Home to Texas: UT internship program encourages hometown connections

A hometown summer internship program at the University of Texas at Austin apparently accomplished its mission for both the interns and their hosts

Home to Texas encourages UT undergraduates to work in their hometowns by providing well-paid internships and experiences designed to help them understand the underlying values of their home communities. Check on both accounts, according to participants in an end-of-program celebration held via Zoom this past week.

The program is part of an effort by UT to discourage graduates in Texas’ smaller communities from going off to college and never coming back, instead encouraging them to return to their hometowns and contribute to the local economy, said Debra Dzwonczyk, the program’s operations director.

Bobby Fraga spent the summer working in the lab where the Brownsville Public Utilities Board makes sure the city’s water meets state standards. He said he got to work on-site because, pandemic or no pandemic, the city’s water supply has to be continually monitored to make sure it’s safe.

“Each day was something different,” he said, adding that a dependable water supply is something most people take for granted but that nevertheless requires constant attention.

“It also changed my perspective on working in a lab. I thought it would be boring but it was the opposite,” he said.

Fraga, who will be a sophomore when the fall semster begins, plans to go to medical school, become a doctor and specialize in dermatology.

“If medical school doesn’t work out, this extends my options,” he said.

Fraga said he also got a better understanding of the city’s business climate, its history and its cultural richness.

A second part of the program was to research Brownsville’s assets, what makes Brownsville thrive. During the summer he conducted interviews with various Brownsville leaders, including a recruiter for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the UTRGV vice president for Government and Community Relations, a real estate broker, and representatives of RGV LEAD, a nonprofit linking educators with employers to support economic development.

Fraga, who is from Harlingen, said he found out more about Brownsville’s deep cultural and historical roots. “Overall it was a great experience,” he said.

Other Brownsville interns included Jackie Lugo, Montrell Johnson and Jacob Garza.

Garza, who interned with the city of Brownsville, said an important take-away for him was how the city is working to expand its broadband capability.

Lugo said she learned how essential small business is to a community. Johnson said he learned “how cities run behind the scenes.”

Johnson said he was surprised to learn Brownsville is taking steps to become a small business hub. Garza said he is all for Brownsville’s efforts to attract another space company besides SpaceX.

The Home to Texas program is a partnership between the UT-Austin’s IC² Institute, an economic development think tank, and UT Austin’s School of Undergraduate Studies.

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, a UT graduate, helped bring the program to Brownsville. During the Zoom meeting he recalled visiting UT last October to get the program started.

He said he left with the feeling “that there are a lot of similarities between Austin 30 years ago and Brownsville today.”

He said he hopes the program helps give UT graduates something to come back to, or start careers in Brownsville.