Dr. Ana Valdez said going for higher education is costly, time consuming, but yet very rewarding. And Jose Sustaita is preparing to begin the work to earn his doctorate in education at Rockhurst University this fall. He feels blessed to be able to afford the cost of attaining his PhD.



Going the distance







Her mother believed in her. And with that help, Ana began to believe in herself. She applied for the Hispanic Development Fund scholarship, thanks to help from one of her friends. That scholarship helped her with expenses such as tuition at Rockhurst University, where she would earn her bachelor’s degree, followed by her master’s degree from Avila University – and ultimately, her doctoral degree in educational leadership from St. Louis University.





As a youngster, Jose Sustaita’s father would gather his children
and show them his hands, roughened from a lifetime of manual labor, and say to them, “If you don’t want your hands to look like mine, you need to learn how to use your brain.” It was sound advice coming from a man who only had a third- grade education.





“I worked in the construction industry, but the reality is that
in order to be a part
of the conversation (to enact change in the workplace), you have to be at the table.
And in order to be at the table, if you have some education, you’re actually being listened to,” said Jose Sustaita.



BY JOE ARCE AND COREY CRABLE
A 2021 analysis from the University of California, Los Angeles shows that more Latinas than ever are pursuing higher-education degrees.

According to a March 1, NBC News report, the number of Latinas pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher soared from 1 million in 2000 to 3.5 million in 2021. The analysis also found that between those same years, the percentage of degree-holding Latinas in the U.S. quadrupled from 5% to 20%. Latinos overall, both women and men, have seen the fastest rate of growth of higher-education degree attainment than any other racial or ethnic group.

Meet two local scholars who not only met but exceeded their dreams by earning advanced degrees.

Dr. Ana Valdez

Years before Ana Valdez attained many of her goals in life – a job, community involvement, and children, to name a few, Ana Valdez added another goal to the growing list – going to college.

Her high school guidance counselor, Mr. Blackwell, told her it wasn’t just possible he felt certain that with a little help, she would do it.

“He was a champion to me he saw potential,” Valdez recalls. “He took it upon himself to help me do the things I needed to do that my family had no idea how to help me. That was college applications, it was FAFSA, it was college campus visits. I had no exposure experience prior to him stepping in and helping my mom and I achieve those things because she had not gone to college.”

Mr. Blackwell believed in young Ana. Her mother believed in her. And, with that help, Ana began to believe in herself.

She applied for the Hispanic Development Fund scholarship, thanks to help from one of her friends. That scholarship helped her with expenses such as tuition at Rockhurst University, where she would earn her bachelor’s degree, followed by her master’s degree from Avila University – and ultimately, her doctoral degree in educational leadership from St. Louis University.

“This was the time when education, the educational world was changing in the late ‘90s and charter schools were starting to evolve,” Valdez says. “And so I felt that was something that I wanted to be a part of and went back simultaneously obtaining my MBA, also going back and working on my master’s in education from K-State.”

Adds Valdez, laughing, “I was taking classes at both institutions at the same time. So I’m definitely a glutton for punishment.”

By now, Valdez was familiar with how much determination, focus and energy are required of someone juggling education with a variety of other commitments.

“Everything can pile up on you at the same time. And no one I have encountered,” she says, “regardless of race or ethnicity, religion or age, has ever come to me and said, ‘Oh, this is the easiest thing I’ve ever done.’ Pursuing an education is not only a dream, but it definitely takes focus and it is like a job,’ she says.

Whether as a student, an instructor or an administrator, anytime a person of color sees someone who looks like them, it can inspire them to greater heights, Valdez says.

“I had some fortunate opportunity that there were nuns that were my educators who were Hispanic but not all throughout my entire educational background or career, and the higher up I went the less likely that I was going to see a person of color in my classroom,” Valdez explains. “And even though we’re seeing more and more people of Hispanic heritage going on to receive degrees in higher education, that does not correlate that they’re going to be teachers in the classroom or administrators in the school building. (But) it encourages other Latinos, Latinas, African-Americans. Anytime a young person can see somebody who looks like them in the classroom, teaching them, it lifts them up, regardless of their ethnic background.”

