Tenth in a Series: A Rising Southside
We continue our series examining the economic, educational and cultural growth on San Antonio’s Southside today with stories from two educational institutions. Links to all stories in this series can be found at the end of this post, including the series opener: “It’s The Decade of Downtown, But Don’t Miss San Antonio’s Rising Southside.
Like too many of our students even today, growing up in the barrios of the Westside in the ’50s and ’60s, college was not part of the conversation at home, although I would often hear the bells of Our Lady of the Lake University and know there were opportunities out there. But they were for other people, certainly not a little girl whose knees shook walking in to algebra class.
But my life would take a different path. When I was 30, divorced and with two small children to raise, someone took a chance on me, paying for my first semester of classes at San Antonio College. An undeniable love of learning was born, and my eyes were opened to the possibilities that education could bring. And so I chose to give back to others with a career in education that took me far from the Westside, and finally, it has brought me back to South San Antonio in time to witness changes in this community I could never have dreamed of.
I am blessed to feel confident that my path has led me to where I am meant to be – leading Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA), the newest university in the Texas A&M System that answers the call for higher education in this historically underserved region of the city.
The university that the late Senator Frank Madla and the many members of the Bexar County delegation fought for throughout the 2000s is now approximately 4,200 students strong with more than 4,500 alumni, and offers 20 undergraduate degrees and 10 graduate degrees in the arts and sciences, business and education.
Today, our city – the second largest in the state – proudly boasts of being the only city with two members of our state’s largest systems of public higher education.
TAMU-SA is the fastest growing university in the state, experiencing double-digit growth each of the last five semesters with an overall enrollment increase of 190% since the fall of 2008. The enrollment growth over the past five years demonstrates just how urgently a university on the Southside of San Antonio was needed to provide a degree-granting institution of higher education in this underserved community. The Texas A&M University System stands behind us as we create a new standard of excellence in education throughout South Texas.
The new system-wide initiative called EmpowerU, led by San Antonio’s own regent, Elaine Mendoza, is raising the level of excellence and transparency across academics and student success initiatives, and we’re committed to incorporating the standards in every aspect of university life.
We stand proud to be a teaching university: our research is applied and action-oriented toward the issues of today. One issue affecting us all is the education of our young people in K-12. Through an aggressive initiative we call Ready For Day One, we are revolutionizing teacher preparation.
Our K-12 system cannot turn this tide around alone; it is the universities who prepare the teachers who in turn, educate students to higher education.
These dedicated K-12 professionals have told us what they, our customers, must have in order for teachers to be successful in their classrooms. So as an upper-level institution we have joined hands with Dr. Bruce Leslie and our Alamo Colleges, and partnered with 11 school districts, their teachers and administrators to launch the Ready for Day One initiative for teacher preparation and for school administrator education through the School Leadership Forum.
Cybersecurity and Information Technology
We are also applying these models for success in areas such as cybersecurity and information technology, water conservation, and the sciences. Our College of Arts & Sciences is taking the lead in the Water Conservation & Technology Center through a collaborative with other Texas A&M System Agencies.
Housed in our College of Business, our Center for Information Technology & Cyber Security was designated a Center of Educational Excellence by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. Coming at the same time San Antonio was named the hub for military cybersecurity, we launched our Affordable Degree in Information Technology for approximately $10,000. This new degree model is made possible by partnerships with the Alamo Colleges and existing Early College High School programs.
High-tech Classrooms for a Modern Workforce
By keeping a finger on the pulse of the local and global business communities, our faculty offer real-world experience and provide opportunities for hands-on learning while technology in the classroom keeps students on the cutting edge of business practices. An innovative e-book program incorporates multiple publishers and to date, has saved our students over $1.5 million. TAMU-SA’s participation in a pilot study with CourseSmart has revealed methods technology can track a student’s progress so that professors can identify problem topics in time to address areas for improvements before a student gets too far behind – a pilot tracked by The New York Times.
By purposefully working with our community partners through cutting-edge initiatives like Proyecto U and the Toyota Texas Teacher Scholarship, we are ensuring that the courses we offer and the quality of our programs truly meet the needs of a growing Texas.
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Low Tuition for a Diverse Student Body
More than 10% are veterans or military community members. An integral part of our culture is being not simply military friendly but “military embracing,” and it is in that spirit that the design of one of our earliest buildings, the Patriots’ Casa, is tailored to support our military community students as well as their families as they transition from warrior to school to successful civilian careers. Students can also take advantage of an accelerated Army R.O.T.C. program, or receive credit for military experience towards a B.A.A.S. degree.
The demographics of A&M-San Antonio mirror that of the city itself: the student body is approximately 68% Hispanic and 68% female. At our university, the average age of our students is 32, 72% report that they are working, and 74% of students self-report as being first in their families to attend college.
The gains we have made are not just statistics, for each number represents an individual, a student who may very well be the first in their family to graduate, the one who will change their family’s history forever and in turn, change an entire community. For many of these students, accessibility and affordability are the two criteria that a university must offer them.
They face questions such as: Will I be able to get to class? Does someone else in my family need the car when I need to get to class? Can I take classes in the evenings after my full-time job? After seeing action in Iraq and Afghanistan, will I be able to relate to my fellow students? And, will I really be able to afford it without going into debt for the rest of my life?
A&M-San Antonio’s tuition rates are the lowest for a university in the region. I have had students tell me that when they saw our low tuition rates, they thought it was a typo! That can be the difference between earning an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree, and why the Texas A&M System strongly believes in keeping tuition costs as low as possible – not simply competitive with other universities in the area, but low enough to be affordable for the students we serve.
Our goal is to never turn away anyone who demonstrates a strong desire, commitment and willingness to work hard to earn a college education. It is still the best hope for economic success and the American Dream. In 2009, the average salary of those with a college degree averaged almost $60,000, double that of those with only a high school diploma. High school dropouts can expect to earn not more than $21,000.
“The world is our campus starting on the Southside.”
For the university itself, an economic impact study conducted by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Station reported that from fall 2011 to fall 2012, A&M-San Antonio generated an $81 million economic impact to the region.
Though to some extent the economic impact of a college education can be measured by dollars and cents, the impact it has on the heart of a community is difficult to define. The closest experience is the feeling I get each day as I approach our Main Campus on University Way – the beautiful, mile-long boulevard that starts at Loop 410 with the Torre de Esperanza and ends with a magnificent vista of our growing campus. Our buildings reflect our history, inspired by the early missions yet connecting us to our future. The architecture proudly proclaims who we were, who we are and where we are going to impact.
I see the magic of this transformation of the Southside, very much like the transformation I see in our students. With one building completed, two more to come online next year and nearly 700 acres to grow into, Texas A&M-San Antonio is truly changing the landscape of San Antonio forever.
Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier became the inaugural president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio in 2010 after serving as the institution’s executive director. Prior to her career with A&M-San Antonio, she held a number of national education appointments, serving under both Presidents Bush and President Bill Clinton. Dr. Ferrier has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, and she serves on the board of directors for a wide variety of organizations across San Antonio. She earned her Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Education from Our Lady of the Lake University, and a Doctorate of Educational Administration from Texas A&M University. Here, she reflects on how her personal journey of education inspired her to lead a university that is shaping the lives of thousands of students, from the Southside and beyond.