San Antonio College leads the way in higher education

San Antonio College (SAC) has been around for almost a century, making higher education accessible to low-income, first-generation, traditional and non-traditional students. However, in May, it became more evident than ever that something was going very well here when SAC became the first in the state to win the Aspen Award (a big honor described as the community college Oscars) just after the college president received news of a $ 15 million grant from Mackenzie Scott.

Community colleges are particularly important right now. While preparing students for work, re-educating workers who lost income or jobs during the pandemic, and providing mid-career skills training, community college education has the potential to narrow income gaps and boost the local economy as it recovers from COVID-19.

With the Aspen Award, SAC was nationally recognized as a leader in this endeavor and presented among community colleges nationwide as a role model on how higher education can work for all types of students. and for the communities in which they operate.

SAC President Robert Vela, Ed.D., says he believes every root of the school’s success is rooted in the student-centered mindset they’ve built. But, he adds, it took work. “Each of our students has a talent and something they can bring to the community,” he says.

When Vela took office almost seven years ago, he says he noticed a “deficit mindset” internally. The identity of the SAC seemed to revolve around the idea that it was a large urban campus serving all students. However, since it is difficult to serve students with such diverse needs, the implicit belief was that while college might be good, it might never be great.

San Antonio College President Robert Vela, Ed.D. Photo by Vprompts Gonzalez.

Vela didn’t believe it and has spent years since becoming president trying to change the culture. He has built a system in which staff and educators focus on the talents and strengths of each student and see this as their job to help reveal those strengths to students. Put simply, he believed they had to be highly personalized in the way they guided and supported students at all times.

It starts with mandatory guidance to help students develop a plan to complete their program most effectively, whether they are heading straight into the job market or heading to a four-year college. “It’s a highly personalized plan for each student. There are so many ways to get a student to the end goal, but we also want to help manage personal needs, ”says Vela.

Highly trained and trained counselors help develop plans for students that take into account their personal circumstances, such as their need to work or pick up children from school, while getting them through their program without wasting time. “Our counselors are nationally certified counselors,” he says. “There are so many complexities in each program – so many levels and possible steps along the way – that our counselors need to be integrated into these disciplines so that they understand the nuances of each profession and how best to get them. students achieve their goals. “

Once a path is developed for each student, Vela says they begin a journey. Gone are the days when students simply ticked boxes and ran to the finish line with a transcript. “We are all learning skills and credentials that make us more marketable and aligned with our main mission in life,” said Vela. “We’re now on a very fast track to developing micro-accreditations and badges for the work that students do, so they don’t have to wait until they get an associate’s degree to receive information from. identification ; instead, they will be able to obtain credentials throughout their stay at SAC. “

San Antonio College celebrates its Aspen Award. Photo courtesy of SAC.

A student who wants to become a nurse, for example, may start by quickly graduating as a phlebotomist to draw blood, then progress to becoming a medical assistant before obtaining a nursing degree. Regardless of the courses a student takes, there are opportunities to master marketable skills, such as critical thinking, communication skills, leadership ability, and effective teamwork. In addition to teaching these skills, SAC strives to help students communicate with employers through electronic portfolios that show they have acquired these skills, known at SAC as badges.

Students don’t just finish their courses and then enter the workforce. SAC provides students with on-the-job education, including internships, externships, and comprehensive courses, so that students can transition to the workforce with strong technical and career-oriented skills. The real work experience these opportunities provide serves to build students’ skills while connecting them with local employers. Even on-campus work-study programs are aligned with a student’s field of study so they can be useful in preparing them for their career.

“You not only get an education, but an education that helps you become a productive member of the community,” says Vela.

Before a student can be prepared and connected to the job market, there are also often basic needs that must be met, especially since the onset of the pandemic. To this end, SAC’s Student Advocacy Center has a free pantry, a clothes closet, access to crisis support services, and a helpline that puts students in contact with social workers, childcare assistance and more. “We have now taken responsibility for ensuring that our students receive help in solving those life issues that could prevent them from continuing their education,” says Vela. The hope, he adds, is that the need for a student to choose between furthering his education or taking care of himself and his family will be eliminated.

Vela says they’ve also put in place strategic student services data collection and advice so they can find any places they’re falling short and make adjustments to better serve students before. let it be too late. Staff also strive to identify and contact students in need of help, rather than waiting for them to ask for help.

With fundamental people skills and career-oriented technical skills learned and practiced, Vela says he believes excellence is inevitable. What if a student feels out of place and is in the midst of excellence? Well then the sky is the limit.

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