10:51 AM

Carrying the Torch

How one Jaguar lost a job, then sparked a new career


For 13 years, Juan M. Casas worked in the produce packaging business, traveling through some of the most difficult parts of Mexico. Suddenly out a job once the pandemic struck, Casas opted to turn the obstacle into opportunity by registering at South Texas College.

“I graduated college with my bachelor’s in 2002, and in 2020, I never thought I’d go back,” says STC student Juan M. Casas Jr. 

For 13 years, Casas worked in the produce packaging business, traveling through some of the most difficult parts of Mexico “while times were tough” to visit customers in the field. Then, he lost his job suddenly in January of last year. 

“I had never been let go from a job,” says Casas. “You feel so hopeless, so cheated.” To make matters worse, just a few months later, the pandemic struck. It was impossible to even get an interview, making it hard not to feel “down in the dumps.” 

After eight months of unemployment and coming up empty handed, Casas’ wife sparked an idea to turn the obstacle into an opportunity: 

“I work for South Texas College, and before the Fall semester, I convinced him to go back to school,” says Dr. Celina Casas of the Occupational Therapy Assistant Program. “In my years as an instructor, I have seen many individuals come to the College seeking a profession they love.” 

The family is no stranger to the College: Celina received her associate degree from STC in 2000, graduating from the same program she now teaches for today. Plus, their oldest daughter is currently enrolled in dual credit classes. 

So, though he had been out of school for nearly 20 years, Juan decided to follow the new family tradition… and a longtime love of welding.

 “It’s a lot of fun. It’s a hobby for me. But nowadays, at the high school level, they are putting it in a plan for the kids to have a certification in the welding trade. STC is a fantastic school."
Juan M. Casas Jr.

 “It’s a lot of fun. It’s a hobby for me. But nowadays, at the high school level, they are putting it in a plan for the kids to have a certification in the welding trade,” says Casas, whose friends and family encouraged him to return to school and follow his passion for becoming a welding instructor. 

The best part? Since Casas had a bachelor’s of science already, most of his classes transferred over. So, though it was a bit daunting returning to school at 43, he was pleased to discover he only needed 12 welding classes to earn his new degree. 

“It is fun going back to school, and STC is a fantastic school,” says the returning student.

While sparks were flying, his luck turned around, and he was finally able to score a job interview. In November, Casas went back to work in the packaging industry, but now, there was no way he would give up on his dream. “My wife says, ‘Are you going to stop going?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve started it. I’m not going to quit!’” 

By taking classes on nights and weekends, the unstoppable student is earning his degree one weld at a time. So far, Casas has taken Arc and MIG welding and is signed up for intro to TIG and Flux core in the fall. He’s proud of making a birdhouse this year out of a 12x12 piece of metal, which involved reading detailed blueprints, utilizing different types of welds and taking precise measurements. 

“You do get tested by the American Welding Society,” explains Casas about the culmination of his new career path at STC. “If you pass those tests, you receive a little card that will help you get a job out there in the workforce.” 

Set to graduate in the spring of 2022, Casas has big plans to run a small welding repair business to gain industry experience. He’s already his friends’ go-to person for fixing everything from barbecues to gates. So, becoming an entrepreneur is the perfect opportunity to be his own boss while building a portfolio on his way to a teaching career. 

 But then, as an older student, Casas says he’s already a mentor to his fellow learners. 

“Sometimes I catch myself counseling and teaching the students in the classroom there,” he shares. In his impromptu pep talks, he says, “I need you guys to be here in class, do your work and get it done.” 

According to his welding instructor Valdemar Reyna, having Casas in his class was like having an extra teaching assistant. 

“He was reinforcing my instruction,” recalls Reyna, a teacher at STC for eight years with a robust background in the automotive industry. “He would help students out, encourage them,” says the proud professor. “From the start of class to the end … he brought the good vibes.” 

According to the instructor, the great thing about welding is that it can serve students across multiple industries, from construction to automotive and even in the “race to space.” Teaching is just one rewarding career path of many in the field. He says, “Once you learn how to weld, it just depends on how open your mind is.” 

Reyna does not doubt that Casas will continue to carry the torch as a future teacher because his student is always asking penetrating questions and going the extra mile. After all, it’s the kind of determination the professor knows from personal experience. Reyna went back to school in his mid-30s to become a certified welder and reveals, “So what I saw in Juan, I saw a little bit of myself.” 

That’s why when it comes to becoming a welding teacher, he knows Casas will “be a great one.” 

The returning student says at STC, professors like Reyna are opening new possibilities in the trades, and he is learning from the best. 

“These guys are just so knowledgeable,” says Casas. “The professors have already been in the field for a long time.” His favorite part of class is when instructors tell their stories from industry, which inspires the student to follow in their footsteps: “One day, I hope that I get that experience and go back and teach.” 

He says his other source of inspiration is his wife of 21 years, whom he helped support on her journey to obtaining a doctorate. “Now, we’re working as a team for me to get my associates,” says the growing welder. 

“My husband has shown me that it is possible to work and continue to go to school,” says his proud wife. “He truly is enjoying his classes and always comes home telling me about his activities for the day… Si Se Puede! Sin Ganas No Ganas! You can do anything if you set your mind to it.” 

But building creations out of metal and forming the foundation for a new career aren’t the only things the returning student is constructing. Now, higher education has become a higher aspiration for the entire Casas family, especially for their three daughters. 

“I tell my kids, ‘Girls, you have big shoes to fill … there’s no excuse for you girls not to get a college degree.’”