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San Antonio College won the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence on Tuesday, becoming the state’s first school to receive the prestigious award that recognizes the nation’s highest-achieving community colleges.

The Aspen Institute announced the 2021 winner of the $600,000 award during a virtual ceremony Tuesday. More than 1,000 community colleges across the country vied for the prize, which has been awarded every two years since 2011.

“What this says is that San Antonio College and the Alamo Colleges District have the best and most resilient students in the United States,” Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores said at a press conference. “This says we have the best colleagues in the United States – faculty and staff – committed to academic excellence.”

San Antonio College (SAC) leaders learned last year that the school was one of 10 finalists for the award. Education, business, and nonprofit leaders selected the winner after an 18-month review process that included an extensive examination of the college’s performance data, dozens of virtual interviews with staff and students, and a virtual site visit.

“At San Antonio College, there’s a family feeling, a pervasive understanding that it’s everyone’s job to make sure students succeed,” said Linda Perlstein, a director at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, in a statement. “The college has built extraordinary systems to advance this culture – constantly analyzing whether students are getting what they need to learn, progress, and achieve their goals after graduation, and adapting accordingly as an institution.”

SAC serves 35,000 students, two-thirds of whom are Latino, Black, or Native American, which is a “far more diverse population” than most community colleges, according to the Aspen Institute. The graduation and transfer rate increased almost 20 points over four years to 48%, two points above the national average.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the Aspen Prize demonstrates the community’s resilience during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are at an inflection point here in San Antonio,” he said. “Inequities have been laid bare by a pandemic that’s worked repeatedly to knock us down, but we’re gathered here together to exemplify the work that we’ve done as a community and also to recognize the evidence that we have what it takes as a city to come back stronger than we were before.”

When SAC President Robert Vela heard the news, he thought he was dreaming. He asked someone to pinch him.

 “It’s unlike any other day that SAC has experienced in its 95 year history,” he said. “The Aspen Institute has honored us with something precious and meaningful. For me, it embodies the very best of everyone who worked to achieve it.”

One of those people is Greg Torres, who graduated from SAC on Saturday and participated in several interviews with the Aspen Institute. A Chicago native, Torres struggled with homelessness his first semester in spring 2018. He ended up on academic probation and unable to pay tuition, so he went to Vela’s office and asked for help.

“I asked the president’s office to invest in me, and they took a chance,” Torres said. “I retained a 3.0 (GPA) since then.”

Torres became a mentee of Vela’s after receiving a scholarship. SAC helped him through his brief experience with homelessness by issuing him a special parking permit that allowed him to sleep in his car overnight until he found housing a few weeks later. Torres started volunteering at Inner City Development, a nonprofit serving the West Side, which gave him housing. He still does that work today.

Torres said SAC gave him every resource and opportunity to succeed, all while understanding his situation and not judging him. He called SAC’s winning the Aspen Prize “a win for the good guys.”

“The best institutions don’t just teach, they empower. They meet students where they are and help them to get to where they want to go,” First Lady Jill Biden said during the virtual awards ceremony. “That’s what the Aspen Prize is all about.”

The Aspen Institute honored another Alamo Colleges District school in 2019. Palo Alto College received one of the Institute’s $100,000 Rising Star Awards for Community College Excellence.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.