Receiving my doctoral degree in 2013 was an honor for me because I am a Hispanic English-language learner and first-generation high school graduate. My parents, who never made it past middle school, had to drop out to support their families. My parents worked in the migrant fields, in construction jobs, factories, and, eventually, became small-business owners. Their lives, however, held bigger dreams for their daughters, thus instilling in me and my sisters the value of an education.
I did not reach this milestone alone; it was a collective effort. My parents and the educators behind the dual-enrollment program at South Texas College, in the border town of McAllen, made it possible. I am living proof of what can happen when a community college and a school district think innovatively and join forces to offer first-generation college students like me the access and the opportunity to pursue higher education.
As a high school student, I thought college would be too challenging and, perhaps, even impossible for me since I did not come from college-going lineage. I saw college as a foreign country that my kind—a first-generation college student—dare not enter.
After taking my first dual-enrollment class, however, I realized it was very possible. My classmates included young people just like me—Hispanic English-language learners and first-generation high school graduates, as well as older adults with careers.
Before I attended my first course, I pictured my future classmates receiving guidance from their college-educated parents, giving them a clear advantage over me. I believed the professors would speak past me. I imagined a disconnected environment in which students like me would be lost in a crowd of experienced professors and well-guided students, much like a feudal system between nobles and serfs. Yet, what I once imagined as unattainable became attainable. And this is when I began to realize the possibilities.
As a result of the dual-enrollment program, I graduated from high school with over 50 college hours. This propelled me to receive my bachelor’s degree in two years, instead of four. After completing college, I immediately started graduate school. After obtaining my master’s degree, I earned my doctorate in educational leadership with a primary research focus on first-generation college students.
Once I felt comfortable in college, I wondered why more students like me did not graduate from (or even attend) college. I knew the students in my community had the same intelligence, willingness, and dreams as my fellow university classmates. I realized the only difference between my university classmates and the students in my community was access to the opportunity.
Beyond providing me with early access to college, dual enrollment shifted my perspective. My experience taking college courses as a high school student mirrored, to some extent, the college-going experience for students whose parents went to college before them. It did not replace having college-educated parents, but it was a bridge to the next step in my academic life—one that all students deserve. First-generation college-going students need a way to make the connection between high school and college, particularly when it comes to applying to college, choosing courses, and receiving guidance along the way.
I reaped the benefits of a well-planned educational program designed by many innovators. This is why I decided that my personal mission should be to ensure that all high school students in my community, regardless of their backgrounds, have the same opportunity I had. Upon graduating with my master’s from the University of Texas, I went back to where it began: the La Joya public schools, which I attended as a child, and the dual-enrollment program at South Texas College. I started teaching dual-enrollment courses so that I could give back to the program that helped me and support it as it continues to grow and evolve.
As education leaders, we have hard work ahead of us to help more students make the leap from the familiar setting of K-12 schooling to the vast unknown of higher education. It’s true that dual-enrollment programs are finding success in many communities across the country; however, in our Texas community, just 30 miles from the border of Mexico, college remains out of reach for a disproportionate number of students.
We must do everything we can to encourage our students to graduate from college. This must become my community’s and our nation’s new norm. As education leaders, it must be our professional objective to build a bridge from high school to college.
We have more hard work ahead of us to help more students make the leap from the familiar setting of K-12 schooling to vast unknown of higher education
We must start a dialogue with educators, parents, and policymakers in order to reach our young people. The transition from high school to college should not feel like a blind leap. It should be a strategically designed pathway that gives students, particularly those for whom college is not an expectation, the opportunity to reach the goal of higher education. But like all reforms, it will take time.
Creating a pipeline that ensures students’ college access through dual-enrollment programs with instructors who share similar education objectives, including the belief in alternate pathways to college, is critical. South Texas College has a successful model that other communities can, and should, replicate.
My story is not an exception at South Texas College or in districts where dual enrollment thrives. My success was not a result of my intellect or greater academic aptitude, but rather an education program designed to make my story possible. It should be the right of every student. I am only one example of what I hope will emerge as the new norm.
Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2014 edition of Education Week as The Promise of a Dual-Enrollment Program