Technology instructional coach Jillian Wetzel was sitting in on a class at Harris Middle School when students began presentations on their dream colleges. Not a single one of the more than 20 students talked about a school outside of San Antonio.

“Not one student dreamed to attend college or university out of state or even to attend [the University of Texas at Austin], Texas’ largest public state university,” Wetzel said. “I asked several students why they wouldn’t consider UT and they said some really haunting answers.”

Students at San Antonio Independent School District’s Harris Middle School told Wetzel that they weren’t smart enough or that that they couldn’t afford the tuition. Some said they thought UT didn’t accept first-generation college students.

Wetzel began to think about how to shift student mindsets and came up with an idea that ultimately would lead to a $5,000 prize for startup costs.

A Teach for America alumna, Wetzel reached out to another program alumnus who is an academic advisor at UT. The adviser videoconferenced with the class Wetzel had observed and answered student questions, trying to dispel some of the myths students believed.

“Just in that 45-minute encounter, they were smiling and excited to talk about college,” Wetzel said. “You could see their perceptions changing.”

Realizing the power of this type of connection, Wetzel began brainstorming how to make such conversations available to more students. She started to develop Classroom Nexus, an online platform that connects students to industry professionals, experts, and mentors and allows them to talk via videoconference.

Wetzel piloted a basic version of a Classroom Nexus site but needed more money and time to develop something that could reach more students. That’s when she heard about EduPitch, a new “Shark-Tank”-style competition Teach For America San Antonio planned to host where education entrepreneurs could present their ideas to a panel of judges.

“EduPitch was an idea we came up with as a way to support our alumni’s work in the community,” said Mendi Etheredge, TFA’s director of development and communications. “[TFA members] make that initial impact, that short-term impact in the classroom and then often go on to lead in the education sector. So this was just a way for us to continue supporting our alumni and the work they do in education.”

Wetzel signed up and found herself on the stage of the Carlos Alvarez Theater at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Nov. 14.

She pitched her idea to the audience, asking attendees whether they felt connected to their own alma maters. Many shook their heads. Talking with current students through Classroom Nexus could both foster that sense of belonging and help young students trying to forge their own paths, she said.

At the end of the night, the judges announced Wetzel had won the grand prize: $5,000. She plans to use the money to hire a developer to make her site a reality.

Wetzel’s vision is that school districts, teachers, and classrooms won’t pay anything for her service. They’d be able to use the service for free so students can get an idea of opportunities available beyond the confines of their campus or neighborhood.

“I’m intimately aware of the day-to-day demands of educators, intimately aware of the challenges administration and students face day in and day out,” said Wetzel, who started her education career in 2012 in Las Vegas schools. “In the [education technology] world, we have a lot of brilliant people who are able to create solutions” but many don’t really know what teachers, students, and administrators need.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.