As soon as we entered, Itati and I breathed a sigh of relief. Beneath spacious concrete ceilings, the sleek screens of 24 iMacs and a handful of matching customer service representatives greeted us. One representative immediately approached us, and before we knew it, we were sitting in trendy red and white swivel chairs behind a computer with an expert delighted to answer our every question.

No, we weren’t at an Apple store. We were filling out a college application at San Antonio College’s new Welcome Center which opened in May 2015 in the campus’ Tobin Lofts housing development. The Welcome Center employs Apple’s customer service model to meet the school’s vision of becoming a more welcoming, accessible part of the community.

“It’s a new way of doing things, because we’re not set up like a traditional admissions office or any kind of office,” said Nick Silva, senior coordinator of enrollment management. “There’s no counter. You’re not standing in line to talk to somebody. …We want to sit down with the students one-on-one and walk them through the process.”

It’s exactly what my former student Itati needed. I know her to be remarkably diligent and ambitious, but she had greatly procrastinated the college application process after graduating from San Antonio Can High School in June. By the time I finally persuaded her to visit SAC, she had already missed the deadline for the regular fall semester, which began Monday.

“I was scared because people had told me that I would end up like my biological mom,” said Itati, who spent much of her childhood in foster care. “I didn’t think I could make it this far.”

Itati registers for college at the San Antonio College Welcome Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
Itati registers for college at the San Antonio College Welcome Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Welcome Center is just one of many initiatives the College is implementing to address this mindset, which SAC President Robert Vela says is all-too-common among its feeder neighborhoods.

It’s a mission SAC will be expanding on this Thursday, Aug. 25, when it opens its new Tech Store, the first of its kind among Texas community colleges. With discounted products, experiential learning opportunities, and an innovation gallery, the Tech Store is designed to symbiotically attract prospective students to the campus’s front door while embedding SAC’s identity in technological innovation.

“The store will be an extension of our academic mission,” said Patrick Vrba, assistant controller with Alamo Colleges. “For one, with a store here, that can bring in people from the community, prospective students … it gets them in the door in an unintimidating fashion.”

Assistant Controller for Alamo Colleges Patrick Vrba stands in the nearly complete San Antonio College Tech Store. Photo by Scott Ball.
Assistant Controller for Alamo Colleges Patrick Vrba stands in the nearly complete San Antonio College Tech Store. Photo by Scott Ball.

In addition to providing product discounts ranging from $50-200 to its students, faculty, and staff, SAC plans to turn the store into a learning company by incorporating it into a variety of curricula.

“You’d have students from different disciplines – marketing, business, IT – come up with marketing plans for the next semester, getting experience managing inventory, or any of the various hands-on experiences that you could involve with a retail store,” Vbra explained.

The store will likewise showcase the latest trends in technology, such as virtual reality devices, mini parrot drones, and 3D printers, to attract a wide audience from the community. For the more business-focused, the store will offer free technology workshops on how to use Skype or Google Drive for business, among others.

“Then, while they’re here, we can possibly get them into the Welcome Center and have them talk to an advisor and ask them if they’ve ever thought about attending community college,” Vrba said.

But the Tech Store is more than just a marketing gimmick to get students to attend college: By marrying the school’s entry point with an Apple-esque tech store, SAC has rebranded itself as young, relatable, and part of the 21st century.

Adopting the tech giant’s simple, inviting aesthetic and welcoming customer service also attacks a problem that has beset community colleges for decades: Rather than symbolizing “open access” and “opportunity” to low income students, community colleges often inadvertently repel them with labyrinthine bureaucracies and an application process that reads like a foreign language.

Walk into the Welcome Center, which saw about 100 students a day this summer, and a new feeling quickly replaces that. Ask Itati, who left the building more excited than I’ve seen her in the two years since she first entered my classroom.

The entrance to the San Antonio College Welcome Center. Photo by Scott Ball.
The entrance to the San Antonio College Welcome Center. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“They’re really helpful,” she told me. “They’re actually putting effort into a person who wants to go to college. …I don’t know how to explain it. I’m just speechless.”

When asked why she felt this way, Itati went on:

“Because it’s happening so fast. It’s time to grow up and do what you want to do in life. I’m speechless because the things that I’ve been through…I didn’t think I would come this far. I just can’t believe it. I didn’t know I was so strong to overcome my past and study what I want study and be better than my biological mom.”

In my experiences at an exorbitantly expensive private university, nothing even approached the level of service Itati received. It was an example of the San Antonio community, where innovation and inspiration can occur in unexpected places.

Top Image: The San Antonio College Welcome Center is outfitted with computers and staff to guide students and future students through the school process.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.