Reyna Gómez Tippetts | Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed
Earning a high school diploma, let alone a college degree, once seemed like an unattainable goal to Reyna Gómez Tippetts.
When she was growing up with a poor, single mother in a shack with a dirt floor and cardboard walls, dreaming big wasn’t part of the culture.
“Education is something that, when you grow up like that, nobody thinks of,” she said. “The focus is just on surviving every day.”
Tippetts’s dream eventually became a tangible reality after she moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to Houston as a 20-year-old newlywed and got a job as a custodian at Lone Star College. She spoke almost no English when she arrived and had a high school degree, but this summer, 25 years and three college degrees later, Tippetts became a dean at Lone Star and will oversee one of the community college’s five satellite centers.
“I had learned to live with disappointment,” she recalled. “Where I come from, things don’t go the way you wish. Things just happen.”
But after she arrived in the U.S. and began working at Lone Star, Tippetts charted her own life path and made things happen.
“To me, community colleges are like the gateway for education,” Tippetts said. “We are the opportunity to come and earn a degree to help you get to the next step.”
Laura Dupree, a lead faculty member in the department of education at Lone Star’s Tomball campus who has known Tippetts since her earliest days as a custodian, said, “It’s been a complete joy” to witness how far Tippetts has come.
“To watch Reyna not only accomplish the goals she set forth, but to do it with a very humble spirit and hard work … encouraging others around her … it’s remarkable,” Dupree said.
‘Little by Little’
Tippetts loved attending school in Mexico and said she always felt at home in a classroom.
“My teachers treated me like I could do something, like I had potential,” she said. “They made me feel appreciated, that I had value—something that at home was very difficult, because my mom was busy surviving.”
Free access to public education in Mexico ended with junior high school when Tippetts was a child, but Tippetts was determined to attend high school. She moved to a new town by herself and worked a variety of jobs to pay her way through high school. She walked many miles to and from class and slept on friends’ couches. She graduated high school in 1996 with the fifth-highest grade point average in the state and was on track to attend college. But shortly after her high school graduation, Tippetts’s mother, who had diabetes and no access to medical care, became more ill. Tippetts moved home to take care of her mother and her youngest brother, Julio.
“I totally figured that was it,” Tippetts said. She thought her dreams of going to college were over. “Little did I know that my life was gonna change.”
A year later, in 1997, Tippetts was at a Christmas party when she met Roscoe Tippetts, a Houston native and recently widowed father of two. They quickly fell in love and were married in a matter of months.
“Out of nowhere, now I have a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old, and I’m in a house that looks like a palace to me. It was a mobile home, but I’d never seen something so pretty,” she said. “I had to learn to live an American life.”
It was several years later, in 2001, after her husband lost his job as a mechanic and Tippetts joined the custodial staff at Lone Star, that pursuing a higher education re-entered her thoughts.
“I just loved walking through the hallways and peeking into the classrooms and seeing the students and instructors learning together,” she said. “I wanted to go to school again, but that was so scary because I didn’t speak any English.”
Meanwhile, Tippetts began working her way up at Lone Star. She became a custodial supervisor and then a secretary for the campus police. Her English slowly got better, but still she often felt “misunderstood.”
“People would look at me funny, and some people would make comments of, ‘Why did they even hire her? She can’t even speak,’” Tippetts recalled. “That’s when I really decided, ‘I have to go to school.’”
Tippetts enrolled at Lone Star in 2006. “Little by little” she gained confidence, and in 2010 she graduated with an associate degree in professional office studies. Tippetts was eager to keep the academic momentum going and earn a bachelor’s degree, but she learned she didn’t have all the credits she needed to enroll at a four-year college.
“I started to learn all the mistakes that students make,” Tippetts said. “When I went to register … they’d say, ‘These are the classes you can take,’ and that was fine, but nobody really asked me, ‘What’s the end goal?’”
Tippetts moved up at Lone Star once again and became an academic coordinator. It was in that role, working closely with the faculty, that she gained the support and guidance needed to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2016 and a master’s in organizational management in 2017.
“I finally started understanding a little bit more how education works in the United States,” she said. “That’s one of the hardest things when you’re an immigrant.”
Setting an Example
Tippetts went on to work as an academic adviser, faculty member and now dean, and she has made it her goal to support students, especially those who are immigrants, on similar education journeys.
“It’s nice to just be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there,’” Tippetts said. “Sometimes our students don’t realize all the different opportunities they could be taking advantage of, and at the same time, I understand how scared sometimes we are to ask for help.”
Her story is widely seen as an example for the entire college, but for Juan Gutierrez in particular, a fellow Mexican immigrant who is chair of the biology department at the college’s North Harris campus, Tippetts’s journey “means a lot.”
“It’s an example for the Latino students, but especially the female Latinas that they can follow in her steps.”
Diana Cañon Contreras, a Lone Star student who emigrated from Colombia, described Tippetts as a “shining light” and said that without Tippetts’s guidance and encouragement, she wouldn’t have found the confidence needed to improve as an English public speaker and become an executive leader for Phi Theta Kappa, an honors society for open-access colleges.
“Speaking in front of people in a language that is not your own can be quite scary, but thanks to Mrs. Reyna’s kind support, I started to believe in myself,” Contreras said. “As I make my own way, her determination and drive continue to propel me forward.”
Alma Gamboa, a Mexican native and now a local high school Spanish teacher, said Tippetts influenced her whole family. When Gamboa started at Lone Star, she was placed in an introductory-level Spanish class. But Tippetts advised her to take a placement test needed to enroll in a higher-level course that would help expedite her degree completion.
Gamboa’s son and daughter were so inspired by their mother’s success that they re-enrolled in college. All three graduated together from Lone Star in 2020 with their associate degrees and in 2022 graduated individually with their bachelor’s—something Gamboa said felt “impossible” before meeting Tippetts.
Whatever Tippetts does next, faculty members are confident she’ll do it with precision, dedication and care.
“I don’t know that we’ve seen that ending point for Reyna Tippetts,” said Lynda Dodgen, a sociology professor at the North Harris campus. “I do believe with all my heart that she could be a president of a college campus.”