They came to St. Edward’s from vastly different backgrounds. They knew they wanted to achieve something big but weren’t necessarily sure how to get there. They each left the hilltop with a plan — and a network of professors and mentors to provide support and celebrate their accomplishments. Here, a Tony Award winner, a teacher, a city shaper, a digital marketer and a scientist share what they’ve learned.

Leon A. Venegas ’10

Scientist at AstraZeneca in the Washington, D.C., area

Leon VargasWhen I was a freshman at St. Ed’s, I thought I wanted to be a physician. I thought I could be a surgeon and help make a positive impact on my patients’ lives.

The summer after my freshman year, I volunteered at a hospital in El Paso, where I’m from. After that, I knew that medicine wasn’t the career for me. I didn’t like the fact that sometimes you couldn’t help a patient. It wasn’t as glamorous as television and movies made it out to be.

Molecular biology with Lisa Goering at St. Ed’s presented the science in a way that was interesting. She taught us how scientists find out how the body works at the DNA level. During exams, we’d have to think critically and apply our knowledge to answer questions, which I found extremely enjoyable. I took a cell biology course with Peter King. He made research sound so interesting and cool. I thought, “Let me stick with science.”

I applied to the McNair Scholars program, which helps prepare underrepresented students for a research career. The program provides funding for internships and GRE classes. My first research experience was at the University of Notre Dame, which had a partnership with the McNair Scholars program at St. Edward’s. My project’s goal was to examine how a particular mutation in a heart gene affected heart development in a fruit fly. I geeked out all summer and loved it.

The summer before my senior year, I did another research internship with Dr. Goering, which was neat because she piqued my interest in molecular biology. She helped me figure out all the careers I could pursue with a PhD.

I worked for two years as a technician in an immunology lab at The University of Texas at El Paso, then I earned my PhD at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In graduate school, I became interested in protein engineering and a career in drug development.

In graduate school, I engineered a protein found in yeast to allow it to recognize cancer markers found in breast and lung cancers. This particular yeast protein had not been used for this particular purpose yet, so my work got a lot of attention and provided me training opportunities. I was able to publish research articles, and I was invited to give two talks.

Today, Dr. Goering and I continue to have a great relationship. There were other faculty in my corner as much as she was. Molly Minus, director of the McNair Scholars program, helped me apply to graduate school and succeed there. Bill Quinn helped me earn a fellowship through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provided me with two years of support during graduate school. I truly attribute a lot of my success to all the support I received from the department of Biological Sciences at St. Ed’s and the McNair Scholars program. I wanted to be like the scientists and educators at St. Ed’s.

 

Jake Nishimura MBA ’15

Director of digital marketing for Messina Touring Group, Austin

Jake NishimuraI moved to Austin about 10 years ago from Southern California with my wife. The biggest thing St. Ed’s gave me was the opportunity to explore music both inside and outside the classroom. I didn’t have any professional background in music. I just knew what I wanted to do.

The Digital Media Management program was great because it trained us to be intermediaries between digital teams and the rest of an organization. The program also helped me to ask the tough questions, which is half the battle sometimes. 

Pretty quickly after I graduated from the MBA program, I started working with Messina Touring Group. While going to St. Ed’s full time, I was also working with a small music company in town and doing media buying for a digital agency. When I graduated, Louis Messina asked the director of the St. Ed’s program, Russell Rains, if he knew anyone who could fill my current role.

I went from working on local shows to working big tours. I was given the freedom to define what this new position was. My job gives me the opportunity to work the creative and analytical parts of my brain to execute digital media campaigns.

From a cultural perspective, I really appreciated being with a cohort in the Digital Media Management program. Every class, we were with the same people, three of whom I consider family now. I currently work with four other St. Ed’s alumni — there were two when I got here, I hired one, and another was soon hired in another department. We have a large St. Ed’s contingent on a 30-person team.

We work with some of the biggest artists in the world. The most rewarding feeling is standing in a stadium full of 50,000 screaming fans and knowing you played a small role in connecting those people to their favorite artist.

I had a wrestling coach who said, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I feel like I was that kind of lucky. I did a lot of preparation, I took on music projects outside the classroom, and I made it known inside the classroom that I wanted to work in the music industry after graduation. So when Louis asked Russell Rains for a recommendation for a job, I was a logical choice. I’m very, very thankful to be where I am. But the luck and “right place, right time” is only part of the story.

 

Regina Portillo ’11

Executive director at City Makery, Laredo

Regina PortilloAfter discovering organizational psychology while at St. Ed’s, I became fascinated with enhancing quality of life for people. I went on to specialize in this field at Columbia University and have applied the data-based, scientific methods I learned in each place I have worked.

I moved back to Texas after living in New York for six years. Spending this time away made me appreciate my hometown’s culture and potential much more.

I left my job at Goldman Sachs a year ago to form City Makery, a nonprofit organization that works with the community to improve their quality of life. I helped create this organization in partnership with local architects and urban planners. They understand local government and how to bring the community together.

There’s no downtown core in Laredo where you can live, work and play. There are limited job opportunities. It’s isolated from other cities, and a third of our community is below the poverty line. At the same time, this is the largest port in the United States, with hundreds of billions of dollars in trade passing through our streets every year. There’s a big disparity between the working class and the poor and the small percentage of wealthy people.

