How a chance encounter on a plane put a Frisco mom on the right track to graduating from college

Erica Flores, 40, hated when people asked her where she went to college.

Growing up in South Irving, Flores and her peers didn’t talk much about college. Many of them have finished high school and entered the labor market directly. That’s what Flores did, in addition to becoming a young mother.

And although she went on to pursue a successful career in economic development, she was still nagged when someone new asked her, “Where did you go to college?” »

That all changed in 2015 when she rushed on a southwestern flight to Austin and sat next to a man dressed in a ‘sweater vest and newsboy hat’ .

The man was Kent Hance, chancellor emeritus of Texas Tech University who never misses an opportunity to recruit.

This month, Flores is — finally — earning her bachelor’s degree in general studies with a concentration in the humanities, psychology and sociology.

She sometimes thought she wouldn’t make it to graduation. It took her six years to complete her online program while raising three children as a single mother, working full time, caring for her sick mother and navigating the upheavals of the pandemic in recent years.

But now she can finally answer the question with, “I went to Texas Tech.”

Flores never took the SAT until she graduated from Irving’s Nimitz High School in 2000. Most of the students she knew weren’t encouraged to pursue an education after high school, she said. At that time, Nimitz mirrored state rates that showed just under 20% of students enrolling in the type of advanced courses that prepare them for college, according to data available from the Texas Education Agency.

“We haven’t talked about college,” she said. “It was understood that this option was not available to us.”

By 2015, Flores had made a career out of working at the Dallas Regional Chamber on the economic development team. But she still had no answer when people asked her where she had studied.

Frisco’s Erica Flores poses with Kent Hance, Chancellor Emeritus of Texas Tech University, wielding the school’s iconic “Guns Up” after this summer’s commencement ceremony. After nearly seven years, Flores, a single mother, finally got her high school diploma made possible by a chance encounter with Hance on a plane in 2015.(Candid Color Photography/Texas Tech University)

Traveling to Austin for work, she chatted with Hance about the short flight, telling him she was focused on her career and raising her children. At the time, she had one in elementary, middle, and high schools in Dallas. But he insisted that she reconsider college.

“He said take a course, then you can say you went to Texas Tech,” Flores recalled.

From 2008 to 2016, the number of part-time students at four-year universities in Texas increased by 78%, according to every texanthe think tank and advocacy group formerly known as the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

But in 2018, only about 49% of the 350,000 students who graduate from high school each year in Texas enrolled in a postsecondary education program, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. And less than a third of them – only 29% – managed to obtain a title or diploma.

Sensing a future Red Raider, Hance had a scout call Flores the next day.

As Chancellor, Hance has set a goal to increase university enrollment to 40,000 students by 2020 – a school reached, school data shows.

Although virtual classes and online degree programs have been more common since the pandemic, distance learning was previously less accessible.

Yet even in 2015, Hance knew the university had curricula that could accommodate busy, working parents like Flores.

Flores was worried about being an older student in school, but online classes eased that worry. And often she had met military wives, single parents or other non-traditional students, Flores said.

Flores attributed much of his success at Texas Tech to Hance and his former boss and mentor, Mike Rosa, senior vice president of economic development for the Dallas Regional Chamber. (Dallas Regional Chamber supports the Education Lab.)

“It wasn’t impossible but it was difficult,” Flores said.

During her freshman year of college, when her youngest daughter was around 6, Flores would spread her books on her bed or set up her computer on her lap to work on lessons.

Her daughter lay beside her and sometimes fell asleep. Other times, the girl grabbed her own books to read or stacked them like a computer in front of her, imitating her mother.

“It broke my heart in all the best ways,” Flores said.

But the past 18 months have been the hardest for her.

Flores was fired from her bedroom job during the pandemic. And then, her mother battling cancer, she turned down a job offer as she focused on family and finishing her education.

But balancing school attendance and her family’s needs was difficult, and Flores said she sometimes felt like giving up. One particularly difficult day, she called Rosa.

“I was crying and I couldn’t breathe and I kept saying, ‘I have to stop, I have to stop,'” she recalled. “And he said, ‘No, you have to finish. The sooner you continue, the sooner you finish, and the more your mother will be there to see it.

Several members of his family — including his mother and oldest son, Isaiah, a Texas Tech junior — traveled to Lubbock for his graduation and a special dinner Hance hosted in his honor earlier this month.

“She got this degree and what’s so important is the confidence it gives her that she can do it,” Hance said, noting that it will serve her well as she reflects on her future. career. ” Do not abandon. Do not abandon. There is a way to do it.

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation about pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, Garrett and Cecilia Boone, The Meadows Foundation, The Murrell Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University, Todd A. Williams Family Foundation, and the University of Texas at Dallas. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.