Class Aware­ness

LOW-IN­COME STU­DENTS AT ELITE UNIVER­SI­TIES MAY NEED HELP NAV­I­GAT­ING CLASHES OF CUL­TURES

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Alia Ma­lik STAFF WRITER

Amid Columbia Univer­sity’s neo­clas­si­cal build­ings and au­tumn leaves, Isa­iah Guz­man’s story of child­hood poverty might seem to have reached a Cin­derella end­ing.

But Guz­man, 19, felt his car­riage turn­ing into a pump­kin dur­ing his first se­mes­ter there, in a New York City Metro sta­tion with­out $2.75 to his name — star­tled to re­al­ize he couldn’t af­ford the sub­way for a class-sponsored mu­seum trip.

It wasn’t the first time the San An­to­nian’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion tripped him up in an en­vi­ron­ment of wealth and pres­tige. In his first week at col­lege, other fresh­men talked about their sum­mer trips, their de­bate and ro­bot­ics clubs at pri­vate prepara­tory acad­e­mies or well-equipped sub­ur­ban pub­lic schools. Guz­man hung back.

“It was dif­fi­cult for me be­cause I couldn’t re­late to all of those things,” he said. “You have nowhere to stand.”

Guz­man grad­u­ated from Travis Early Col­lege High School in 2017, as the San An­to­nio In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict was mak­ing rapid progress to­ward a goal of send­ing 10 per­cent of its stu­dents to the na- tion’s top col­leges.

When Su­per­in­ten­dent Pe­dro Martinez took over the dis­trict three years ago, only 2 per­cent of its grad­u­ates went to top re­search univer­si­ties, the so-called “Tier One” schools, or to the na­tion’s high­est-ranked lib­eral arts col­leges. But 7 per­cent of last spring’s grad­u­ates did so, the dis­trict says.

As their num­bers in­crease, SAISD grads who made it from low­in­come back­grounds to elite in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing want to make one thing clear: Get­ting in is not the hard part.

Back in San An­to­nio, some feel guilty about their op­por­tu­ni­ties. At their new schools, sur­rounded by stu­dents bet­ter pre­pared aca­dem­i­cally and more priv­i­leged so­cially, they feel ashamed of their dis­ad­van­tages and strug­gle with pre­car­i­ous fi­nances.

But they won’t com­plain about it to par­ents who sac­ri­ficed to get them there, or high school teach­ers who en­cour­aged them.

Only half the stu­dents from the SAISD class of 2012 who at­tended top-tier schools grad­u­ated within six years, ac­cord­ing to dis­trict of­fi­cials who are think­ing hard about how to im­prove that num­ber.

Some grads al­ready have ben­e­fited from the SAISD Pipe­line for Col­lege Suc­cess pro­gram, cre­ated last year with $8.4 mil­lion from the Valero En­ergy Foun­da­tion.

It funds new ad­vis­ers who help stu­dents select, ap­ply to and en­roll in col­lege and who try to pre­pare them for cul­ture shock, said Liz Ozuna, the dis­trict’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for ad­vanced aca­demics and post-sec­ondary ini­tia­tives.

“We have em­barked down that road,” Ozuna said. “We’re not very far down it. … It takes a lot of those con­ver­sa­tions, be­cause if you don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t have the ex­pe­ri­ence yet, it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to come up as a prob­lem.”

More than 90 per­cent of the 51,000 stu­dents in SAISD are His­panic, and the same pro­por­tion have fam­ily in­comes low enough to qual­ify for free or re­duced­price school meals. For the high­est achiev­ers among them, the Pipe­line pays for vis­its to top col­leges all over the coun­try.

Elite col­leges in­creas­ingly have em­pha­sized di­ver­sity, re­cruit­ing and ad­mit­ting more low-in­come stu­dents, many the first in their fam­i­lies to pur­sue higher ed­u­ca­tion. Some col­leges are de­vel­op­ing and ex­pand­ing ways to sup­port them.