At St. Ed’s, I learned about using data and research as tools to bring about progress. The McNair Scholars program laid the foundation for what I do today at City Makery. For instance, early this year I designed a survey to get a sense of people’s perceptions around biking. My team and I got about 1,000 responses, reflecting the views of bicycle commuters who cross the border every day, social and competitive riders, and even non-bikers who wish we had safer streets. With this data, we painted the picture of the demands of our community.

A group of skateboarders came to us with all this energy for a concrete skate park. They petitioned, but the petition wasn’t enough. We coached them to create a data-based presentation to prove that a skate park would improve health and quality of life by offering a space for exercise and leisure.

We facilitated meetings between them and city officials. When they had a cohesive story, they presented at city council and were funded more than $350,000 for a park.

St. Edward’s emphasis on writing honed my storytelling skills. I see the importance of it now when conveying the message of what we’re doing and why it’s important.

The powerful thing that most of our projects have shown is that residents really do have the power to mold their city into what they want it to be. City government can be complex, but ultimately, we equip people so that city government can be a tool in accomplishing their objectives.

 

Matthew Benoit ’10

First-grade teacher at Casey Elementary School, Austin

Matt BenoitI was born and raised in Austin. My wife, Avery Benoit ’10, whom I met at St. Ed’s, is from San Antonio. We both transferred into St. Ed’s at the same time, and we student-taught together at Dawson Elementary.

When I graduated high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was all over the map. I did some exploring at Austin Community College instead of starting at a big university. One of the reasons I picked St. Ed’s was the small class size. I wanted a chance to have a community and not just be a number.

My mom and grand mom were teachers, but it wasn’t something I had ever considered when I was younger. I started working at an after-school program called Third Base at Williams Elementary, where I helped a small group of students with homework and reading. This is when I realized I wanted to become a teacher. It felt natural, and I enjoyed seeing the students make progress throughout the school year.

St. Ed’s helped me focus and figure out what I wanted to do with my career. From the very beginning of my education courses, we were in the classrooms, even if it was something small like teaching a science lesson.

I chose kindergarten when I did my student teaching and then taught one year of kindergarten followed by eight years of first grade. I love first grade because there’s something about that age. They’re excited about school. They get a little older, and they’re too cool. But at that age, they’re really funny.

There’s a lot of humor and keeping things very structured but very light. The whole goal of my classroom is for them to take ownership, have a sense of pride, honor their feelings — it’s a lot of social-emotional learning. I focus on giving kids a voice. Just because they’re six doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.

It’s a delicate balance to see that humor and affirm it. I want them to know it’s OK to be silly. There’s a time to laugh and a time to work, just like in real life.

I teach my students that even if it’s scary, you still have to try something new. I’m teaching first grade at Casey Elementary this year after teaching at Cunningham Elementary for nine years.

My wife teaches first grade at Barton Hills Elementary. Her dream job is to teach at St. Ed’s someday, and I would love to do that too! College is such a unique and fun experience that shapes who you are as a person. I couldn’t imagine going to another school and being where I am in my life now without those experiences.

 

Tyler Mount ’13

Olivier, Drama League and two-time Tony Award winner, head of digital marketing for NBCUniversal, New York City

Tyler Mount I transferred into St. Ed’s with the sole purpose of becoming an actor, but acting post-graduation never felt right. 

To audition for Broadway, you have to be a member of the union. I was a member because St. Ed’s has a program that makes you eligible to join the Actors’ Equity Association when you graduate.

I was still waking up at 4:30 a.m. to walk across Times Square in the snow and stand in line to sign up for open auditions. Sign-up for open calls happens early in the morning, and many places don’t let people line up inside, so we’d wait in the freezing cold for two or three hours. It never felt like I was pursuing my truth.

I was stage-managing a show about the life of Gloria Estefan called On Your Feet!. For fun, I was creating a vlog series — called The Tyler Mount Vlog — on the side. A few months later, Gloria Estefan asked to be a guest on the vlog. We filmed an episode. It was fun and iconic.

The next day we had 20,000 views. All these huge publications picked it up because it was Gloria Estefan talking about, like, her uterus. A year and a half later, I was syndicating the show to 3 million people in 168 countries.

Every single experience in my life has taught me something. Gloria Estefan taught me that with love to give, you will go far. A close group of mentors at St. Ed’s taught me that with dedication and hard work, anything is achievable.

My St. Ed’s mentors are still some of my closest friends. They are the first people I want to share news with. They wildly impacted my life in a positive way. Michelle Polgar, Kathryn Eader and Cara Johnston Firestone always took an interest in me. They believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.

Winning my first Tony Award (in 2018, for coproducing Once on This Island, which won “Best Revival of a Musical”) was legit the most surreal moment of my life. I still have a hard time believing it. I have the American Tony and the British Tony (an Olivier), and I just won the Drama League Award, which you can only win once in your life.

My life has been too coincidental and lucky to be only coincidence. I think I was in the right place at the right time because I pursued my career relentlessly.

I grew up in small-town Texas wanting to be known in the community. I wanted to have a Tony. I wanted to be on the front page of The New York Times Arts spread. I wanted people to scream my name at theater conventions. It’s just so strange this happened to a small-town Texas boy who really, really cared and really, really tried.

 

By Joshunda Sanders