Education

San Antonio College is Leading the Way in Higher Ed – San Antonio Magazine

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

Community colleges are especially important at this moment in time. While preparing students for the workplace, re-educating workers who lost income or jobs during the pandemic, and providing mid-career skills training, a community college education has the potential to shrink income gaps and stimulate the local economy as it recovers from COVID-19.

With the Aspen Prize, SAC has been recognized nationally as a leader in this endeavor and held up among community colleges around the country as a model for 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 grounded in the student-focused mindset they have built. But, he adds, it has taken work. “Every one of our students has a talent and something that they can bring to the community,” he says.

When Vela took his position almost seven years ago, he says he noticed a “deficit mindset” internally. SAC’s identity seemed wrapped around the idea that it was a large, urban campus that served all students. However, because it is difficult to serve students with so many varying needs, the unspoken belief was that while the college could be good, it might not ever be excellent.

 

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

 

Vela didn’t believe that and has spent the years since he became president trying to change the culture. He built a system that has staff and educators focusing on the talents and strengths each student brings and looking at it as their job to help reveal those strengths to the students. Put simply, he believed they needed to get highly personalized in the way they guided and supported students at every turn.

It starts with mandatory advising to help students make a plan to complete their program as efficiently as possible—regardless of whether they are heading straight into the workforce or to a four-year university. “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,” Vela says.

Highly trained and qualified advisors help build plans for students that take into account their personal situations, like their need to work or pick up kids from school, while getting them through their program without wasting time. “Our advisors are nationally certified advisors,” he says. “There are so many complexities to each program—so many levels and steps possible along the way—that our advisors need to be embedded in these disciplines so that they understand the nuances of each profession and the best pathway for students to achieve their goals.”

Once a path is developed for each student, Vela says they begin a journey. Gone are the days when students simply check boxes, racing to a finish line with a transcript. “We are all on a journey to gain skills and credentials that make us more marketable and aligned with our core mission in life,” Vela says. “We are now on a very fast track to develop micro-credentials and badging for the work students are doing, so they don’t have to wait to earn an associate degree to receive credentials; instead, they will be able to earn credentials throughout their time at SAC.”

 

San Antonio College celebrates its Aspen Prize award. Photo courtesy SAC.

 

A student who aims to become a nurse, for instance, may start out earning a quick credential as a phlebotomist drawing blood and then work their way up to becoming a medical assistant before eventually pursuing a nursing degree. In whatever courses a student takes, there are opportunities to master marketable skills, such as critical thinking, communication proficiency, leadership ability and working effectively in teams. Along with teaching those skills, SAC works to help students communicate with employers through e-portfolios that show they’ve established those skills, known at SAC as badges.

Students aren’t just completing classes and then heading out into the workforce either. SAC provides students with work-based instruction, including internships, externships and capstone courses, so students can transition into the workforce with strong technical, career-focused skills. The actual work experience these opportunities provide serve to bolster students’ skills while also connecting them with local employers. Even work study programs on campus are aligned to 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,” Vela says.

 

 

Before a student can be prepared and connected with the workforce, there are also often basic needs that must be addressed, particularly since the pandemic began. To that end, SAC’s Student Advocacy Center has a free food pantry, a clothing closet, access to crisis counseling and a help line that connects students with social workers, childcare assistance and more. “We have now taken on the responsibility of making sure our students have help with these life issues that could keep them from continuing in their education,” Vela says. The hope, he adds, is that the need for a student to choose between continuing their education or taking care of themselves and their families is eliminated.

Vela says they’ve also implemented strategic data collection of student services and advising so they can find any places where they are falling short and make adjustments to better serve students before it’s too late. Staff also make an effort to identify and reach out to students in need of help, rather than waiting for them to ask for assistance.

With foundational human skills and career-focused technical skills learned and practiced, Vela says he believes that excellence is inevitable. And if a student feels as if he or she belongs and is in the midst of excellence? Well, then the sky’s the limit.

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