Stick­ing to­gether

It took some time for Guz­man to re­al­ize the Ivy League ben­e­fits from stu­dents like him.

“What they re­ally need is some­thing like an SAISD stu­dent,” he said. “You need a bit of grit to sur­vive, and you need that cre­ativ­ity and that prob­lem-solv­ing, and a lot of kids from San An­to­nio have a re­al­is­tic grip on the world. It’s such a valu­able per­spec­tive on life … what is nor­mal, what is just, what is fair.”

Guz­man was born in Chicago, but his fam­ily moved to Florida when he was a baby and some­times lived with rel­a­tives and friends, legally home­less when hur­ri­canes or in­juries kept his mother, a col­lege dropout, from work­ing her cler­i­cal jobs. After one evic­tion, they moved in with rel­a­tives in San An­to­nio, then found their own home here.

Teach­ers steered Guz­man to Travis, where he could earn an as­so­ciate’s de­gree along with a high school di­ploma. He did one bet­ter and got into Columbia, earn­ing a near-full schol­ar­ship, though his fam­ily got evicted again and moved in with friends a month after he got his ac­cep­tance let­ter.

Guz­man was com­ing from a big city with some of the na­tion’s stark­est in­come dis­par­i­ties. He knew most of his class­mates at Columbia would be wealth­ier but still was sur­prised by the dif­fer­ence.

“Up­scale for San An­to­nio is not up­scale for New York,” he said.

Other stu­dents wanted to go to con­certs, mu­se­ums that Columbia didn’t cover, restau­rant din­ners that would set him back more than $30. Even movies were too ex­pen­sive if Guz­man went ev­ery week­end.

“As a first-year, I was very anx­ious about con­fronting them with that type of thing, be­cause I didn’t want to seem like a bur­den,” he re­called. But he learned to stand his ground: “You don’t have to feel like you should apol­o­gize.”

Guz­man also felt un­com­fort­able bring­ing up his back­ground with pro­fes­sors. One week, he said, he didn’t have $35 to buy an as­signed book and skipped class rather than ex­plain.

When a pro­fes­sor an­nounced a class would have a de­bate, stu­dents ea­gerly asked about the for­mat in terms Guz­man didn’t un­der­stand. He skipped class again, email­ing the pro­fes­sor to say he had food poi­son­ing — a story he found less em­bar­rass­ing.

After fresh­man year, Guz­man got a paid sum­mer in­tern­ship in San An­to­nio work­ing with home­less fam­i­lies at Haven for Hope. Read­ing up on eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity, he re­al­ized for the first time that he too had been home­less. He found the in­tern­ship so re­ward­ing, he chose a new mi­nor: so­ci­ol­ogy.

Yet when other Haven staffers proudly in­tro­duced him as an Ivy League stu­dent, Guz­man felt de­fen­sive about be­ing stereo­typed — “that’s not who I am at all” — and told peo­ple, vaguely, that he at­tended col­lege in the North­east.

By sum­mer’s end he had $1,000 saved but had to up his hours at a work study job — tu­ition had in­creased and his mom needed help “with bills and gro­ceries and things like that,” he said. Tu­ition al­ways is due be­fore his first pay­check, so he eats the late fees.

His days be­gin at 7 a.m. and don’t end un­til 8 p.m., when he tries to find a din­ing hall still open be­fore do­ing home­work. Some­times he skips class for an ex­tra hour of sleep or does school­work dur­ing work study hours.

He found time for one ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity — one that kept him at Columbia.

Guz­man is a leader of the First­Gen­er­a­tion Low-in­come Part­ner­ship, or FLIP, a group that ad­vo­cates for stu­dents in need. It main­tains a lend­ing li­brary of re­quired text­books, runs win­ter coat drives and per­suaded the univer­sity to open a food pantry, said Melinda Aquino, as­so­ciate dean of mul­ti­cul­tural af­fairs for the un­der­grad­u­ate school.

