In a reflection of the Valley’s growing university culture, over 15 schools and several businesses filled a conference room in McAllen for the first ever College Bound Expo, providing information to university hopefuls from around the Valley. The expo is one of several initiatives planned by College Bound, an organization founded to help Rio Grande Valley high school students surmount the odds they face (in spite of outstanding academic performances) when it comes to college enrollment.
According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, nearly one-third of students entering a 2-year community college or four-year university in the United States are first-generation. These students are also more likely to be minorities and statistically less likely to graduate; in six years, 40 percent of first-generation students will have earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or a certificate, compared to 55 percent of their peers whose parents attended college. The myriad of social, cultural and academic obstacles facing first-generation students contribute to this low graduation rate, and while many intelligent, talented students are planning to be the first in their family to achieve a post-secondary education, some do not know how to begin the process that will lead to college.
“All students have the potential to accomplish great things,” says Alihermy (Ali) J. Valdez, Founder of College Bound and Director of College Counseling at IDEA College Preparatory. “In my experience, tapping this potential is a matter of convincing students to believe in themselves.”
College Bound epitomizes this philosophy, offering a solution to students and their families by covering the entire college admissions process from freshman year of high school to graduation through one-on-one counseling. Valdez has a hands-on approach, meeting with students several times a week. This year will be the 4th graduating class Valdez has worked with and throughout all those years, she can proudly say that 100 percent of students have made it to the next stage of their education: college or university.
Priscilla Dominguez is among that 100 percent; she is currently enrolled as a freshman at Texas Tech in Lubbock. Dominguez says she knew almost nothing about the college enrollment process as an 8th grader at IDEA-College Prep; her parents understood even less than that. “I didn’t know anything about essays, financial aid…” said Dominguez, who is now studying Speech Patterns and Human Pathology. She met Valdez, her school’s college counselor, who took her and her parents in and provided information about applying. Dominguez now volunteers her time in-between semesters to assist Valdez with anything College Bound. “I feel like if Ali’s helping, I can help too,” said Dominguez. “I think everyone deserves the opportunity to go to college, and College Bound is something that parents can really lean on if they have questions.”
Valdez has always had a spot in her heart for education, starting her career as a 7th grade Pre-algebra and Life Science teacher at IDEA Public Schools, where she taught for three years. “It was a huge learning experience and the school had great resources,” she remembers. “We organized college field lessons for our students and they participated in overnight visits to colleges like Texas State and Rice University.” She realized that although younger kids may not know it, visiting universities helps them understand that going to college is attainable for them and something to aspire to. From that experience, Valdez was convinced that students needed to start thinking about college as early as middle school.
Valdez worked as a Corp. Member Advisor for Teach for America for two summers in Houston, which provided unique leadership and growth opportunities in a variety of roles from instructional to operational. “From there, I transitioned into the Director of College Counseling role at IDEA CP, which was one of the best decisions I have made,” says Valdez.
Valdez makes sure her students and parents understand the added value in considering colleges that may be out of the area and the importance of researching their options. She also helps them overcome cultural hurdles that influence them to exclude entire categories of schools that would be perfect for them (based on graduation rates, specialized programs offered and financial aid packages) because of preconceived notions about affordability or homesickness. “To many parents, the further away students are, the more expensive,” Valdez says. She also has to explain to the parents that it’s not about wanting to send students out of the area and far away from their loving arms, but finding the best fit for them academically. “For some students, the best fit is UTRGV, for others it’s Austin College, and in some cases it’s Harvard.”
But as the college-going culture continues to rise in the RGV, some parents are learning to let go, while being as supportive as possible. “We have to…If you don’t get out there, you don’t know what options you have,” said Ramiro Hernandez, whose daughter, Nacole, is a junior at Edinburg North High School. “Later in life you can find out you could’ve gone there or done this, and you just didn’t know about it – that’s pretty bad. We’re trying to give her every option possible.”
Working as Director of College Counseling at IDEA CP, while successfully helping other students through College Bound, Valdez is a force against academic failure. “We do our best to keep students from falling through the cracks, sitting with them frequently to make sure they are making progress in the right classes while building qualities that colleges look for,” she says. However, she says some of the biggest conflicts when it comes to preparing her kids for college is the culture in the RGV. “Getting to college is such a huge accomplishment for a lot of families,” Valdez says. While graduating is certainly an achievement worthy of recognition, she hopes that one day, it will be the norm for all families in the Valley. “Everyone can achieve their goals with proper planning, preparation, and attitude. Once students understand this, there’s nothing that can stop them.”