Teacher helps student make Iowa dream trip come true

Shannen Hickey and Paul Cortez are an odd couple to be traveling across the country together. But their one shared love brought them together this week — the Iowa Hawkeyes.

cortez and hickey
Paul Cortez and Shannen Hickey

Shannen, a devoted educator, and Paul, an ambitious college-bound student, flew to Iowa Sunday to register Paul for college. Their week-long trip includes orientation activities and Paul getting acclimated to college life.

“Paul is the nicest, hardest-working kid I’ve ever met. Given an opportunity, he could do a lot with his life. I want to make sure he gets an opportunity,” Shannen said. “He’s always wanted to go to Iowa and I’ve always fostered that interest.”

Shannen taught Paul at West Junior High in Boise. Shannen, who grew up in Iowa, decorated his classroom with Iowa colors, flags and sports memorabilia. Paul become hooked on the Hawkeyes and the two regularly bantered on Iowa sports — and the sport didn’t matter. Football, wrestling, women’s volleyball. They loved to talk about them all.

“I want to be a sports broadcaster — I’m a huge sports fan,” Paul said. “Mr. Hickey really sparked my interested in Iowa.”

Paul’s mother Karen Cortez works in the lunchroom at Borah High and dad’s a janitor — neither make enough to build a college fund. Karen warned Paul when he was young that she wouldn’t have the money for his college education. Still, Iowa didn’t leave his mind.

“My mom told me since I was little to work hard and have faith in God and things will work out,” Paul said. “She was right.”

Paul was a top graduate at Borah High (3.6 grade point average) and he earned numerous scholarships  — most to the University of Iowa.

“When he got the acceptance letter he came to West to show all his teachers — he was so proud,” Shannen said. “He has enough scholarship money to pay for almost everything.”

The scholarships pay for almost everything, but not everything. Paul doesn’t have the money to get to school, or come home to visit. That’s where the Hickey family comes in.

Shannen volunteered to drive Paul to this week’s registration and help him get acquainted to Iowa and college life. Paul’s never been anywhere near Iowa. The only traveling he’s done is a trip every four years to Guatemala City, Guatemala to visit his grandparents.

Shannen’s wife and three children were willing to give up dad over Father’s Day weekend as the drive East would take at least 24 hours.

Shannen’s mother Gwenn Hickey then stepped in and bought two plane tickets.

“She said to me ‘I already sent you a check so you can’t say no’,” said Shannen, who will now be home for Father’s Day.

Gwenn also volunteered to be Paul’s surrogate family while he’s in Iowa. She will host him on breaks and holidays and she’s there for support and maybe even a freshman welcome package.

“I’m so shocked — there are no words to say how grateful I am,” said Paul.

Also stepping in are the teachers at West Junior High, who started a collection to possibly send Karen Cortez to Iowa over Spring Break to see her son. Most of the staff members know Karen as she used to work in the West cafeteria.

“He wants to pay us back and I told him ‘you don’t pay it back, you pay it forward,’” Shannen said. “Talk to anyone on our staff who had Paul and they would agree 100 percent.”

Shannen will help Paul learn a bit about college life, introduce him to Gwenn and Iowa students and take him to his first professional sporting event — a Chicago Cubs game.

“Paul is a great, great person,” Shannen said. “As a teacher and a parent, what you want in a kid, that would be Paul.”


Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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