Most im­por­tantly for Guz­man, the club con­nected him to oth­ers on cam­pus in sim­i­lar straits who have be­come his clos­est friends. Their sto­ries of per­se­ver­ance taught him that he’s an as­set to Columbia, that his life­time of hard­ship gave him some­thing to of­fer “you can’t go to a camp and learn,” he said.

He is one of about 10 stu­dents on the group’s board. At one meet­ing this year, some­one asked for a show of hands from board mem­bers who had con­sid­ered trans­fer­ring out. Only Guz­man and an­other stu­dent kept their hands down.

He feels an obli­ga­tion to his fam­ily, teach­ers, even strangers who crowd­funded his new lap­top. Guz­man knows they be­lieve in him and ex­pect him to break the cy­cle of poverty.

“You look at ev­ery­one who has done some­thing for you to get to this point,” Guz­man said. “And you think, ‘I can’t be­tray that.’ ”

So he’s push­ing Columbia to bet­ter sup­port low-in­come stu­dents and let them know about re- sources avail­able to them.

“I want to make sure they can have the happy end­ing that ev­ery­one thinks it is,” Guz­man said. “That’s what I would love to leave here hav­ing ac­com­plished.”

The col­lege re­lies on FLIP, along with sur­veys and fo­cus groups, to un­der­stand the is­sues low-in­come stu­dents face, Aquino said. Her of­fice co­or­di­nates coun­sel­ing and psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices, ca­reer ed­u­ca­tion and other help.

Columbia is de­vel­op­ing ways to con­nect in­com­ing first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents to un­der­grad­u­ate men­tors. That wasn’t avail­able for Guz­man and his peers, but Columbia needs their voices and sto­ries, Aquino said.

“Any one sin­gle pro­gram can’t be a magic bul­let for fac­ing so­ci­etal schisms,” she said. “It has to be a con­tin­ued dia­logue. It also has to be a shared re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

‘You be­long there’

Lea Morin, 19, is from the East Side and de­scribes her­self as Chi­cana.

Her fa­ther, a man­ager at a lum­ber yard, didn’t go to col­lege. Her mother worked her way through as­so­ciate’s, bach­e­lor’s and master’s de­grees while rais­ing three chil­dren and is an in­struc­tional coach in Har­lan­dale ISD.

Two older sib­lings went to High­lands High School and her sis­ter later dropped out of com­mu­nity col­lege.

When Morin was ac­cepted to the Young Women’s Lead­er­ship Academy, she knew she’d won the lot­tery in more than one way. The all-girls mid­dle and high school had a col­lege-prep fo­cus long be­fore Martinez, the SAISD su­per­in­ten­dent, be­gan spread­ing many of its strate­gies dis­trictwide.

Morin grad­u­ated in 2017 as the YWLA vale­dic­to­rian. It had been de­mand­ing, pre­par­ing her aca­dem­i­cally for a top col­lege. Teach­ers and coun­selors helped the girls ap­ply and talked about how to suc­ceed on cam­pus.

Morin also won a cov­eted spot on a tour led by Wal­ter Brown, a re­tired teacher who took small groups of SAISD stu­dents to visit elite col­leges that meet full fi­nan­cial need. Brown’s role was in­for­mal but it in­spired the dis­trict to cre­ate the Pipe­line for Col­lege Suc­cess.

At a Di­ver­sity Open House that Morin at­tended at Amherst Col­lege in western Mas­sachusetts, ranked one of the na­tion’s best lib­eral arts schools, stu­dents made ad­min­is­tra­tors leave the room and held a “real talk” about be­ing un­der­priv­i­leged on cam­pus, she said, adding: “It was re­ally in­cred- ible.”

