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Pathways to College

Through a range of support programs, UT Arlington helps high school students navigate the road to higher education and brighter futures
By Sarah Bahari
Illustration by Yuta Onoda

Growing up, college never occurred to Laura Varela. Her parents barely finished middle school, and like most of her friends, she assumed she’d graduate from high school and find a job to pay bills.

But a school counselor saw potential in the teenager and suggested she consider college—even helped guide her through the sometimes laborious admissions process. Now a UT Arlington student, Varela helps teenagers forge a path to college as a mentor at Lamar High School in Arlington.

“College was not remotely on my mind, but the counselor told me, ‘You’re a smart girl. You can do this,’ ” recalls Varela, who completed a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and is pursuing a second degree in management. “For a lot of kids, college is not part of the equation. They just want to finish high school and get a job. We’re trying to change that mindset.”

Through its Bound for Success, GO Centers, University Crossroads, and other programs, UT Arlington provides avenues for promising high school students to complete their studies and pursue a degree. Many of these students come from low-income families, historically underrepresented among university populations.

At a GO Center in Mansfield, Rebecca Esposito counsels Abigale Standefer, a high school junior interested in UT Arlington’s nursing program.

According to the Pew Research Center, college enrollment among low-income students increased over the past several decades, but the 2007-09 recession eroded recent gains. In 2012, 50.9 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college. Enrollment among middle- and high-income students grew to 64.7 and 80.7 percent, respectively.

Established in 2013, Bound for Success aims to close this gap. A partnership with the Arlington, Grand Prairie, and Mansfield school districts, the program provides deferred, unconditional admission to high-achieving high school graduates, as well as advising support to help students prepare for college. The collaboration seeks to strengthen local communities and the workforce while increasing opportunity.

“A college education provides students with a spirit of discovery, inquiry, and creativity, as well as a sense of community—all of which enable them to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world,” UT Arlington President Vistasp Karbhari says. “Bound for Success is a warm welcome from UT Arlington to each and every student who aspires to a level of achievement and success that only a college degree can provide.”

Building A College-Going Culture

Alumna Rebecca Esposito sifts through papers on her desk at Mansfield High School, reviewing student records. She is one of nine Bound for Success counselors who meet with students to discuss their options, organize financial aid workshops for families, and arrange campus tours.

Some of the students already plan to attend college; others are unsure. Esposito ’10, the first in her family to attend college, can relate.

“I knew so little before I went to college that I had to ask really basic questions, and knowing where to turn was daunting. My parents tried to help, but this was new to them, too. As a counselor, students know they can ask me anything. I understand what they’re going through.”

Bound for Success, which launched in Arlington schools and expanded to Grand Prairie and Mansfield in 2014, is tailored for each district. In Arlington and Mansfield, the program serves high school students ranked in the top 25 percent of their class and offers them early admission to UT Arlington, provided they earn a high school diploma.

In Grand Prairie, Bound for Success serves every junior from three high schools, with requirements based on class ranking and SAT or ACT scores. Students in the top 25 percent of their junior class receive deferred, unconditional admission. Those outside the top quarter may earn admission by meeting minimum SAT or ACT scores and other criteria, such as earning credit through the Tarrant County College or Dallas County Community College districts.

They face financial problems, pregnancies, family issues. There are so many routes to college, and I’m here to help them find the right one.

University Crossroads’ SAT math workshop helps students sharpen skills.

Jeffrey Miller, executive director of College Readiness for Grand Prairie schools, says the district’s leaders identified a worrisome gap. Each year more than 60 percent of Grand Prairie students say they plan to attend college. Yet only 40-45 percent enroll, which Miller attributes to the “classic summer melt.”

“Without mentorship or guidance, some capable kids fall through the cracks. They forget a housing deposit or run into financial problems. Their applications are missing details. They get busy with work and change their plans. By joining Bound for Success, we want to build a culture of college-going, so that students even in elementary school see this as an expectation.”

More schools and districts could join Bound for Success, says Dara Newton, who oversees the program as UT Arlington’s recruiting director. Western Hills High School in Fort Worth recently signed on in a pilot program, and University leaders have fielded interest from other districts.

“Bound for Success is about improving not only the lives of students but entire communities,” Newton says. “The earnings gap between college graduates and those without degrees is growing, and strong communities depend on an educated workforce.”

‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE’

From her office in Lamar High School’s GO Center, Varela, the UTA mentor, sees firsthand the hurdles students encounter. “Some kids, even smart ones, are lost,” she says. “They face financial problems, pregnancies, family issues. There are so many routes to college, and I’m here to help them find the right one.”

Begun six years ago by the UT Arlington College of Education’s Pathways to College Access and Career Readiness, GO Centers are housed at 16 high schools in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everman, Mansfield, and Grand Prairie. About 50 student mentors offer tutoring, assistance with college and financial aid applications, and résumé and career counseling, among other services. The centers received more than 27,000 visits during the 2013-14 school year.

Alicia Hooper, a graduate student in social work, and Abby Dansoa, a nursing junior, mentor students at a GO Center.

Assistant Professor Carla Amaro-Jimenez, who directs the Pathways to College Access and Career Readiness program, says the GO Centers serve as a bridge between high school and life beyond. “We work with every single student who walks through the door, from the college bound to the kids who plan to go straight to work. We’re there to help them figure out life after graduation.”

Like Varela, many of the mentors are bilingual and first-generation college students, and they’re encouraged to share their personal stories.

“Mentors draw a lot on who they are. Many were told they were not college material,” Dr. Amaro-Jimenez says. “They talk about their struggles, what they have gained, and what it took them to get there. By drawing on their own college paths, they show the students that anything is possible if they set their hearts and minds to it.”

A DREAM DEFERRED

Giselly Cobas-Rincon thought her dream of earning a college degree had ended. Two months shy of graduation in 2007, she was forced to leave her family and flee Cuba for political reasons. Settling in Dallas, she assumed a degree was out of reach. Then she met Michele Bobadilla, UTA’s senior associate vice president for outreach services and community engagement and assistant provost for Hispanic student success. Bobadilla also co-founded University Crossroads, which works to expand access to higher education for first- and second-generation college students.

She helped Cobas-Rincon enroll at UT Arlington and secure scholarships and financial aid. The political science major plans to graduate in May and hopes to work in public policy or immigration.

Cobas-Rincon is one of more than 33,000 students helped by University Crossroads, a UT Arlington outreach based in Dallas. The organization offers free SAT math preparation courses, writing and financial literacy workshops, and college fairs and community expos, as well as office and meeting space.

Bobadilla says the test preparation courses have proved particularly successful. Students who attend at least three classes typically increase their SAT math score by 70 or more points. She notes that the state’s rapidly changing demographics, including the growing Hispanic population, make University Crossroads and other such initiatives critical to student success and economic prosperity.

“We have to work together to make sure our children are prepared for the global workforce,” Bobadilla says. “Students face big challenges, and getting that first diploma in your family is extraordinary. It not only changes the student’s life, but also the whole trajectory of that family’s future.”

Cobas-Rincon credits UT Arlington and University Crossroads for her rising arc.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re walking in place, surrounded by walls. You don’t know where to go,” she says. “It just takes someone stepping in and helping you find your way. The more people we can reach and educate, the better off we’ll be tomorrow.”

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