Our Team

Noe Benavidez

Isabel Banda

GEAR UP College Advisor

About Isabel Banda

Isabel Banda is a GEAR UP College Advisor with the UT Austin 2018 GEAR UP Grant. She is a first-generation college student from Houston, TX, and graduated from Brandeis University with triple majors in Film, Sociology, and International and Global Studies. Her dedication to education has led her to serve students in cities like Boston, New York, and Houston through organizations such as Breakthrough, The Steppingstone Foundation, and City Year. Most recently, Isabel completed a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in San Juan del Rio, Queretaro, Mexico, enriching the lives of international students through cross-cultural exchange. She is passionate about closing the gaps in equity in education and higher education access and is excited to continue this work in Texas.

Noe Benavidez

Noe Benavidez, Jr.

Senior Project Manager; Industry Development and Post-secondary Liaision

About Noe Benavidez

Noe Benavidez is the Senior Project Manager- Post-Secondary Liaison for UT Austin GEAR UP. He partners with post-secondary institutions and industry leaders to develop programming and opportunities for students to discover and explore the different college and career pathways available to them. Noe focuses on developing programs that expose GU students to in demand career fields and build knowledge and skills necessary to compete for those jobs. He also serves as the camp director for the UT GEAR UP for College Summer Camp. Previously, Noe was a College Prep Advisor on the Texas GEAR UP State Grant from 2013 to 2018; he served the Class of 2018 at Memorial High School in Edgewood ISD from middle school through their first year in college. Noe was responsible for advising and providing services that helped his students become college and career ready. He collaborated on projects that promoted college and career exploration, summer enrichment, test prep, financial literacy, and college readiness. Prior to the TXGU State Grant, he worked with the UT Austin Chapter of Advise TX, where he served as a college advisor at Memorial High School.

Noe Benavidez

Kristyne Blackburn

Administrative Services Officer

About Kristyne Blackburn
Phyllis Broz

Janelle Borrego

Outreach Center Counselor

About Janelle Borrego

Janelle has nearly decade of diverse experience working with students and parents in K-12 and higher education. She has a rich background in educational community outreach in Spanish-speaking and Latinx communities. Before joining IPSI, she taught English as a Second Language in Spain, served as an Undergraduate Academic Advisor at Texas State University, and then as Grant Coordinator for Talent Search SM – TRIO Programs. She is a proud child of Mexican immigrants and a first-generation college graduate, she is passionate about serving first-generation college students and other underrepresented populations. Out of work, you might find her at a drive-in movie theater or camping under the stars at Big Bend National Park.

Phyllis Broz

Phyllis Broz

Senior Administrative Program Coordinator

About Phyllis Broz

Phyllis attended the University of Texas at Austin and has 25 years of experience in event planning with UT Austin. She spent 4 years in the corporate event planning realm with St. Jude Medical. Overall, she brings a wealth of professional experience to the GEAR UP grant, and supports GEAR UP’s conference, meeting planning, events, training, travel, business operations, purchasing and grant administration.

Cathy Cantrell, Ph.D.

Senior Project Manager for Educator Outreach

About Cathy Cantrell

Cathy Cantrell is the Project Manager for Professional Development for UT Austin GEAR UP.  Cathy served as the Educator Outreach Coach for the Texas GEAR UP State grant, where she provided professional development and onsite instructional support in behavior management, project-based learning, differentiated instruction, instructional strategies, technology integration, and much more. She was previously a component director for School Transformation and Digital Learning at Education Service Center Region 6, where she founded the EduHero Project, an online training site for educators. Cathy taught at both Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University. She later went on to become a curriculum writer for the Texas Education Service Curriculum Collaborative and a professional training developer focused on mathematics and project-based learning. Her current interests include behavior management and Algebra 1 for All.

Willie Castrejon

Willie Castrejon, M.Ed.

College Admissions and Aid Specialist

About Willie Castrejon

Willie is currently the College Admissions and Aid Specialist (Program Administrator) with the UT Austin 2017 and 2018 GEAR UP grants. Right before, he was the Family and Financial Aid Specialist with the aforementioned grants. Before both of the roles above, he was a College Preparation Advisor for the Somerset High School Class of 2018 on the Texas GEAR UP State Grant from 2014 to 2018. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from The University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s degree in Higher Education Administration from the University of Houston. He began working at the University of Texas at Austin Institute of Public School Initiatives in 2010 as an Advise TX College Adviser at Milby High School in Houston. In July 2017, he was recognized by the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships as the GEAR UP Professional of the Year. As a first-generation American and a first-generation college graduate, Willie is very enthusiastic when it comes to assisting students and their families in their college degree journeys.