Morin fam­ily’s in­come qual­i­fied her for a near-full schol­ar­ship through the QuestBridge pro­gram. ( She and Guz­man both have QuestBridge schol­ar­ships.) Morin also got into Swarth­more Col­lege, an­other top-ranked lib­eral arts school, and en­joyed a week­end there, but chose Amherst.

“I def­i­nitely didn’t ex­pect it to be as dif­fi­cult as it was to ad­just to a lot of things, and I did not ex­pect to have the ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had within my first year and now into my sec­ond year, so­cially,” Morin said.

Lit­tle things added up. She had to fly to New Eng­land and move in by her­self, then sit around and watch other stu­dents un­pack with their fam­i­lies. Peo­ple asked when her par­ents were com­ing to visit, and Morin had to ex­plain they didn’t have the time or money.

In the din­ing hall, for the first time, Morin said, some­one told her to shut up. In class, she was talked over. But at par­ties, she said, peo­ple asked her to teach them Span­ish. “You look Latin,” she re­mem­bers some­one say­ing. And Morin got an un­easy feel­ing one of her pro­fes­sors was us­ing her in class as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her eth­nic­ity.

“I love to be able to talk about my cul­ture and how I strug­gle and nav­i­gate within it, but also, I don’t want to feel like I’m a part of re­search,” Morin said.

Through­out her fresh­man year, she felt iso­lated and home­sick.

“I grew up poor,” Morin said. “That’s who I was. And I grew up with my fam­ily … but with Amherst comes priv­i­lege. And so I re­ally wanted to run away from that, and to still main­tain my bond and my con­nec­tion to, not only my fam­ily, but where I grew up.”

She couldn’t tell her par­ents how she felt — “they worked their whole lives to get me there,” she said — but when spring came, Morin made up her mind to leave.

Then she landed a sum­mer in­tern­ship at a cam­pus re­source cen­ter for first-gen­er­a­tion, low-in­come, trans­fer, un­doc­u­mented and vet­eran stu­dents.

Part of her job was to ed­u­cate oth­ers about iden­tity and so­cial jus­tice. In the process, Morin ed­u­cated her­self, ac­quir­ing “the lan­guage to talk about some of those things I had ex­pe­ri­enced in my back­ground, back home in Texas and also on this cam­pus,” she said.

When tu­ition went up, Morin took a work-study job at the ad- mis­sions of­fice as a “di­ver­sity in­tern.” Now she helps or­ga­nize the same di­ver­sity week­ends she once at­tended. She leads tours, talks to prospec­tive stu­dents and tries to ad­dress the dis­con­nect be­tween what they’re told and what they later ex­pe­ri­ence on cam­pus.

Morin now plans to ma­jor in Lat­inx and Latin Amer­i­can stud­ies. So far, she de­scribes her­self as a “B-plus kid.”

She wants SAISD stu­dents look­ing at top-tier col­leges to be in­formed, but not dis­cour­aged, by her strug­gles.

“Es­pe­cially peo­ple who are from lower-in­come back­grounds, you al­ways think you owe some­one some­thing, and you ab­so­lutely don’t,” Morin said. “If you are se­lected to go some­where and you de­cide to go there, you be­long there and it’s a place that you will change.”

‘I have to pinch my­self ’

Teresa Con­chas re­mem­bers hear­ing Guz­man’s story about com­ing from poverty and go­ing to Columbia. It was at his high school grad­u­a­tion as she waited for her cousin to walk the stage.

Con­chas was then a ju­nior at YWLA. She grew up in the mid­dle class, at­tend­ing her neigh­bor­hood el­e­men­tary school, Bon­ham Academy — ar­guably SAISD’s best at the time.

Both par­ents im­mi­grated from Mex­ico. Her mother went to tech­ni­cal school and worked as a med­i­cal as­sis­tant be­fore start­ing her own craft busi­ness.

Con­chas said her fa­ther im­mi­grated alone, and nearly pen­ni­less, be­cause he wanted a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion. He was about 18 — the age she is now. He earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree at St. Mary’s Univer­sity, a master’s in mar­ket­ing on­line, and is now an ac­count ex­ec­u­tive at AT&T.

