Denton Record Chronicle: Guyer students learn about college world

Originally published 11-14-14 by the Denton Record Chronicle.

University of North Texas students are using their experiences applying for college to encourage a future generation of high school students and show them that they too can pursue degrees.

Since January, UNT students have served as mentors to Denton school district Hispanic English language learners as they prepare to transition from high school to college.

This semester, college mentors have met with about 40 Guyer High School students twice a month in small groups to discuss applying for college, financial aid opportunities, selecting a career, improving grades and preparing for college admission exams. Each visit generally takes 45 to 50 minutes, according to a Guyer High official.

"The idea is ... that there are possibilities beyond high school," said Rossana Boyd, director of the bilingual/English as a second language teacher certification programs at UNT.

Boyd said she's heard students say they're not going to college because of concerns that it's a financial burden, and that's something the program is attempting to change. She said some students don't aspire to attend college because they don't know how to get there.

Each semester culminates with an event where parents are invited to see what the students did during the semester and what they've learned, which helps motivate them to encourage their children to attend college, Boyd said.

Information packets in Spanish about how to make that attainable are shared with parents, she said.

Misty Chesnut, Guyer High assistant principal, said the program targets the school's Limited English Proficiency students and those with an ESL background.

She said it's a population that's traditionally underserved and that can be easily marginalized on a large campus like Guyer High.

Meeting the mentors and developing relationships has impacted the way some of the Guyer High participants perceive school and improved their grades and daily behavior, Chesnut said.

It's also given them a safe, accessible place where they can ask questions and see college as a genuine possibility, she said.

"I think for many of our kids this has been a way to sensitively address some issues that they were not comfortable asking," Chesnut said.

Many students are discouraged because they face barriers such as documentation issues or because their parents are wary of filling out paperwork that they feel may begin to track them because of immigration issues, and that's a sensitive topic that most college-readiness programs aren't addressing, Chestnut said.

"It's not a setting that it feels safe for those students, and so, with them meeting with these mentors in small groups ... I think that it has really made it a very tangible, safe place to ask things that really are on their mind," she said. "I think it does kind of get their wheels turning to recognize that you really do have the potential to open up an entire different world to you and have all these different choices available to you through your education."

Last week, 25 Guyer High students visited UNT for campus tours and to attend sessions on college admissions, careers in education and financial aid opportunities.

For most of the students, it was their first time on a college campus.

Mentors such as Christina Hernandez can empathize with what the students are experiencing. It's something she encountered as a high school senior, and it's something that now motivates her to assist her younger cousins, sister and younger students in the community, she said.

Hernandez said she wants them to see that college is attainable.

"Coming from a different community that I know is just as underserved, I would definitely like to see more types of programs in different communities and different high schools, as well, because all these students need our help, and if nobody takes the time to instill that kind of college-going mentality, then they will continue to not be as successful as we would like them to be," Hernandez said.

She said that when she first began working with the students, they were withdrawn.

"It's really exciting to see how they've kind of blossomed," she said. "At first, they were a little shy, they were a little unsure, a little bit more closed in. They really didn't want to talk a lot, but after sharing our experiences with them, I think that that definitely helped them open up some and got them thinking, ‘Well, you know, if she can do it, maybe I can do it, too.'"

David Ortiz, a Guyer High junior, said the mentor program has opened his eyes to the opportunities available to him.

He said it's also made him realize what's needed to get into college and that it's nothing to be afraid of as long as students make an effort, have good grades and focus on what they want to be.

Yuli Flores, a freshman at Guyer High, said the program has changed her outlook on attending college. Initially, she said, she thought it wasn't affordable, but after hearing about scholarships, she's changed her mind.

"They make it seem like going to college is more helpful and beneficial for your life than actually not going and starting working," Flores said.

The Mentoring English Language Learners to Transition from High School to College program is led by the UNT Bilingual/ESL Teacher Certification Program in collaboration with Guyer High, UNT SERVES! and the UNT League of United Latin American Citizens. The program is supported by a UNT community engagement grant.

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.

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