'So much has changed," Dr. Bernadette Quihuis-Alvarez said as she walked into Manzo Elementary School in Barrio Hollywood.

Sure has.

The west-side school is ecology-driven. On its patio, surrounded by classrooms, chickens roam; winter greens sprout from the ground, and workers erect a top-of-the-line greenhouse. Silvery water silos hold rainwater; earthworms snuggle underneath compost, and inside a hydroponic classroom sits a tank of tilapia fish and a cornucopia of vegetables that reach for the growing lights.

Quihuis-Alvarez, 37, visited Manzo recently for the first time in the nearly three decades since she attended her neighborhood school. Principal Mark Alvarez invited Quihuis-Alvarez, a doctor of osteopathy with El Rio Community Health Center's El Pueblo Clinic, to talk to the students.

While she found a school far different from the one she attended, a critical key has remained the same: the students.

"I thought they were very clever," she said several days after her visit. "I tried not to underestimate them, but I think I did."

Quihuis-Alvarez went to Manzo with an encouraging message and left with hope that maybe one day a Manzo student will follow her path.

She stood in front of about 25 students in Lizeth Grijalva's mixed fourth-fifth-grade class. The role model, in her white doctor coat with a stethoscope in the pocket, introduced herself by saying that at one time, she sat where they were sitting.

"I walked to school every day," said Quihuis-Alvarez, who grew up on West Delaware Street, a few blocks from Manzo.

She talked about her love for reading - "I pretended I was the character in the story" - and how sometimes she was bullied because she chose to excel in school.

"Some kids didn't want to be my friend," she told her rapt audience. "Some kids said it wasn't cool to read and do math."

But she surrounded herself with positive friends, kids like her who liked to read and behave in class. She also had a supporting cast at home.

She credits her family for keeping her on task. They reminded her that she was smart. They told her to ignore the taunts.

When she was a youngster, Quihuis-Alvarez was exposed to possibilities. Her mother, Marlene Martinez, works at Tucson Medical Center and encouraged her to focus on her dreams of a career in a medical field. Her dad, Ray Carley Quihuis, worked in the mines and later for the city, and bolstered her interest in science.

Her grandmother, Matilda Celaya, a nurse at St. Mary's, talked about her work, and her grandfather, Robert Celaya, a maintenance worker at the hospital, worked on science projects with her.

She told the Manzo students she had set a goal for herself while she was a student like them.

"I could see St. Mary's Hospital from my house. I imagined myself working there," she told the kids. And she now does, one week a month.

She went on to tell the students not to be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help and to fail. Yes, she told them, failure is all right - as long as they learn from their mistakes.

"Failure can lead to achievement and success," she told them.

Hers was a pep talk. She wanted to give back to a community that sustained her when she was a kid.

Yet a single question from a student triggered a sad memory for Quihuis-Alvarez. A boy told her that he wants to go to college, but a relative says college would be too difficult for him.

"I heard that from family," she said days after her visit. Over the phone I could feel her tear up. I sensed that she felt the boy's dreams were once hers.

But she knows something those students haven't learned yet - that if a kid from the barrio has dreams and drive, she can make them come true.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at (520) 573-4187 or at netopjr@azstarnet.com