These Students Have Big Dreams. Their Colleges Had a Plan to Remove...

Higher Education

These Students Have Big Dreams. Their Colleges Had a Plan to Remove Hurdles.

Roadblocks to degrees don’t always come from inside the classroom.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Aug 17, 2022

These Students Have Big Dreams. Their Colleges Had a Plan to Remove Hurdles.
Cheryl Gonzales, left, and Jasmine Cortinas both had families and work experience when they started college.

There was a shift in Cheryl Gonzales’ life—a period of transition that seemed full of possibilities—around the time of a high school graduation. Not hers, her youngest daughter.

The 43-year-old mom of four (and grandmother of two) turned her thoughts back to an associates degree that had sat unfinished since she left St. Philip’s College, in San Antonio’s east side, rather suddenly 20 years before.

Maybe it was time to go back and finish.

Things were beginning to calm in Cheryl's life. She had been attending Narcotics Anonymous and was recovering from substance abuse that started in her early 30s. Through that process, Cheryl had begun to tease out the reasons underlying her addiction. She followed the thread of trauma that wound though her past—the homelessness, the abuse—back to its root at a sexual assault she experienced at 13.

No one had been there to help Cheryl, but maybe she could be there for others.

“I wanted to use that pain and turn it into something good,” Cheryl told EdSurge over the summer, speaking from her San Antonio home that’s a short drive to the campus. “I said, ‘I wanna help others who are going through those issues and let them know that they're not alone.’ What better way to use my pain and turn it into something better than by giving back to society?”

There’ll probably never be a silver bullet to getting students who stopped out of college to return to the classroom and walk across the graduation stage. That’s because students aren’t data points—they’re individuals—and their lives are more winding and complex than anything that can fit neatly into a spreadsheet.

But a college can work to clear some of the barriers in students’ paths.

In 2019, Cheryl Gonzales returned to St. Philip's College in San Antonio, the same campus where she first started her degree before pregnancy complications forced her to leave. Photo by Edward A. Ornelas for EdSurge.

Cheryl Returns to St. Philip’s

When Cheryl first enrolled at St. Philip's College, it was with a mind to become a special-education teacher. Her brother had survived a gunshot wound to the head as a child, but the traumatic injury had left him with developmental problems. Cheryl thought she would spend her career in education, helping kids like him.

But the then-22-year-old was pregnant with her fourth child, and her doctor feared that complications that plagued her previous pregnancy would arise again. In Cheryl’s second trimester, her doctor discovered a small tear in the placenta, signaling that the lifeline could become detached from the uterine wall.

“They said, ‘If you do not go on bedrest and stop working, you are going to lose this child,’” she recalls. “I did not speak to any of the advisors, [and] didn't know the importance of communicating with my teachers and all that. I just went on bedrest and left without any communication.”

When Cheryl decided to return to St. Philip’s in 2019 and finish her degree, she discovered she had a 0.5 GPA—the result of her sudden departure years before.

As a result, she was initially on academic probation, which means she didn’t qualify for the college’s financial aid. She paid for classes out-of-pocket, sticking to one or two courses per semester at first.

“It was kind of scary because, here I am, it's been a long time since I've been in school, and thinking how I'm gonna go with kids half my age that are probably my kids' ages,” Cheryl says, laughing. “I'm the hardest and toughest on myself about doing the best that I can.”

Cheryl pushed forward, her vision of the future expanded to eventually include a master’s in psychology. She made the tutoring center a veritable home away from home, and as of this summer had gotten her GPA up to 3.2. That paved the way for her to take part in the Alamo Colleges District’s Summer Momentum—where students can take classes tuition-free during the summer—and free textbook programs. She won a scholarship named for Henry Cisneros, the second Latino ever to serve as the city’s mayor, and even met the man in person.

Cheryl says she wants to be a role model for her own children. Two of them—who similarly hit pause on their college pursuits—have told her they’re interested in going back to school.

“I want them to understand, if I can do it, then you can do it, as well,” she says. “No matter what you're going through in life, no matter if you have kids, no matter if you have any kind of issues, don't lose that focus on life—that you can become somebody, you know?”

It’s a record of accomplishments that, when she was younger, she couldn’t have imagined for herself.

From Surviving to Thriving

To understand more fully Cheryl’s desire to pursue a career in psychology, you have to go back not just to a liminal moment in her life, but to what occurred before, and directly after.

Cheryl describes a tough upbringing in a poor Houston neighborhood, where friends lost their lives to drugs and gun violence. She faced violence at home, too, from a father who was dealing with his own trauma after serving in the Korean War. When Cheryl was 6 and her brother 8, he survived a gunshot to the head that left the right side of his body paralyzed.

