Jon Mark Beilue: Coming to a School Near You

Nov 15, 2019
  • Community
  • Education
  • Jon Mark Beilue

Coming to a School Near You

*Photo: A contingent from WT, headed by president Dr. Walter Wendler, finished a tour of four high schools in Abernathy on Nov. 18. Over nearly two years and two separate tours, Wendler spoke to students in 132 high schools in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains.

The heart of Dr. Walter Wendler’s message is always the same — work your plan. Your plan, not someone else’s.

The high school may be different. The audience may be different. The questions at the end may be different, but the core of presentation is unchanged.

"I want you to create a plan for one," the West Texas A&M University president told about 200 seniors and juniors at Shallowater High School. "A lot of people right now are trying to figure out what to do with their lives. What’s next?

"Create a plan that makes sense for you as you look at colleges, trade school or the military. What will work for you?"

It’s a cold, raw, first Thursday in November, and for Wendler and a crew in tow from WT, Shallowater High School is the third of four stops that day to speak to high school students. After that, it was on to Abernathy 20 minutes away.

"I was kind of shocked to be honest when they said we were meeting with the president of WT," said Austin Callaway of Abernathy, who plans to attend WT to study accounting.

There’s probably a number who have felt that way, this button-downed coat-and-tie president speaking — often passionately — to a group in letter jackets and T-shirts.

On two separate tours over the last two years, Wendler has been in more small towns than Stripe’s convenience stores and Sonic Drive-Ins. Alphabetically, from Abernathy to Wheeler, geographically, from Booker in the far northeast corner of the Panhandle to Ackerly, 80 miles south of Lubbock,  Wendler, like Johnny Cash once sang, has been everywhere, man. At least in West Texas.

"It’s a two-way street," said Wendler of the time-consuming value of speaking to several thousand students from 117 high schools in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains. "There’s value for kids to hear from me about the importance of making good choices.

"But it’s just as important for me. I find that I learn something different from every high school I’ve been to."

Over 4 ½ months in 2017, Wendler made a stop at every high school in the Panhandle with his focus on planning for the future, avoiding mounting student debt while also selling what WT has to offer. That was from Hedley with 36 students to Tascosa’s senior class of 500. It was 66 high schools over 42 trips covering 8,500 miles.

At the end of that tour, Wendler was asked if he were coming back next year. He joked that it might be the end for him and Mary, his wife of then-44 years, if he did.

But here he is, less than two years later, doing the same thing, only this time in the South Plains area. It was a tour that began on Sept. 3 and will end on Nov. 18.

 It’s 51 high schools on 18 separate trips, plus six radio interviews, a meeting at Lubbock city hall, Texas Tech College of Education and South Plains Community College in Levelland.

No school was too small, no place in the South Plains too remote.

"I was speaking in Dawson," Wendler said, "and they asked if the whole high school could listen. I said, 'Sure.’ They had 12, two in their senior class."


Not selling WT as he sells WT

On Nov. 8, Wendler and his group stopped in Smyer and Whitharral, west of Lubbock, in the morning, and then hit Shallowater and Abernathy in the early afternoon.

The group varies. On this day, the contingent included students Seth Rodriguez and Sergio Gonzales, admissions counselor Marissa Rivera, community outreach specialist Amberly Hildebrandt, and Tracee Post, Wendler’s chief of staff. At Abernathy, Rodriguez and Gonzales both spoke.

"I want our staff at every level, students included, to take the time to come with me," Wendler said. "I want them to see where our future students are coming from."

Wendler tells students he’s not there to sell them on WT, "but I will brag on the place a little bit," he said, before kinda sorta breaking his word and selling them on WT with a PowerPoint presentation.

He details the colleges at WT and what is available to study. He highlights the ease of the WT Fast Track phone app feature to pre-enroll, the WT Principal’s Scholars program, where WT will accept any five students the high school principal nominates, the Family Scholarship program and the financial Buff $mart program as well as leadership and other opportunities. Wendler’s emphasis is that a fit is important once a plan has been established.

"We have a program at WT, the WT 125 plan. We know where we’re going," he told students. "If you’re considering a university, ask what their plan is. If they have no plan, put that institution in your rear-view mirror as soon as you can. You have a plan. They need a plan, too, and the two should mesh."

He told of a student who wanted to major in digital art. While there are classes at WT for that, there’s not a degree in that. Go somewhere else. Find that fit.

Cost of higher education is always a concern at any high school stop. He encouraged applying for any and all scholarships, and a graphic showed WT among the most affordable public universities in Texas at about $17,000 per year.

Wendler told students at Shallowater of a report that showed that 2.5 million Americans are still paying off student loans with Social Security checks, which can’t be claimed until age 62.

Any student loans accrued should not exceed 60 percent of what a first-year salary would be after graduation, he said. For example, if a teacher earned $40,000 the first year, student loan debt should not exceed $24,000.

"If you do not hear anything else I say - look me in the eye and listen - if you have to borrow any money your first two years, even a dollar, don’t come to WT," he said. "Go to a community college, earn scholarships, live at home if you have to, but don’t borrow money to come to WT your first year."

In the big picture, when all is completed, a college experience, Wendler said, should raise the character of the student.

"My primary goal is to help students become noble students," he said. "That’s what a university experience should provide. Ask yourself this question - 'Will this experience help me become a noble student?’"

Next stop: Sudan, Springlake-Earth and Muleshoe.

Do you know of a student, faculty member, project, an alumnus or any other story idea for "WT: The Heart and Soul of the Texas Panhandle?" If so, email Jon Mark Beilue at