“That de­ter­mi­na­tion, I think, has re­ally had a pro­found im­pact on me,” Con­chas said.

SAISD doesn’t ex­clude mid­dlein­come stu­dents from its top-tier push, al­though they are less likely to qual­ify for full schol­ar­ships. Con­chas swung through New Eng­land on one of the dis­trict’s col­lege tours in her ju­nior year.

Turned off by their elit­ist rep­u­ta­tion, she was avoid­ing Ivy League schools, but when she vis­ited Brown Univer­sity in Rhode Is­land, “just walk­ing on cam­pus, talk­ing to some of the stu­dents, vis­it­ing their cen­ter for stu­dents of color, I was con­vinced I wanted to come here,” she said.

Con­chas was the YWLA vale­dic­to­rian last spring. Her ac­cep­tance let­ter from Brown made her jump up and down, hug­ging her lit­tle sis­ter. In tears, Con­chas told her fa­ther, who was chop­ping some­thing in the kitchen.

He con­grat­u­lated her and went back to meal prepa­ra­tions. He didn’t re­al­ize it was one of the best schools in the coun­try un­til he told other peo­ple, Con­chas said.

Brown of­fered Con­chas more fi­nan­cial aid than the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, but she said her fam­ily still pays $14,000 per year. They’ll likely take a big­ger hit in two years, when her sis­ter goes to col­lege.

Walk­ing down the main green, as stu­dents read and chat un­der trees, Con­chas some­times can’t be­lieve her luck.

“I have to pinch my­self,” she said.

The col­lege’s cul­ture of ac­tivism and so­cial con­scious­ness makes it a friendly place, she said. She’s met four other stu­dents from San An­to­nio, in­clud­ing two she al­ready knew from sum­mer pro­grams. In­stead of com­ing back for Thanks­giv­ing, Con­chas vis­ited a for­mer YWLA class­mate at North­east­ern Univer­sity in Bos­ton.

“It’s nice to have friends in the area,” Con­chas said.

‘Work hard for it’

Not all the top-tier col­leges on SAISD’s list are on the East Coast. Some are rel­a­tively close, in­clud­ing UT-Austin and Texas A&M Univer­sity in Col­lege Sta­tion, both Tier One re­search univer­si­ties.

Tarik Is­lam, a UT fresh­man, was vale­dic­to­rian at Edi­son High School, where his class­mates called him “Math God.” He’s study­ing bi­ol­ogy and wants to be a car­dio­tho­racic sur­geon, but if med­i­cal school doesn’t work out, he sees him­self as a re­search sci­en­tist.

At the ori­en­ta­tion for nat­u­ral science ma­jors, Is­lam re­al­ized his math skills were not di­vine. Seem­ingly ev­ery­one had, like him, aced the ad­vance place­ment cal­cu­lus exam.

At Edi­son, one of Is­lam’s harder classes was AP English, where he dreaded the fi­nal pa­per — three pages long. But many class­mates in Austin from wealth­ier school dis­tricts had writ­ten 10-page pa-

Pho­tos by Jackie Mol­loy / Con­trib­u­tor

Columbia Univer­sity sopho­more Isa­iah Guz­man checks his grades un­der his bed. Guz­man, who grew up in poverty, does most of his work there and chooses to sleep there.

Guz­man, who grad­u­ated from Travis Early Col­lege High School in 2017, has a schol­ar­ship through the QuestBridge pro­gram.

Teresa Con­chas, who grad­u­ated ear­lier this year from Young Women’s Lead­er­ship Academy as vale­dic­to­rian, stands in front of a statue of Bruno the bear on the main at Brown Univer­sity in Rhode Is­land.

Tarik Is­lam, 2018 Edi­son High vale­dic­to­rian, is a fresh­man at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin.

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