As San Antonio bustles its way into the national spotlight, redefining cornerstones of our city’s infrastructure and human potential, an educational entourage has made its presence known, a veritable vanguard to “closing the gap” here in the Alamo City.
Mayor Julián Castro has led the charge through his creation of Café College, a sofa-laden haven for young people, void of espresso shots and acoustic singer-songwriter compilations. This café instead offers a kick of enthusiastic energy through a college-going philosophy that he sums up through a cameo on the organization’s website: “We’re committed to helping you find the right path to your education.”
Nestled snuggly in a cozy corner of Café College is Rebeca Gonzalez, program manager of the scholastic safe space, stationed caddy-corner to the downtown UTSA Campus at 131 El Paso.
“Café College is a place that Mayor Castro envisioned for students to receive college-based information and associated services for free,” Gonzalez said.
According to Gonzalez the space is fully funded by the City of San Antonio and a multitude of stakeholders are working to ensure its success.
“The city believes that in order to create a more vibrant economy, a better educated workforce, we need to educate the students so that they can understand the processes and contribute more to the growth,” Gonzalez said. “Having that commitment from San Antonio speaks volumes about the direction of our city.”
So where do the other organizations fit in? Gonzalez began our conversation by explaining that it isn't a triadic educational relationship between SAEP and Advise TX.
“The Partnership is now housed by Café College. What they provide at high schools, we now offer at a central location,” Gonzalez said.
SAEP is a 501(c) 3 that has been around in San Antonio for over 25 years, working at 25 target high schools and reaching more than 30,000 students annually.
“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, we just want to offer the services to a greater community,” Gonzalez said.
Texas A&M graduate Michael Ashburn has served in the field of education for more than 16 years. He joined the Partnership three years ago.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that not everyone is the same – people want to do different things,” Ashburn said. “Higher education is something to further your position in life, to better it.”
According to Ashburn, SAEP does this by working closely with first-generation students who don’t know anything about the next level, promoting the process of higher education. “Higher education isn’t just a four-year college, it’s whatever you want to do to improve your lot,” he said.
Ashburn, like most Partnership members, splits his time at two high schools. At Burbank High School, where 90% of students are on free or reduced lunch, Ashburn has seen a dearth of information exchange, a general misunderstanding of the opportunities out there.
“For those who want to work as an electrician, there’s more than just trade schools,” Ashburn said. “I ask them if they know about certifications for special trades they want to participate in. If they don’t get it, we break that down for them and see a lot of students go forward and become successful in these fields.”
Ashburn believes that it’s not about what you do; it’s how you do it. “It doesn’t matter what you do, go out there, get your certification, your degree, and go succeed in life,” Ashburn said. “Follow that passion and do something out of high school to better yourself.”
While the Partnership has been around since the 1990s, a new organization was created at Trinity University a few years ago, and it has a fearless leader.
“When the Education Department decided they wanted to take on Advise TX, it seemed like a great opportunity to get all students the information necessary to become successful,” said Audree Hernandez, program director of Trinity's Advise TX chapter.
According to Hernandez, the mission of Advise TX is to increase the number of students who apply to, enroll in, and graduate from college.
“It’s very important for advisers to talk to students about best fit (or) best match,” Hernandez said. “If we know that students are going to a best fit school, they are more likely to persist in college and graduate.”
Advise TX is currently working full-time at 16 high schools across San Antonio, from Madison High School on the northeast side to Somerset High School in the far southwest of Bexar County.
“Our student populations are so different, and so we use varying techniques to reach them,” Hernandez said. “There are one-on-one talks, student assemblies, presentations. We want to be able to let parents know that we are a resource for them, that we’re providing good information to their student.”
A particular difference between Advise TX and SAEP is that all of the members of Hernandez’s group are recent Trinity graduates.
“One of the reasons we are so successful in what we are doing, is because of the near-peer model,” Hernandez said. “Advisers relate to the students really well."
A goal that was set by the Trinity chapter for this school year was to increase college application submissions by 5 percent across the board – which has been reached.
“Some advisers got 90 percent of their senior class to submit an application. We are getting kids to submit college applications early on, and they now have more choices,” Hernandez said.
According to Hernandez it is important to acknowledge that this is a joint effort, and the need is so great there is no duplication of services. “Even with one adviser at the school, it is still not enough ... If we were to leave tomorrow, we would take three steps backwards at those schools.”
Lanier High School adviser Roha Teferra believes in the value of her presence so much that she stayed on for a second year in the position. With a gleam in her eye, Teferra related the defining experience that keeps her energized at her job.
“I had an undocumented student who came into my office everyday to work on applications for college, and she needed scholarships to attend a four-year university,” Teferra said. “She got into UTSA and money started pouring in throughout the spring. She came back to visit me and told me that she was loving it and so excited to be able to attend her first year for free. Most of the effort was hers – but to have a hand in that, wow.”
Teferra aims to make the most of every interaction that she has with her students. “So many kids don’t have the support that I had, I didn’t want a lack of guidance at home to affect their future,” she said. “Having this job helps me realize what a blessing it is to have that reminder.”
As Gonzalez reflected, all around her a huge event took place at Café College, called No Pie ‘Til You Apply. Café College, SAEP, and Advise TX all commit there full forces every Thanksgiving holiday to help students from all over the community on their college applications. When they finish, a piece of pie is waiting for them.
“College is not for everyone, but everyone deserves to know that there are opportunities out there should they choose to seek it out,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez cherishes her job because of the little victories, which leave a great impact.
“There are students who come in completely lost, but leave with a new light,” Gonzalez said. “Once you get a college education, no one can take that away from you.”
Adam Tutor is currently working at James Madison High School as a College Access Adviser for Trinity University’s Chapter of AdviseTX, a branch of the College Advising Corps. He also contributes developmental support to local nonprofit Dreams Fulfilled Through Music, an organization committed to providing musical therapy and performance to the special needs youth of Bexar County. When the sun sets, Adam is busy working on his new image in the jazz scene, both through playing his saxophone at local establishments, and developing his writing through his websitewww.soulzzafying.com. Please feel free to join his blog and Facebook page, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.