This story comes to us from NBC Latino.
Eddie Vargas can hardly believe that he’s winding down his sophomore year at Texas Tech University. A first-generation college student, Eddie recalls how difficult it was to persuade his parents to allow him to leave his hometown of Midland, Texas for a college two hours away.
“Persuading my parents to allow me to attend a college far away from home was a challenge,” says the nineteen-year-old. “Figuring out financial aid, living on my own – those are all challenges I went through, which makes talking to local students about what I went through relatable.”
Vargas is a student mentor with South Plains Generation Texas, an educational statewide initiative of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which recently awarded Texas Tech’s College of Education with a $200,000 grant. Approximately 10 GenTXperts, as the Texas Tech student mentors are affectionately called, are employed to work 20 hours a week fostering a college-going culture and career readiness among 13 partnering school districts in the South Plains region of Texas. These school districts represent 70 percent of the total student population in the region – about 53,000 students – 60 percent of whom are Hispanic.
The region’s college-going rate is approximately 52.5 percent, a number that Vargas and his fellow student mentors hope to improve. Through high school outreach events, financial aid form seminars, application workshops, college information fairs, and one on one mentoring sessions with students and interested parents, these freshmen, sophomore and juniors across academic disciplines are providing much-needed insight on preparing for college. The program, which began in 2010, also offered 50 $1,000 scholarships to students in the region this year.
“These college students are doing something so powerful in encouraging more of our high school students to pursue higher education,” says Janie Ramirez, the program’s outreach program administrator and a first generation college graduate herself. “In an area of Texas where college isn’t always a priority for our students, the connection of sharing similar experiences through mentorship is especially important. It’s not enough to finish high school – it’s a matter of survival that we be successful in this endeavor because it will affect future generations. We have to, because it may be too late if we wait.”
Dulce Segura says that she loves sharing her experiences with high school students and families, citing that as a Latina in an immigrant family, it can be particularly hard to assert the need for higher education. It’s the sense of common identity, the 19-year-old freshman human development and family studies major says, that allows her to help close the education gap among students like her.
“My parents never graduated from high school and for them college was never an option,” explains Dulce, who eventually wants to go to law school and practice law. “And so I never knew how to take the steps towards getting there. As a first generation student, you need to explain to your parents what the FAFSA is, figure out financial aid, dorms, which classes to take, everything. It can be too overwhelming to even try.”
By outlining the specific steps that area high school students need to take to get to college through a variety of peer mentoring events, GenTXperts offer valuable insight that Ramirez says is often missing from other outreach programs. With just half of the region’s high school students headed off to college, Rodriguez is banking on success with initiative and a bump in this year’s college acceptance rate among the region’s high school seniors.
“You have to start with awareness. And it’s not a Hispanic problem, it’s an issue for the entire community,” says the 55 year old, who as a teen worked at Texas Tech as a custodian. “I worked as a janitor because I did not want to work in the migrant fields anymore. I was given the President’s area to clean because they needed someone who could read any special instructions left for the cleaning crew.”
Ramirez later applied to Texas Tech and graduated in 1979 with a degree in business administration. After 25 years working successfully in the corporate world, Rodriguez headed back to her alma mater for a job interview in the very offices she used to clean.
“I’ve gone full circle. And you know, when I see students like Eddie and Dulce working towards that degree and encouraging others to do the same, I know we’re having a direct impact on the students who need it most.”
Nina Terrero is a reporter with NBC Latino.
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