“I'll be honest with you. I didn't have any dreams or goals growing up,” Cheryl says. “My life was all about survival and just trying to live.”

Cheryl was sexually assaulted at 13 by a boy whose advances she’d rejected. Instead of support, she found herself labeled a liar by people in her neighborhood. She reached a breaking point soon after, during an argument with her middle school vice principal. The man said he’d heard of her assault, Cheryl recalls, and lobbed it at her as an insult.

The pain that had been bubbling through her boiled over, and the young Cheryl—at not quite 5 feet tall—attacked him. It ended with a broken ankle for Cheryl, caused when a staff member tried to intervene, and her transfer to a school for students with behavioral issues.

Looking back, Cheryl sees that trauma as the event that put her on a course toward destructive actions. And that the adults in her life failed her, too.

“At that time I was angry, I was bitter, I was hurt,” Cheryl says. “Instead of trying to give me the help that I needed, they were sending me in the wrong direction.”

It’s a story Cheryl shared openly while serving as president of Active Minds, a student organization at St. Philip’s that promotes mental health education, as a keynote speaker at one of the group’s events.

“It was so freeing and exhilarating and such a time of healing,” Cheryl says. “We were able to help other survivors be able to come out about their story. Some of them were like, ‘I've never spoken about it.’”

Cheryl is a leader on campus, where she will be wrapping up her final semester in the fall. Her plan is to transition to Texas A&M University-San Antonio after graduation and continue with her bachelor’s degree.

When she talks about what has supported her through her associates degree, Cheryl talks about people. Professors who encouraged her to explore her interests. An advisor who fought for her academic probation to be lifted. Fellow students who shared information on applying to scholarships. A math lab tutor who, when Cheryl broke down crying during her first semester, walked her to the counseling center. She had tried to explain to a professor earlier that day that her father had passed away—only to feel brushed off by the instructor, who had been distracted during their meeting.

“If it wasn't for them stepping in, and then for me to have that option to go into the counseling office and talk to somebody, I don't know if I would've had enough willpower to continue my education,” Cheryl says. “And every accomplishment that I do, I'm just like, ‘Did I just do that? Am I doing that right now? Is that really me?’ And sometimes it brings tears to my eyes ‘cause I'm like, ‘God, I never thought I would be doing this.’”

Jasmine Cortinas tackled college while working full-time and caring for a young daughter. Photo by Edward A. Ornelas for EdSurge.

Jasmine’s Upward Journey

Jasmine Cortinas is relentlessly curious.

As the 29-year-old describes her path to Northwest Vista College—a short drive from her previous workplace at a hotel that caters to vacationers bound for SeaWorld—her hands flutter excitedly as she pauses to explain how commercial HVAC systems differ from those in the average home.

It was her ambition that got her a job in the hotel’s kitchen right after high school and, despite having no prior experience, a spot on the hotel’s maintenance team.

When Jasmine was ready to move on to the UT Health Sciences Center—her eyes fixed on a more-advanced HVAC job—she convinced the hiring manager to take her on and train her.

“It's gonna be four years, and I've been promoted twice already,” Jasmine says, “because I've shown them. During my interview, I told them, ‘I can prove to you that I could be a great asset.’ And I did. I never stopped proving that until now.”

That’s why it’s so surprising to hear that when Jasmine reached her senior year of high school—when it’s easy to imagine her flipping through college brochures and writing scholarship essays—she found herself with only nine credits.

Jasmine would make a mad dash for the rest of the year to make up her credits and graduate.

“I didn't have that good of a boyfriend at the time. He actually dropped out and he was bad enough that he was telling me like, ‘You're gonna be like me. You're gonna drop out,’” Cortinas recalls. “I didn't have enough knowledge being in a relationship [to see] that it was actually bringing me down.”

Jasmine dumped the boyfriend, but she says the rest of the problems with her high school classes fell on her. She regularly skipped class—except for the culinary program, where she and her classmates essentially ran a restaurant under the exacting guidance of a former professional chef.

“I guess it was because I liked the hands-on. I didn't like the school aspect where you had to sit and read,” Jasmine muses.

It’s a moot point now to ponder whether a leap to college right after high school would have benefited Jasmine, or just been more torturous. What’s clear is that she discovered her passion in the decade since, and it’s that—not a sense of academic obligation—that led her to the electrical engineering program at Northwest Vista.

Making Her Own Path

For the past two years, Jasmine’s days have started promptly at 5 a.m. After dropping her 5-year-old daughter off at daycare, she spends the free hour before work doing homework.

Then during her 30-minute lunch break, more homework.

After work, still more homework, until bathtime. When her daughter finally falls asleep—well, you can guess.