Connie Dawes, M.Ed.


About Connie Dawes

Connie Dawes serves as Director of the UT Austin Reset and Reimagine GEAR UP (UT R2 GEAR UP) partnership grant, which was awarded to IPSI in 2022 and supports over 5,500 students across 6 school districts. Previously she co-directed the UT GEAR UP – To College & Beyond partnership grant (awarded in 2017) and UT Austin GUIDES: GEAR UP for Industry Development and Educational Success partnership grant (awarded in 2018). From 2014 to 2018, she served as Project Manager for the Texas GEAR UP State Grant technical assistance office at IPSI. Dawes’ interest in college access and success initiatives, combined with her experience in managing large-scale grant programs, has led her to leadership roles with the College Advising Corps at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Advise TX at The University of Texas at Austin; and Generation TX, a statewide initiative of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that promotes college and career readiness among first-generation students. She also spent three years as Account Director at Milkshake, a brand strategy firm in Austin, where she provided guidance and strategic recommendations to clients. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and a Master of Education in Student Affairs Practice in Higher Education from the University of Virginia.

Chelsea Ferna

Chelsea Fernandez, M.Ed.

Student Services Program Manager

About Chelsea Fernandez

As a first-generation college student, Chelsea Fernandez has an unwavering belief in the power post-secondary education has on breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Chelsea has a decade long track record of success in bridging the college access and readiness gap for our most underrepresented student populations.

Chelsea’s career began as a college and financial aid advisor through the Advise TX program and in 2013, she began her work with the Texas GEAR UP State Grant where she followed a cohort of students from 7th to 12th grade. Chelsea currently serves as the Student Services Program Manager for the UT Austin GEAR UP grants where she coaches and supports coordinators across 12 school districts in central and east Texas.

Chelsea graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and has a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Development from Angelo State University.

Chelsea Ferna

Margarita Gomez

Data Clerk

About Margarita Gomez

Margarita has worked for The University of Texas at Austin for over 20 years. She began in 2002 working in the Office of Accounting – Contracts and Grants department (which is now known as SPAA – Office of Sponsored Projects). She transferred to the Pre-Award department in 2006, as an Administrative Associate, where she processed several types of Agreements to Sponsors and Principal Investigators. Margarita began working for The Institute for Public School Initiatives (IPSI) at the beginning of 2019 and currently works on three GEAR UP grants with 17 school districts In-kind Match documents making sure all documents are submitted by their deadline, documenting the captured match, and ensuring all captured match is allowable and compliant with the GEAR UP grants policies and regulations. She enjoys spending her spare time with family, especially her grandchildren.

Jessica Hernandez

Administrative Associate

About Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez is an experienced professional who recently joined The University of Texas at Austin – IPSI in April. Prior to this, she dedicated 15 years of her career to the San Marcos CISD secondary schools. Starting as a principal secretary at a middle school, she later transitioned to a district-level role, working with the GEAR UP program. During her tenure, she effectively managed administrative tasks, processed travel arrangements, handled budgets, and coordinated purchasing and travel logistics. Her expertise in grant management was instrumental in the success of the 2017 and 2018 grants. With her strong organizational skills and commitment to education, Jessica continues to make a positive impact in her current position.

Chelsea Ferna

Bomin Kim, M.A.

Research Program Coordinator

About Bomin Kim

Bomin Kim is a Sr. Research Program Coordinator at the Institute of Public School Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin, where she has worked since 2015. In her current role, Bomin implements formative evaluations to address whether objectives are being met and activities are being implemented as planned, and executes summative evaluations to ensure all instructional practices, student academic performances, skills development, graduation rates, and college enrollment are being met. Prior to her work at the Institute of Public School Initiatives, Bomin worked as a Senior Manager at BNR Enterprise, Inc. in South Korea, where she performed asset valuation and project future cash flows and synergies for mergers and acquisitions, and as an Investment Consultant and Online Marketing Manager at LG Investments & Securities, Inc., where she analyzed investment behaviors of investors and proposed individualized investment strategies, among other roles. Bomin holds a Master of Arts in Educational Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Applied Economics from Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.

