students applying to TFA than any other university in the nation. Nikki Gusz, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College special assistant to the dean, joined him for the interview. A video of the program is available at

Estrada’s family moved from Sacramento, Calif. to Arizona during his high school sophomore year. He enrolled in Trevor G. Browne High School in northwest Phoenix. Although the school had no course in anatomy, it did offer two AP classes, and Estrada said it was that AP biology class his senior year that sparked his interest in pediatric medicine and his dream of an ASU education.

”My AP biology class helped me make an educated guess about what I wanted to do,” Estrada said. “Also, being able to excel in AP-level coursework gave me the confidence I needed to come to ASU and declare my major as pre-health right away. I joined a pre-health cluster and got to work with my advisor immediately. So I really had all the tools to plan everything out ahead of time and know what I was getting into.”

Also motivating Estrada to strive to earn his college degree was having his older brother drop out of high school prior to graduation.

“It’s one of those things that really sink in,” Estrada explained. “Once you begin your higher education career, you suddenly realize all the opportunities that open up. It’s been great being a first-generation college graduate and hearing my younger cousins say, ‘I want to go to college, too.’ I didn’t have anyone I could look up to and say, ‘I want to do what you did.’”

From the start, Estrada embraced his studies and campus life and became active in several organizations. As a sophomore, he served on the executive board of the Student Alumni Association. By his senior year, he had become executive director of the Residence Hall Association and vice president of Well Devil Council, and he served on the board of governors for the Sun Devil Fitness Complex. He also volunteered at a children’s hospital and was a tutor, then a success coach for other ASU students.

“I remember coming to campus as a freshman and saying, ‘I’m going to get involved in something,’” Estrada recalls, “and at first I didn’t know what it was. But my student organization activities helped me to develop the skills I needed to get any type of real-world experience after graduation.”

Estrada said when he first started tutoring ASU students, he saw it as a way to help him retain and master what he learned in his entry-level courses in preparation for taking his MCAT Exam for admission to medical school. But his tutoring experience soon turned into something more.

“When I first got into it, the mentality behind it was very much me, me, me,” he recalled. “Then I’d get people coming back to be tutored for a different course and we started to build those connections. I remember how some of my students would come back to let me know how they did on their test scores or how they were doing in other classes.

“When I transitioned over to being a success coach, I worked with mostly first-generation students who really didn’t have a support system. I was able to give them the support that I didn’t necessarily have from my family. That was really meaningful and powerful for me.”

During the two years Estrada works as a TFA corps member in Las Vegas, he also plans to pursue his master’s degree in education at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas. Additionally, he wants to stay in Nevada a third year in order to receive his state teacher certification. As he did at ASU, Estrada continues to take advantage of opportunities and weigh his options.

“Right now, I’m torn between, do I go into a health care profession where I can work with young kids, or stay in something related to education or leadership development where I can work with older children? That’s why Teach For America was something I really fell in love with. Its values aligned with what I was looking for.”