All systems were "go" May 3 at the launch of McAllen Memorial High School's new Go Center, one of many to be developed in high schools across the Rio Grande Valley and the state as a vital part of the College for Texans statewide campaign to increase the number of students entering post-secondary education.
The Go Center was established through a collaborative effort between Valley Outreach Center (VOC) at The University of Texas-Pan American, Valley school districts and UTPA's GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness of Undergraduate Programs). Through the Go Centers, the College for Texans campaign hopes to raise public awareness of the value of a college education, the preparation required to enter higher education and be successful and the financial aid available to students.
At the ribbon cutting ceremony, UTPA Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Dr. John Edwards said the Valley was in the midst of a revolution in terms of educational and economic opportunities. He said the Valley schools have embraced the Recommended High School Graduation Plan, a college track curriculum, as well as other programs enabling more students to enter college well prepared.
"In 1994, only 25 percent of freshmen entering UT Pan Am had taken a recommended or college track program. Today nearly 90 percent of our entering freshmen are in a college track program, with many of those having taken dual credit, concurrent enrollment, advanced placement or international baccalaureate programs," he said.
Edwards said this preparation has not only benefited Valley students academically but also financially, through the TEXAS Grant program passed by the legislature in 2000.
"The TEXAS Grant enables students to have a grant of money as long as they have graduated in the recommended high school program or higher in Texas schools. Because so many students in the Valley chose the recommended program, students at Pan Am benefited from the TEXAS Grant more than any other university in Texas," he said, noting this year UTPA received $15.2 million in TEXAS Grant funding.
The University's involvement in the establishment of the Go Centers, Edwards said, continues its long time promotion of higher education access and preparation for success.
"We want to do everything that we can as a University to help more students go to college, help more families understand the availability of aid for college and better help our Rio Grande Valley in the process," he said.
While helping his own child - a senior - in looking into colleges, McAllen Memorial Principal Armando Saenz said he found it a complicated process.
"It (Go Center) is very much needed for all students - to be able to go somewhere and be able to get some help in filling out applications and being able to get information on scholarships, grants and loans. You want all your questions answered so you know what to do and what is the best thing to do," he said.
At the ceremony, a group of 10 McAllen Memorial G-Force members, each with a defined area of responsibility, gave a presentation demonstrating the kind of assistance and advice the Go Center can offer students and parents.
Eva Salazar, an 11th-grade student at McAllen Memorial and a G-Force member in charge of financial aid, said her involvement in the Go Center gave her the opportunity to help others as well as herself.
"As I learn to teach others about it, I learn myself and it helps me," said Salazar, who plans to go to Texas A&M and major in veterinary medicine.
McAllen Memorial also has two collegiate G-Force members from UTPA who will visit that school and two others each week. The collegiate G-Force from UTPA has also created a new component -a G-Force student organization at the University, which is made up of other student volunteers who are also motivated to speak to K-12 students on college awareness and college preparation. Petra Lopez-Vaquera, VOC Go Center specialist, serves as the collegiate G-Force mentor as well as student organization adviser.
Collegiate G-Force member Charisma Garcia said having college students to talk to helps the students feel more at ease to ask questions.
"Our goal as collegiate G-Force team members is to pass on the wisdom that we have learned first hand from being on a college campus and to help other students because we can relate completely to the troubles, the paperwork and the confusion involved in going to college," said Garcia, a junior premedical major from McAllen.
The College for Texans campaign was initiated by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) in 2002 under Senate Bill 573 to support the state's higher education plan, Closing the Gaps by 2015, formulated by the THECB in 2000 to improve the accessibility and quality of education in the state.
The plan states that "only by sharply reversing Texas' declining enrollment and graduation rates, and building excellence in education and research, can the state compete successfully with other states and nations."
A major goal of the plan, Edwards said, is to enroll approximately 600,000 additional students in public and independent institutions by the year 2015. This increase would raise the participation rate by Texas citizens in higher education to that of the other most populous states in the nation.
Todd Holland, the Rio Grande Valley coordinator for Texas Scholars and the Go Centers, said the state hopes to open a Go Center in every high school in Texas.
"A lot of schools have career or college centers but the problem is that they don't get used very often. With the implementation of the G-Force and the students actually doing the outreach, it gets a lot more bang for the buck because they are out there talking to their friends. Most students will ask other students questions before they will go to their teacher or counselor," he said.
Holland said the Valley is leading the state in opening Go Centers because of the ability to partner with GEAR UP schools. Holland hopes to also open Go Centers in community places, such as work force centers, where he said more parents would have access to the information.
The Go Center at McAllen Memorial is the fourth facilitated through UTPA's VOC since it opened September 2004 said Lisa Prieto, VOC associate director. Go Centers were also started at PSJA High School, La Joya High School and Santa Rosa High School - all UTPA GEAR UP high schools.
"Next school year we hope to establish more Go Centers in other UTPA GEAR UP schools as well as assist the Region One GEAR UP schools to establish centers," she said.
According to Felipe Salinas, UTPA director of College Access and Support Programs and VOC director, the University's Go Center, now housed at the VOC at the UTPA annex, will be located at a former McDonald's site on 281 in Edinburg. The U.T. System Board of Regents authorized the land purchase in February 2005. A ceremony finalizing the transfer between McDonald's and UTPA will occur later this summer. Salinas said plans for collaborative efforts with McDonald's to promote the Go Centers and other College for Texans initiatives are underway and will be announced at that time.
"We look forward in the coming year to not only launching more high school Go Centers, but also assisting those Centers in building partnerships with businesses and organizations in their communities to help promote the college-going message. The 'buy-in' of those local partners will better insure that the Go Centers will serve the needs of their communities," Salinas said.
For more information on Go Centers and the College for Texans campaign log on to www.voc.utpa.edu or www.collegefortexans.com