Chelsea Ferna

Michael King, M.S.


About Michael King

With over 10 years of program management, community outreach, marketing, public relations, and fundraising experience, Michael King has established himself as a willing advocate and effective change-maker in the communities he serves. He has coordinated programs with The University of Texas at Austin, Communities in Schools – San Antonio, Dell Scholars, The University of Texas at San Antonio Office of P-20 Initiatives, Columbia University, SXSW EDU, The Harris Foundation, Senator Ted Cornyn, GEAR UP, and more, to assist and empower students.

In addition to his extensive program management, community outreach, and marketing experience, Michael King also has a strong background in fundraising, having served as Director of Foundation Relations for Education Initiatives at UT Development. During his time in this role, he was recognized for his outstanding performance with the GoBigger Award. With his diverse skill set and proven success, King brings a unique perspective to his current role as GEAR UP Director.

King graduated from Our Lady of the Lake University in 2017 with a Master’s degree in nonprofit management, with a focus on business leadership. He received his undergraduate degree from The University of Texas at Austin with a double major in sociology and African American studies.

Fun Fact: In his spare time, Michael loves listening to music and playing sports-based video games.

Chelsea Ferna

Melissa McClatchy, M.Ed.

Educator Outreach Coach

About Melissa McClatchy

Melissa McClatchy is an Educator Outreach Coach with the University of Texas in Austin GEAR UP. Melissa is a first generation college student from Livingston, Texas.  She earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from Texas A&M University and a Masters of Education in Administration from Lamar University.  She has been an educator for twenty-six years serving thirteen years as an elementary teacher and instructional technology specialist in Waller and Willis ISDs,  ten years at Education Service Center Region 6 where she was a Coordinator for the School Transformation and Digital Learning Department, and three years as an Assistant Principal in Willis ISD.  She is passionate about supporting Texas educators by providing instructional support and professional development to improve student achievement and success.

Chelsea Ferna

Erin Mosley

Outreach Center Counselor

About Erin Mosley

Erin graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Arts in History and a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies. Since then she has made it her goal to help as many low income, underrepresented students make their dreams of going to college a reality. She served as a college adviser with Advise TX at Akins High School in Austin, Texas, and then as a hybrid college adviser with the College Advising Corps serving Mathis High School in Mathis, Texas. She believes that no matter a person’s background, if they wish to pursue higher education, they should be able to do so. She enjoys working with IPSI and hopes to continue supporting students. In her spare time, Erin likes to go swimming, travel, and spend time with her partner and their cat.

Matt Orem

Megan Oberman, M.Ed.

Family Academic Outreach Coach

About Megan Oberman

Megan (Mossman) Oberman is a visionary leader, dedicated educator and passionate advocate for transformative learning experiences. Currently, she serves as the Family Academic Outreach Coach with the University of Texas at Austin GEAR UP grant. Prior to this role, she ignited sparks in San Marcos CISD as a GEAR UP Coordinator with the To College & Beyond 2017 Grant where she began leading cohort students, families and educators from the 7th grade year through students’ graduation from San Marcos High School in 2023. She has spearheaded initiatives to increase family and community outreach, enhance college readiness, including tutoring and mentoring programs, college campus visits, financial aid workshops and career exploration opportunities. Oberman’s innovative approaches have increased 2023 college enrollment rates for San Marcos, outshined the previous FAFSA/TASFA completion percentages for the campus, and set a record number of students admitted to Texas State University from San Marcos High School. She is on a mission to close opportunity gaps and prepare students and families to be college and career confident. Oberman has over 10 years of educational experience in the fields of Special Education, Mathematics and GEAR UP, along with a Master of Education Degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. Her undergraduate degree was obtained from Texas State University where she majored in Exercise Sport Science and Sport Psychology. Her national presentations include the 2019 National NCCEP Conference- “Power Up Your GEAR UP-The Goodnight Middle School Story”, the 2020 NCCEP Capacity Building Workshop-”Social Media 2.0: Actionable Strategies and Tools to Level-Up Your Social Media”, and 2021 NCCEP Conference-”Power Up Your GEAR UP: Campus, District & Community Edition”.

Matt Orem

Matt Orem, M.Ed.

