College bribery scandal resonates with college-focused nonprofits

dean's list 2019

Last week’s headlines about parents bribing school officials to admit their children to elite universities stirred local nonprofits that support students who struggle to navigate the system, especially those who face the secondary hurdle of being a minority. Though Latinos and Blacks lag behind Whites in the rate of degree attainment, nonprofits that support the minority population say the news won’t deter them from encouraging students and their families to believe in their dreams.   

At Con Mi Madre, a nonprofit that helps Latinas and their mothers prepare for academic success after high school, chief program officer Karen Gonzalez says the news affected her personally as well. Gonzalez not only administers the program today but is also a Con Mi Madre alumnus. The Austin native and daughter of immigrants remembers being discouraged to apply for college by her high school counselor. Today, Gonzalez has a master’s degree in social work from Texas State University, which was inspired by her experience at Con Mi Madre.

“It’s especially enraging because I work at an organization that strives to help students get a college degree by reminding them that hard work and persistence is what’s going to get them there,” said Gonzalez. “To see in the news that someone got there without putting in the work —  it’s not fair. It continues to send the message that money and power can do everything, even if it’s not true.”

Michael Griffith of Breakthrough Central Texas, which guides first-generation students and families from middle school through college, says Central Texas low-income students fare especially poorly in degree attainment. Just 8 percent of Central Texas low-income middle school students will finish college, according the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. And though the system is competitive and difficult for everyone, the odds are stacked against students even further if they’re from a low-income family. 

“The key to me is, that’s not the percentage of students who want to go,” said Griffith. “When we go into a middle school and ask students, ‘Who wants to go to college?’, every hand goes up. And yet so few are making it. The barriers are real and very complicated.”  

This week, Latinitas, the nonprofit that empowers girls through media and technology, invited Rita Olivares Cervantes s to contribute her story to its online magazine in hopes to inspire the girls it serves. In her piece, Cervantes wrote about living with “imposter syndrome” or the feeling that she didn’t belong at UT-Austin. She said she wrote the article in order to assure other minority students that they weren’t alone.

“A big issue minority students face is the suspicion from others that we don’t deserve to be here,” she said. In February, after a rough fall semester of having a job, being in a car crash, using a borrowed computer, and taking six courses, Cervantes found out she had made the Dean’s List. “I called my mom,” she said. “We didn’t know what that meant, so I had to ask. I heard it was good.”  

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