Alia Malik Dec. 14, 2018 Updated: Dec. 14, 2018 12:48 p.m.
News // Education
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 nation’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 low-income backgrounds to elite institutions of higher learning want 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 have already benefited from the SAISD Pipeline for College Success program, created last year with $8.4 million from the Valero Energy Foundation. It funds new advisors 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 postsecondary 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 reduced-price school meals. For the highest achievers among them, the Pipeline pays for visits to top colleges all over the country.
Elite colleges have increasingly 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.
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 was still 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 is always 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 First-Generation 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 resources 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 incredible.”
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 admissions 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 middle-income 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 papers and had already adjusted to college-level workloads.
Islam, 19, knows other SAISD graduates who are doing worse academically. It’s common for freshmen to feel overwhelmed, but he thinks the school district could have prepared them better. His older brother was Edison’s salutatorian, but dropped out of Baylor University because he didn’t know what to expect, Islam said.
His parents and brother immigrated to Texas from Bangladesh before he was born. His father, Abdul Malek, had a master’s degree that was useless in the United States, and he worked at a mall kiosk at first, printing photos onto T-shirts. His mother had the equivalent of a high school education.
Islam’s parents now are franchisees of a Thai restaurant, with a household income close to $40,000 a year and a home in the Monte Vista neighborhood that relatives in Bangladesh helped pay off, Malek said.
Islam said his parents didn’t talk much about college. But he went on SAISD’s Ivy League tour. He said Cornell wait-listed him. Baylor accepted him and offered a scholarship, but “it was never close to enough.”
Islam’s dad is impressed with UT. But everything depends on financial aid, and the family doesn’t know what that will look like next year.
“I hope we can afford it, because this is my last child,” Malek said. “Somehow, I have to work hard for it.”
The challenge ahead
Ozuna and Pauline Dow, SAISD’s deputy superintendent for academics and school leadership, were themselves among the first in their families to get college degrees. They know the problems first-generation and low-income students face at top-tier schools.
“Purely on an equity basis, our kids deserve to be in those seats,” Dow said.
High school counselors have started meeting earlier with students in the top 25 percent to identify the things they might struggle with in college. SAISD’s advisors tell students to introduce themselves at college counseling centers and get comfortable going there. Find the campus writing center, they urge.
The advisors recommend colleges that meet full financial need and have academic and social supports for first-generation students.
More systematically, SAISD has started connecting high school students to the district’s alumni or other undergraduates with similar backgrounds at their colleges of choice. And the district recently began trying to link its alumni geographically, so those in college can check in and meet up with each other.
The SAISD Foundation has started a “gap fund” for students facing financial emergencies — books, winter coats, even a few hundred dollars to make rent in a bad month, Ozuna said.
As elite colleges increase supports for low-income students, SAISD’s task is to help these schools, not blame them, she said.
“Do I resent that we have to do that? Nope, because I think, as educators, our job is to take students from where they are to where we want to get them,” Ozuna said.
“We’re in this together.”
Alia Malik covers several school districts and the Alamo Colleges District in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read her on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | amalik