Executive Director

About Matt Orem

As Executive Director of the Institute for Public School Initiatives, Matt is responsible for the successful leadership and management of the organization and for generating ideas for securing federal, state, local or foundation funding to support the Institute’s mission. He acts as a professional advisor to the Associate Dean of Research & Graduate Studies and Dean on all aspects of the organization’s activities. He provides leadership to foster effective teamwork among staff of IPSI with the Dean, faculty, and staff of the College of Education at UT Austin. He oversees the efficient and effective day-to-day operation of the organization and ensure IPSI is meeting the expectations of clients and funding agencies. He works to maintain a positive, healthy and safe work environment in accordance with all appropriate university policies and regulations. With the IPSI staff, Matt ensures that the programs and services offered by IPSI contribute to The College of Education’s Mission and Vision and reflect the priorities of The University of Texas at Austin.

Matt Orem

Solara Rosales, MSPE

GEAR UP College Advisor

About Solara Rosales

Solara Rosales is a GEAR UP College Advisor with the UT Austin 2018 GEAR UP Grant. She serves the San Antonio area working with South San Antonio ISD and Southside ISD. Previously, she worked for KIPP Public Schools as a STEM tutor in the underserved community of Sunnyside in Houston, Texas. GEAR UP was first introduced to her as a student in 7th grade which helped guide her through college. She now holds a Bachelors of Science in Criminal Justice and Legal Studies from Sam Houston State University and a Master’s degree in Social Policy Evaluation from Rice University. It is a growing passion of hers to support students in obtaining post-secondary education and opportunities that will set them up for continued success.

Matt Orem

Ray Ruiz, M.P.A

Outreach Center Counselor
About Ray Ruiz

Ray Ruiz is the outreach center counselor of the 2017 Grant in the San Antonio area where he provides supports to students who are matriculating to post secondary education. Ray is a GEAR UP student alum and also a first generation college student who has extensive experience in teaching, recruitment, and advising disadvantaged students. Ray is passionate about providing educational opportunities to students and their families in Texas, and beyond. Some of Ray’s hobbies include venturing into nature preserves, and trying new cuisines.

Chelsea Ferna

Lali Santibañez

GEAR UP College Advisor

About Lali Santibañez

Lali is a first generation college student from Austin, TX. She graduated from St. Edward’s University with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, and interned at a local high school in the Austin area as a part of their College & Career Department. Lali now currently serves as the GEAR UP College Advisor for the San Marcos/Lockhart area.

Kelli Taylor, M.Ed.

Educator Outreach Coach

About Kelli Taylor

Kelli Taylor is an Educator Outreach Coach with UT Austin GEAR UP. She has been an educator for sixteen years and has served students and teachers primarily in Title 1 middle schools and high schools. She has worked for The University of Texas for the last five years, providing instructional support and professional development to districts in the UT GEAR UP grant. Kelli is a first-generation college student and holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology and a Master’s of Education in Educational Leadership from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She lives in San Antonio with her husband and two children who are active in sports year-round. She is passionate about supporting teachers and leaders to be the best for scholars in the state of Texas.

Candy Vera, M.Ls.

Educator Outreach Coach

About Candy Vera

Candy Lee Vera is an Educator Outreach Coach with the University of Texas in Austin GEAR UP. Candy Lee is a first generation college student from the San Antonio, TX area and received a bachelor’s degree from Stephen F. Austin State University, and a Master’s in Library Science from the University of North Texas. She has served San Antonio and the surrounding areas as an educator and instructional coach for over fifteen years. Working with GEAR UP for the past four years has allowed Candy Lee to continue her lifelong passion for creating optimal opportunities for all students.

Natalya White

Natalya White

Senior Administrative Associate

About Natalya White

Natalya White is the Senior Administrative Associate for Institute for Public School Initiatives. Natalya has been with IPSI for the past 14 years in various roles supporting staff, educators and students in several grant-funded projects such as, Write for Texas, Reading First, OnTRACK, Texas Literacy Initiative, and currently UT Austin GEAR UP. Natalya brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise in grant administration, purchasing, travel, conference planning, research, and communication.

Joy Whitney

Joy Whitney, LL.B., MBA

Grants & Contracts Manager

About Joy Whitney

Joy is currently a part-time employee with IPSI. She has thirty-seven years of service for The University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System Administration. She is responsible for finance, grants and contracts.