On Friday, July 24 at 8 a.m., retired lawyer and teacher Walter Brown will take 11 students, a majority of who graduated in the top 5% from Brackenridge High School with a heavy AP course load, on a college tour of small liberal arts colleges (SLAC) in the Northeast. They will visit 19 colleges in Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, all of which are expected to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need. In the fall, students will be applying to these colleges with plans to attend in the future.
Brown and his students are still in need of additional support for this summer’s trip. Monetary donations can be directed to the SAISD Foundation. (Full disclosure, I am currently an intern at the SAISD Foundation.) He has hopes to expand the program to students in additional SAISD high schools with trips to colleges in the Midwest and West next summer if additional funds can be raised.
“Most of them have never been out of Texas,” Brown said. “A lot of them haven’t been all that far out of San Antonio. They don’t really know what it means to go one or 2,000 miles away. They have to go up there before they can visualize themselves going up there for four years. They can come back and imagine themselves being there.”
When Brown first began tutoring SAT prep classes at Brackenridge, he had no idea that in the following years, he would help dozens of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) students apply and be accepted at small private colleges in the Northeast. For those students, being accepted at these colleges and universities seemed like an impossible task, and if they got accepted, it would be too expensive to make happen.
After the SAT results in 2005 (out of SAISD’s 12 merit scholars, seven were from Brown’s class), the students began investigating highly selective colleges outside of the city. They discovered that several of these schools were able to cover 100% of aid for a select group of high achieving, low income students – and they wanted to be a part of that small group. Unfortunately, low-income students are unlikely to apply out of state unless they visit the colleges.
Soon afterward, Brown took his first group of students to visit these colleges during the summer. In 2010, he was able to make it an annual trip and since then, students have helped raise part of the funds required, something that also impresses the college admissions offices. As a result, Brown turns the cost of the trip into financial aid for students. For every dollar that is donated, students receive between $100 and $200 in scholarships. As a result of last summer’s trip, Brown’s eight students received four-year scholarships totaling $1.7 million.
This fall, 16 of his former students will be attending small, highly selective colleges in the Northeast and several of his students already have graduated from similar schools including Harvard, Dartmouth, Williams, Amherst and Wesleyan. All of them are on track to graduate in four years or already have graduated in four years.
“The colleges know that Mr. Brown and Brackenridge are not going to send them the dud students,” Brown said. “The kids will go up there and be successful. These colleges get huge stacks of applications from students that are perfectly qualified to go to these schools. If you want to get picked out of that stack, you’ve got to do something to distinguish yourself, and I think we’ve been really successful in sending essays that accomplish that.”
The essays that his students send in show that they are dedicated to continuing their education. Several of them tell stories of what it’s like to be a first-generation student, unaware of how they will pay for school but convinced that college will help them achieve their dreams. Mirna Granados, who will be a freshman at Middlebury College in Vermont, wrote about how different her experience as a first-generation student will be.
“I learned that at a SLAC I will be sharing my college experience with hundreds of others equally serious about academics but coming from all kinds of backgrounds and life experiences,” Granados wrote. “Four years of interacting with them, and redefining myself in the process, will be the real luxury that my parents could never have.”
For Brown, the process isn’t easy. Beginning junior year, he tutors students for the SATs, making sure they also take subject tests, which a lot of selective colleges require. The following summer, he helps students raise funds to take them on the college tour. During their senior year, he helps them apply, works with them on their essays and even helps them shop for college (including winter clothes). After they leave, Brown keeps in touch with his students, including those that get to use their financial aid to study in places like Paris and Seoul, South Korea. After attending these colleges, many of his former students come back to San Antonio, something not overlooked in a city that seeks to continue brainpower gain through recruiting recent graduates to join San Antonio’s workforce.
“The reason we could do that was because they went up there and saw the schools. They could figure out, ‘here’s the one I want to go to.’ The schools all have different personalities, but they’re all high-quality schools. The trip really is the centerpiece of it. The kids are motivated to work with me in the spring because we’re working up to it. The trip motivates them to go through the application process, which is not easy,” he said.
For first generation college students, most of who are the first in their families to go to college, this level of support in the application process and during their college years makes all the difference in student success. In 2009, he was able to help Highlands High School alumnus Eric Balderas get into Harvard University to study molecular and cellular biology. Several years ago, Balderas received national attention when he faced deportation after being detained on his way back to Harvard to do molecular biology research over the summer. Now a Harvard alumnus, Balderas is back in San Antonio to use his education to pursue a career as a cancer researcher.
“They’re going to schools with national reputations,” Brown said. “They’re going to schools where the classes are small; they’re all taught by professors and not students. I try to keep up with them on social media and see how they’re doing.”
For his previous students, the trip was a huge opportunity and amazing experience. When rising junior Alexandria Meddelin was able to visit Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., she was able to picture herself studying there. Now, she is a double major in Women’s Studies and Hispanic Studies with a concentration on activism and human rights. In the past two summers, she has worked for Teach For America as an intern in the San Antonio regional office and in their Houston summer institute for future teachers. In the future, she wants to teach in SAISD through Teach For America.
“I had the privilege to go see the school. A lot of people who come from my background weren’t able to see the school,” Meddelin said. “I realized that the schools we had gone to see were not like the schools I had been told I should go to – big state schools. I’m a hands-on person. I need the professor to see where I’m coming from and I’m unsure I could do that in a class of 300 students. At Hamilton, it’s a very personal teaching experience.”
*Featured/top image: Brackenridge High School students tour Kenyon College during a previous trip. Courtesy photo.