(From left) Our Lady of the Lake University students Gina Vasquez and Enrique Robles walk down the Sacred Heart Chapel steps.
(From left) Our Lady of the Lake University students Gina Vasquez and Enrique Robles, participants in the Wings Up program, walk down the Sacred Heart Chapel steps. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Two years ago, Enrique Robles was a senior at Warren High School when he enrolled in a forensic science class that altered his future college and career aspirations. Mentored by the retired Air Force crime scene investigator who instructed the class, Robles discovered a passion for law enforcement and criminal justice.

Enrique Robles, with the help of Wings Up, is an intern at the San Antonio branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Enrique Robles, with the help of Wings Up, is an intern at the San Antonio branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Now, the 19-year-old Robles is an intern at the San Antonio branch of the FBI working as part of what he calls an “intelligence analyst unit to focus on domain management and research analysis.”

Robles said this wouldn’t have been possible without support from his college, Our Lady of the Lake University. When Robles first started looking around for internships, he spotted the opportunity to work at the FBI, but needed to take a summer course to get credit for the internship. That course cost $4,000.

“I couldn’t afford that,” Robles said.

OLLU provided the solution in the form of a pilot program called Wings Up that helps students use the summertime to gain credits and accelerate their paths to graduation. Robles could qualify for free tuition for six to eight credit hours by having junior status and having completed 30 credit hours between Fall 2017 and Spring 2018.

The program was offered to any student who met those qualifications and wanted to enroll in summer courses. Ultimately, about 120 students took advantage.

The university’s goal was to invest in students who were close to completing their degrees, said Rosa Rivera-Hainaj, OLLU’s assistant vice president of academic affairs who oversees the program. Wings Up cost the university about $500,000, she said.

Some students who transfer to OLLU or near completion of their degrees can run out of financial aid, Rivera-Hainaj said. This program allows students to keep going by adding summer courses and making progress toward a degree.

This is important at OLLU, where the 6-year graduation rate in 2016 was 39 percent and roughly 60 percent of undergraduate students come from low-income backgrounds.

“You have [financial aid] for ‘X’ amount of time even if you are using it as you are supposed to, but if you transfer, for example, you may not have enough to complete your degree,” Rivera-Hainaj said. “It is really a mode of retention, to [have students] successfully complete their degree with one or two semesters to go.”

Gina Vasquez, through Wings Up support, Vasquez took a GRE prep class and an elementary Spanish language course.
Gina Vasquez, through Wings Up support, Vasquez took a GRE prep class and an elementary Spanish language course. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Gina Vasquez, 25, is another student who took advantage of the tuition grant this summer. Vasquez aspires to get her doctorate in clinical psychology and plans to enroll in a graduate program once she graduates from OLLU in spring 2019.

Before that, though, she has to take a prep course for the GRE exam, which is used in most graduate program admissions processes. The courses are often expensive, so when Vasquez received an email early in the spring semester that notified her some of her summer classes could be paid for, she was excited.

After learning she qualified for Wings Up support, Vasquez took a GRE prep class and an elementary Spanish language course the she had been putting off since she arrived at OLLU. The classes count for seven hours total, and Vasquez is saving close to $7,000 in tuition expenses.

This means a lot to Vasquez, who values OLLU’s private education but is sometimes daunted by the cost that comes with it. Even though she has other scholarships that she said give her “private education at the cost of a public degree,” Vasquez has taken out loans to supplement the remaining cost. Any money saved is appreciated, she said.

At the end of this summer, OLLU will evaluate the success of the program and consider renewing it next year, Rivera-Hainaj said.

“The first year of the program is just a pilot, and we are going to review the processes and procedures, how they went, how we can improve it,” she said. “I do know that [President Diane Melby] is very supportive of Wings Up and really looking forward to how we can help more of our students accelerate to earn their final diploma.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.