Café College at 131 El Paso St. Courtesy Photo.
Café College at 131 El Paso St. Courtesy Photo.

Of all the hurdles facing prospective college students, navigating the application process might be one of the most frustrating. Even students who have worked hard for their good grades and attendance records find themselves discouraged by what feels like a never-ending torrent of forms and fees. For students in need of financial aid, that process is amplified.

The San Antonio Education Partnership (SAEP) has been helping students navigate those tricky passes for 27 years. Through its various initiatives, many operating out of Café College, SAEP has connected students to the guidance and funding they need to make college a real possibility.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics recently recognized more than 230 Bright Spots in Hispanic Education in the U.S. to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. SAEP and Café College were both designated as bright spots along with 10 other local groups and organizations. 

In many ways, SAEP wants to bring college into the conversation for students and adults who never considered it a possibility. For many first generation college students, the intimidation factor is high. Knowing which questions to ask can be daunting, and building up the courage to ask them is even scarier.

Dr. Adriana Contreras, courtesy photo
Adriana Contreras. Courtesy photo

Adriana Contreras stepped into her role as executive director of SAEP in December 2014. She watched and listened to the good things happening, and started developing her goals for expansion. For Contreras, graduation rates can always be higher, reach can always be wider, and every single parent can be part of the student success stories.

Since 2010, Café College has become the hub for many of SAEP’s services, while Road to Success has become their major outreach mechanism. They reach out to students where they are (high school), and simultaneously provide a centralized place for the wider community to access services.

Road to Success puts accessible advisors into area high schools. Currently they have advisors on 25 high school campuses across eight districts. In all, they reach about 50,000 students per year. Their job is to instigate the one-on-one goal-setting and follow up.

“One of the unique things about SAEP is the work we do in the summer,” said Contreras.

The advisors follow up over the summer to make sure that students are using the time to research and apply for scholarships, study for SATs and ACTs, and tend to the long to-do list of college readiness.

Contreras wants to grow the social media presence of SAEP advisors as well. She feels that keeping college readiness represented in the day-to-day interactions of students will make it even more likely that they will set and meet their education goals. The more accessible advisors are, the more likely students will be to get answers and guidance before fear and distraction get them off track.

Mayor speaking at Cafe College opening
Former Mayor Julián Castro speaks at the grand opening of Café College on Sept. 28, 2010.

She would also like to see increased leadership training and certifications for the advisors to prepare them for the diversity of situations represented by their students.

Café College is another vital part to the SAEP mission. It serves as a one stop shop for prospective students of all ages and backgrounds. Sitting in the lobby visitors will see parents with small children at their feet, young members of the blue-collar and white-collar workforces, and students in their public school uniforms. Each represent a segment of the population looking for a college education to help them achieve their goals.

“We see students from all around the city,” said Contreras.

At the last count, more that 43,500 clients have been served by Café College. Many of those have to travel a long way, using public transportation or borrowed rides. Those who make the effort demonstrate that they are motivated and ready to make the most of the opportunities SAEP can unlock.

Many of their clients need more than just advice. Their road to college includes hurdles like food insecurity and homelessness. Contreras stresses the importance of good relationships with nonprofits to eliminate these roadblocks.

“I’ve learned just how collaborative the non-profits are,” said Contreras.

She reports that about 40% of their clients are college students who need help with the infamously complicated Federal Application for Student Aide (FAFSA), which has to be filled out every year to keep scholarships and receive grants. They also come in for help with transfer applications, and other institutional bureaucracy. They prove that once a student gets into college, it’s not a clear shot to graduation.

The college graduation rate is another thing that Contreras wants to improve. Right now their clients report about a 25% college graduation rate. It’s a starting place, she says, but definitely a number she wants to see climb.

“It’s about access and success in college,” Contreras said.

Perhaps the biggest difference-maker for college enrollment and graduation is parent engagement. Contreras wants to increase the workshops and outreach to parents to help them understand how they can be helping their students. For parents who did not go to college themselves, the benefit of information sessions and resource workshops is obvious. However, parents who did go to college most likely need current information, updated statistics and advice, as well as a rundown on the ever-changing application process.

Contreras said that when they do include parents in information workshops, they are often far more tuned in and focused than their teenagers. They have a hindsight understanding of the value of college, which is, as everyone knows, much clearer than the foresight of a high school student.

Contreras added that sometimes, high school students will conveniently “forget” to tell their parents about resources available to them, if those resources involve extra effort and accountability. Because they are high school students. (I recall making the case that I was being “exploited and oppressed” when my parents insisted I retake the SATs to raise my score and qualify for more scholarships. Because I was 17 and I just wanted to order pizza and do nothing.)

One of those resources available to those who work extra hard is the Café College scholarship. Right now, the scholarship is available to students who meet a list of criteria including an 80 average or higher upon graduation from an SAEP partner school. They also have to have a 95% school attendance rate, and complete three college success activities sanctioned or provided by SAEP. Most critically though, the students must be committed to enrolling in one of the 11 local partner institutions full time in the fall or spring after high school graduation.

The scholarship grants $600/year for community college, $850/year for state schools, and $1,500/year for private school. They also offer a one time scholarship for students transferring from a community college to a four-year institution.

Right now, of the 3,200 scholarship recipients, 50% of scholarship recipients have gone on to Alamo Community College District schools, 25% enroll in other public schools and the rest enroll in private schools.

In the future, Contreras would like to see the scholarships available to students enrolling in colleges outside the area as well. She believes that teaching students that they can achieve anything should include support for any college they set their sights on, be it a community college or an Ivy League university.

Testimonies of SAEP’s effectiveness can be found far and wide in San Antonio. Adriana Contreras wants to see them spread even further and wider.

*Top image: Café College at 131 El Paso St. Courtesy Photo.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.