Now that she has her PhD and instructs others, Valdez hopes she can serve as that Latina who inspires others and shows them that they, too, can pursue their dream of higher education.

“I try to champion for every student in my classroom to understand that they can do more and be more just simply because they have the desire or passion to be that,” she says, “whatever that is in their dream.”

Jose Sustaita, MBA

As a youngster, Jose Sustaita’s father would gather his children and show them his hands, roughened from a lifetime of manual labor, and say to them, “If you don’t want your hands to look like mine, you need to learn how to use your brain.”

It was sound advice coming from a man who only had a third-grade education, and they were words Sustaita would take with him as he entered adulthood. According to the NBC report, more are following his lead. Sustaita said he is heartened by the news that more Latinos are going to school to earn advanced degree, and that his decision to join them has always been a personal goal.

Now, as he prepares to begin the work to earn his doctorate in education at Rockhurst University this fall, Sustaita says his education has given him a well-respected voice as a leader in his field.

“As a union electrician (with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers – IBEW Local 124), I am also a laborer because I work with my hands,” he says. “I worked in the construction industry, but the reality is that in order to be a part of the conversation (to enact change in the workplace), you have to be at the table. And in order to be at the table, if you have some education, you’re actually being listened to.”

The diplomas and plaques that line the wall of his office tell the story of Sustaita’s pursuit of higher education. Among them – his associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College, his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and his master’s in business administration, also from UMKC.

“And I have a huge gap to fill.” Sustaita says, “and so right now I have a poster of the Beatles right there. But that’s going to move.”

Sustaita says his enthusiasm for education is already rubbing off on at least one colleague who is in a band, Trio Aztlan, in Kansas City.

“We have a member, David Cunningham, he just finished his masters through MU and he mentioned that he was looking into (doctoral) programs as well,” he explained. “And so I just reached out to him the other day and asked him, ‘What are you waiting for? Why don’t you just go ahead and get in this program. We can both graduate with our doctors together.”

Like Valdez, Sustaita credits mentors like teachers, professors, and co-workers for helping to inspire his career and educational journey throughout the years – even during those years when there wasn’t any work.

“At times when I would be unemployed, Dr. Uzziel Pecina would make the statement, ‘Well, if you continue education, you would have the opportunities to work in other fields,’” Sustaita recalls. “Well, I don’t want to change my field of profession. I am a union electrician and always will be, but that was a motivation. Because it was one step at a time. Luis Portillo had a bachelor’s degree and so those were two guys I look up to.”

Sustaita credits his experience and education for being named a business representative with his union (there are only nine of them). As part of his duties, he oversees classifications to guide would-be electricians into apprenticeship programs or other related pathways that might be ideal for them. It’s also his job to listen to the concerns of others about the job and try to get them addressed.

“At times I feel like a high school counselor because a lot of times people just need to vent, and my job is to listen. I’m like a ferryman,” Sustaita explains. “I take them from port to port as they complete each section and I guide them through so they can move along and advance. … I think that goes a long way, that your experiences in life and also our experiences in the industry. And I share with them (members) my journey with furthering my education.”

Sustaita says he wants to see more Latinos in positions of authority just like him, and that getting a quality college education will inevitably help them attain that goal.

“It isn’t very often that you would see someone of color, especially Latinos, being in the upper-tier levels. And that’s an issue. That’s a problem,” Sustaita says. “And that’s one of the things that we also fight for here. And that’s why I’m part of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and serving as the current president -- to help foster leadership for our minorities … because many times you don’t see Latinos as foreman or general foreman or superintendents, project managers, estimators. You always see the same faces. And so I think (higher education) is great, and in whatever field you are trying to get into. Just go for it.”