“I would get back on the laptop,” Jasmine says. “I would be on the laptop ‘till about midnight or one in the morning. Then I would go to sleep. I would wake up at five in the morning, and I would do it all over again.”

Unlike the typical image of a first-time college student, Jasmine had been in the workforce for a decade when she enrolled in Northwest Vista College. And she’s got the unending needs of her daughter to tend to. She says one support program that has helped keep her on track is Summer Momentum—part of the Alamo Colleges District’s Keep Learning Plan—which offered her free tuition for summer classes. That took some of the financial burden off her shoulders.

“My plan was to take summer classes from the start because at the age that I started college, being 28, I felt like I was so late taking it,” Jasmine says. “But knowing that they were gonna be free, that was really great news to hear.”

Jasmine has consistently taken three classes per semester while working full-time.

Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District, says there’s been a conversation happening in higher education over the past four years on serving a student body that is changing. Students like Jasmine, who have jobs, families and a slew of responsibilities demanding their attention. Colleges and universities are recognizing that their students aren’t worried just about their education.

Those changes are fueling the direction of the Keep Learning Plan, a collection of programs at Alamo Colleges District campuses that aim to help students stay enrolled by providing free summer classes, textbooks and reductions in other fees. Beyond the program, campuses also provide food pantries, clothing pantries and mental health counseling. It’s part of the district’s credo to end poverty in San Antonio through education.

“We are looking at today's Alamo College student, whether they're 18 or 38, and saying, ‘These are their current needs. How can we partner with them to address those needs?’” Flores says. “They're not academic challenges. They’re life considerations.”

The college district—made up of five community colleges in San Antonio—serves a student population of around 72,000 that is 64 percent Latino, according to the most recent available figures. Nearly half are considered economically disadvantaged, and 73 percent rely on financial aid and scholarships to pay tuition. Most of its students—68 percent—attend part-time. Flores says around 15,000 students are parents.

Colleges in the system are equipped with Advocacy Centers, where students can find help accessing support, Flores says, either on or off campus. The college district has partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank, for instance, to fund staff called “benefit navigators” who help students apply for services like SNAP or link them to community resources.

“Sometimes these are students who are in crisis. They reach out and come to the Advocacy Center, talk to the staff [about] wraparound support,” Flores says, “and then they end up being successful within the courses and within the semester.”

Just Say Yes

Jasmine says her aunt and sister have been big sources of support while working on her associates degree. There were her professors, too, who always made time to help with class material, and fellow students who never made her feel out of place for starting college later in life. But when she walked across the graduation stage and accepted her associates degree in May, there was also a coworker present to watch her walk the stage—he’s the person Jasmine says encouraged her straightaway to take the leap to college.

“He was like, ‘If you're thinking about going to school, just do it,’” Jasmine says. “I'm so glad I did. I would've regretted not enrolling at the time that I did. And it was just because he said to do it. Don't even talk about it. Just take action.”

Jasmine has carried on that attitude, taking hold of whatever opportunity came her way, be it the two honors societies she’s part of, or setting a phone reminder for her financial aid applications. When she received a recruitment email last year for the NASA Community for Aerospace Scholars—a program for community college STEM students—she decided to apply.

Jasmine was accepted for what the program calls Mission 1, a five-week lecture series with NASA scientists and engineers. It was a fantastic opportunity—that just so happened to coincide with her college finals last fall.

“I was [a working] full-time, single mom, taking three classes, and then I was like, ‘This is just five weeks long,’” Jasmine recounts. “Then it was the most stressful semester. It was just so intense, but it was fun.”

Jasmine was invited back for the program’s second “mission,” a week-long challenge where her team of 12 students had to formulate a plan for sending a rover to Mars. As she prepares to shift this fall to the electrical engineering bachelor’s program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Jasmine is already part of another NASA workforce pipeline program called the L’Space Academy. Her new team is learning how to plan a Mars mission.

“It focuses a lot on the instruments and all of the robotic components on the rover itself, as far as the systems part of it. And that just intrigues me a lot,” Jasmine explains. “What are we gaining from this mission? What kind of instruments are gonna be on a robot and why?”

Along the way, Jasmine’s pursuit of an associates degree shifted from an endpoint to a launching pad. Her plans have evolved to include spending summers getting as much experience with NASA as possible, with the goal of working in robotics there after her next graduation.

Knowing what she knows now, Jasmine says she would have pushed herself to start college right after high school—when she had more time and less responsibilities on her hands. Still, Jasmine doubts she would have thought about becoming an engineer back then. She definitely has a clearer vision for herself now.

“I'm so glad that I found that, and I have a passion in something,” she says. “I would definitely be surprised, and I would root for myself. ‘You just keep going. You're there.’”

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