Melissa Casillas’ heart was set on attending Texas Tech University, but her parents weren’t so sure. 

After spending a summer at The Joffrey Ballet in New York City, the young dancer set her sights on studying dance at the collegiate level. 

“I was trying to decide what I wanted to study in college, and that’s the main reason I went to Joffrey – to see if dance was what I wanted to do full-time,” Casillas said. “I met friends at Joffrey who were from Texas Tech’s School of Theatre & Dance. They spoke really highly of the program, so I wanted to apply to Texas Tech after meeting them.”

But a move from her hometown of Tijuana, Mexico to West Texas was a transition her family had doubts about. Due to perceptions of recent racial strife, Casillas’ parents worried for their daughter’s well-being in the American South.

Feeling discouraged, Casillas turned to Instagram one night, scrolling through the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts’ profile. That’s when she noticed an announcement that caught her by surprise. 

“The college had uploaded a video announcing its new dean, Martin Camacho,” Casillas said. “He was well-spoken and played piano beautifully, but what caught my attention was that he was Mexican.” 

Casillas sprinted into the next room, loudly exclaiming, “Look, he’s Mexican!

Confused, her parents asked her what she was talking about. She proceeded to show them the video. 

“They were totally sold,” Casillas said. 

Seeing someone from a Mexican background in a leadership position alleviated the concerns Casillas’ parents had. 

“Not only did it sell my parents on Texas Tech, but it meant a lot to me too,” Casillas said. “Seeing someone in a position of power that looks like you is really empowering.” 

Photo courtesy of Texas Tech University

Casillas is now a first-year student at Texas Tech’s School of Theatre & Dance where she is a presidential merit scholar. Casillas has danced in the university’s centennial celebration, leaped into Ballet Lubbock’s “The Nutcracker” and most recently learned new moves with guest artist Jason Samuels Smith.

“Having to leave my parents was hard,” Casillas recalls, “but it’s been worth it.”

Photo courtesy of Texas Tech University

And to alleviate any concerns on her parents’ end, Martin Camacho wrote a letter to Melissa’s parents after she arrived on campus.

Part of it reads:

“After hearing your story, I decided to write a few lines to express my gratitude for having trusted Texas Tech. That trust is now transformed into a commitment for us to provide Melissa with a first-class education and an environment in which she can develop as an individual and as a professional. I hope to meet you soon, but for now I hope you know that Melissa’s education is in good hands; the hands of faculty who are dedicated to ensuring her progress.”

Melissa is one of many students who have found a welcoming atmosphere and open door at Texas Tech.