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One Year OutAlberto Wilson III ’16PhD Candidate at the University of Houston

Alberto Wilson III ’16 has been a history buff for as long as he can remember, and as the son of Mexican immigrants, he’s particularly interested in chronicling the lives of those who lived near the U.S.-Mexican border. Wilson wrote his senior thesis at Vassar on the subject, and he’s continuing his research on the topic as he pursues a PhD in history at the University of Houston.

Alberto Wilson III ’16, PhD candidate at the University of Houston

“I chose Houston because the university has a variety of immigrant-related programs and experts on border issues,” he says. “The fit was perfect for me.”

Wilson credits Associate Prof. of History Leslie Offutt with inspiring him to pursue an academic career. The idea began to crystallize the summer after his junior year, he says, when Offutt helped him gain access to papers related to U.S.-Mexico issues in the Special Collections section of the library at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was there, Wilson says, that he began his study of trans-border issues in depth.

“Researching the archives in El Paso spurred my interest in the history of the border,” he says. “I was able to trace the trans-border life of a well-off Mexican family that lived in El Paso in the 1920s but conducted their business in Juarez. This allowed me to argue in my thesis that Mexican entrepreneurs used their class status as a way to avoid some of the severe restrictions most Mexicans faced while crossing the border.”

Alberto Wilson’s second year of classes at the University of Houston was delayed a week as flood waters from Hurricane Harvey receded from the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. His own neighborhood was slightly elevated and remained dry, “but we were stranded for a few days encased on four sides by what appeared to be rivers where highways once stood,” he says. “There will be time to assess the situation of the bayous, flood control, and development in the city, but now is the time to collectively recover from this traumatic event. The resilience of those who lost everything and the heroic acts of those who rushed to help made me proud to live in Houston.”Photo: Daniel J. Martinez / US Air National Guard

Wilson is funding the five-year PhD program at the University of Houston with a teaching fellowship. Leading classroom discussions for undergraduate history students has been one of the most rewarding parts of his post-graduate experience, he says. “I had some growing pains my first year finding ways to make the material digestible to my students,” Wilson says. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s something I really enjoy.”

Wilson says he learned some of his teaching techniques when he worked with younger students in two programs in the Poughkeepsie City School District under the auspices of Vassar’s Urban Education Initiative. He mentored some immigrant students in Poughkeepsie who enrolled in the Vassar English Language Learning Outreach Program (VELLOP), and he worked with others in the Vassar After School Tutoring (VAST) program. “I was in charge of the middle school activities for VELLOP during my junior and senior year, and I think the entire experience in the city schools prepared me well for teaching,” he says.

Wilson will finish his coursework for his degree next spring. His third year will be devoted to preparation for the PhD program’s comprehensive exams, and he’ll spend the final two years doing research and writing his doctoral dissertation. “It’s an incredible amount of work—I read three to four books a week,” he says. “But Vassar prepared me well for the volume of work.”

As he begins his second year of graduate study, Wilson says he can still clearly recall the day Offutt first urged him to pursue an academic career. “Leslie had suggested once or twice before this that she thought I’d be a good teacher,” he says. “When she suggested I pursue a PhD, I thought to myself, ‘That’s ridiculous; that’s something smart people do.’ But she asked me to consider it, and now I can see myself eventually becoming a college professor.”