From holding classes in portable buildings and a defunct elementary school to building a “beacon of hope” for Southside students on a lush, green campus of nearly 700 acres, Texas A&M University-San Antonio has come a long way in its 10 years of existence, said the institution’s first president, Maria Ferrier.
Where vast swathes of undeveloped land once stood, now the university’s Torre de Esperanza, or Tower of Hope, rises into the sky, signaling to San Antonians the presence of the city’s newest four-year institution.
“I remember when I was a child and had no clue that I could ever go to college, I lived near Our Lady of the Lake University and I remember from my bedroom I could hear the bells for that university and somehow it inspired a hope deep inside my heart,” Ferrier said. “That is what the Torre de Esperanza does for the entire [Southside] community.”
The first four-year institution on San Antonio’s South Side, Texas A&M-San Antonio serves mostly first-generation students and the majority of its student body comes from within Bexar County. The institution estimates that it offers the lowest-priced four-year degree in San Antonio and 91 percent of full-time students used some form of financial aid in 2016-17.
Current university enrollment totals a little more than 6,500 full- and part-time students, illustrating immense growth from its start with 126 students as a university system center. Still, university officials indicate that the most significant growth is yet to come, with some estimates indicating the school could eventually serve up to 50,000 students.
As the South Side’s first four-year institution, Texas A&M University-San Antonio has the potential to provide close access to higher education where there hasn’t been any before.
The next youngest institution in San Antonio is the University of Texas at San Antonio, which celebrates 50 years this summer. So while Texas A&M-San Antonio’s last decade has been marked with tremendous milestones of growth and change, the future promises even greater transformation.
Madla’s dream realized
Even though Texas A&M-San Antonio will celebrate its 10th anniversary on May 13, the institution’s history as the only four-year school on the South Side extends more than a decade before its opening.
In the late 1990s, State Sen. Frank Madla sought proposals from the Texas Tech University System, the University of Texas System, and the Texas A&M System to open a new institution of higher education on San Antonio’s South Side. In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved Texas A&M to open a system center, connected to Texas A&M-Kingsville, on Palo Alto College’s campus.
The school started out in portable buildings at PAC and only served juniors and seniors, with the idea that students could take their first two years of classes at Palo Alto and then continue their education at the Texas A&M center.
Seven years after the center was established, the Verano Land Group donated 694 acres south of Loop 410, making today’s ornately tiled campus possible. It wasn’t until 2009, however, until then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill that established Texas A&M-San Antonio as a stand-alone institution. This is the milestone that university officials will celebrate Monday.
Ferrier, who previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, started as the system center’s executive director in 2008 and eventually became the university’s inaugural president.
She oversaw the school as its modern-day campus was under construction and students took classes at nearby Olivarez Elementary. For Ferrier, it was important that the campus reflect the San Antonio culture and aesthetics with which most students were familiar.
“The architecture of our buildings that represent the South Side of San Antonio really did more than just give a nod to the Missions and the early history of San Antonio,” Ferrier said. “The artwork, the music, even the tiles and the ways the bricks are so artistically placed in the outside of the buildings – it all says to our students that [they] are home. ‘Welcome home, this is the place that you will flourish.’”
Now, current university President Cynthia Teniente-Matson jokes that each time people return to campus, they can probably spot a new building.
But, for Teniente-Matson, it is a necessary rate of expansion. Enrollment growth has been rapid in the 10 years since the institution was founded. From 2008 to 2013, the school’s enrollment grew more than 200 percent, making it the fastest-growing university in the state. In 2016, the first class of freshmen enrolled at the university.
Marissa Lyssy was a member of the inaugural freshman class and serves as the student body president, with plans to graduate next fall. In Lyssy’s two-and-a-half years at Texas A&M-San Antonio, she has witnessed significant change, including the school’s first residence hall and a new science and technology building.
“If you come up University Way where the tower is and drive over that little hump, and see the cars and the students walking to campus, you come to realize that this is far greater than Sen. Frank Madla ever envisioned,” Teniente-Matson said. “This is beyond his imagination.”
Connecting students to campus
When Teniente-Matson first arrived at the university in 2015, about 97 percent of students came from within Bexar County, she estimates. With the addition of a few thousand students and three freshman classes, the number of students coming from outside Bexar County has increased to 25 percent.
Lyssy, a student from Floresville ISD, represents the traditional student Texas A&M University-San Antonio has attracted in its initial decade. As a campus tour guide, Lyssy sees what the future years may bring.
“I toured a high school that had 33 students interested in coming to Texas A&M-San Antonio,” said Lyssy, the first student from her high school to attend. “I see us growing a lot in the next two to five years.”
In future years, the profile of the typical student may change slightly as the university plans for immense growth. By 2022, Teniente-Matson expects enrollment will hit 10,000 students. In a few decades, the university could reach maximum capacity of 50,000.
“The  master plan drew us out to 50,000 students because as a growing university, you have to think about this like building a city,” Teniente-Matson said. “If we are able to continue to grow at this quick pace – and you have to remember that the economy will ebb and flow and [funding from] the Legislature will ebb and flow – [it will be] 30 years before we see ourselves at that pace and volume.”
With more students will come an expansion in university offerings. While the university will likely always be a commuter campus more than a residential one, Teniente-Matson envisions connecting students to the physical Texas A&M-San Antonio location through aspects of student life.
Part of that vision is a greater percentage of students living on campus. The Southside campus is home to just one residence hall with fewer than 400 beds. By fall 2019, Teniente-Matson projects the university will see the necessary enrollment numbers to initiate planning for a second dorm, which likely will have the same design as the first.
“The majority of our students will probably always be commuters,” Teniente-Matson said. “Even if we get all the way out to 50,000 students, having 10 percent of students live on campus would be 5,000 students. That’s a pretty significant number of student residents in this community, so that would change the trajectory of how students interact and engage on campus.”
The doubling of housing will, in turn, drive a need for a larger cafeteria or eatery space on campus, she said.
To build a sense of community for both commuter and residential students, the president hopes to create an intercollegiate athletics program by fall 2020 or 2021, pending State and Texas A&M University regents approval.
Students voted in a referendum to fund the program through an athletics fee, with 84 percent of voting students approving the measure.
The university also is exploring plans for a recreation center that will contain elements of a student union, including a 1,200-seat venue to host small concerts or comedians. The gym could later host men and women’s volleyball and basketball. As soon as fall 2019, Texas A&M-San Antonio foresees offering video-gaming esports, an increasingly popular offering on many college campuses.
Outside of the university’s vast and mostly undeveloped campus, Teniente-Matson hopes to see the school’s surrounding area benefit by attracting retail and other amenities that currently are lacking.
In the long term, the university hopes to create what Teniente-Matson calls a “university village” through collaborations with private developers to create services for food, health care, and other basic necessities.
This goal is representative of how Teniente-Matson, originally from the South Side, views her university – both of and for the community. The school has the power to inspire nearby students and affect change in the surrounding areas through a more educated workforce, she said.
“I hope by Year 20 we will see a larger number of … alumni living in South Bexar County and that we will begin to see the change in housing, the change in opportunities for students or alumni to reside and work [down here],” Teniente-Matson said.