Educator helped by school becomes caretaker of its mission


Founded in 1913 with a mission of providing non-English speaking Hispanic children in the Segundo Barrio access to education, the Lydia Patterson Institute still helps disadvantaged students receive a quality education. Among the faculty, is alum Assistant Principal Maria Cristina Woo who keeps the mission of the school alive.

“Ms. Woo spends countless hours at the school working on student schedules, teacher schedules, grades, report cards, transcripts, registration, textbooks, curriculum, and the list goes on and on,” school principal Ernesto Morales said.  “I often joke with her, with a hint of sincerity, that we would fall apart if she were not here. It is remarkable to me how she remembers names and even dates of all alumni who stop by to visit. That is genuine love for what she does.”

Maria Christina Woo

Maria Christina Woo

Woo personally experienced the opportunities of Lydia Patterson Institute. As the 10th of 11 children and living in Juarez, Woo knew – first hand – the difficulties of receiving an education in the United States at the time.

“At the time (I was trying to come to school), I remember my parents told me ‘if you want to go to Lydia Patterson, go to Lydia Patterson, but the only thing that we’re going to pay in only one whole year of tuition and that’s it,” Woo said. “Afterwards you’re on your own.'”

Woo began at Lydia Patterson Institute as an 11 year old, took one year of English as a Second Language and then was moved into eighth grade. With the help of scholarships, Woo was able to continue her high school education. She graduated from the Institute in 1968.

“Lydia Patterson used to have a middle school, or junior high, whatever you want to call it, and a high school,” Woo said. “At that time, you finished junior high and there were two (four-year) scholarships awarded into the high school program. And I managed to get it.”

Without the head start provided by the Lydia Patterson Institute scholarships, Woo believes she would not have continued on to attend UTEP, where she was one of eight engineering school graduates in 1972.

“That is the only reason that I have an education,” Woo said. “I think I owe a lot to Lydia Patterson. Because, who I am right now and what I have, is [in] a way [because of] Lydia Patterson.”

After trying unsuccessfully to land a job in the highly competitive, male-dominated field of engineering, she applied for a job at Lydia Patterson Institute and began a new career in the field of education.

“In those days–I’m talking about the early 70’s–there was no discrimination against women, but in the engineering departments, there were mainly men,” Woo said.

“And there were no jobs for ladies, for girls, in any engineering area. So I came to Lydia Patterson and said ‘I want to fill out an application . . . [They said] yes, you are approved, you are in.'”

Three weeks after signing the contract to work at Lydia Patterson Institute, Woo received an unexpected engineering opportunity.

“IBM called me and said ‘you know we would like to have you intern with us.’ I said ‘forget about it I already signed a contract.'”

She did not regret her decision.

“I didn’t realize that I would love it so much. The best thing that you can get out of a job is that you enjoy whatever you do in that environment,” Woo said.

Started as an all-boys school with only a few students more than 100 years ago, Lydia Patterson Institute is now a co-ed institution of more than 400 students. Though the school’s student enrollment has climbed over the years, its vision has not changed.

“I’m trying to sort of like follow her mission very closely,” Woo said. “Even though I can work somewhere else and earn more money, I’m proud to be part of this.”

After 43 years, 15 spent teaching, at Lydia Patterson Institute, Woo moved up to administration as assistant principal in 1987 and has stayed at the school since.

“Ms. Woo is vital to Lydia Patterson Institute,” Morales said. “She has been here for many years. The school has had much success throughout those years and that is no coincidence. Ms. Woo is what every educational leader should emulate. She is dedicated to her work like I have seen no other. Without exaggeration, I can honestly say that it is a privilege to work alongside her. “

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