These Students Have Big Dreams. Their Colleges Had a Plan to

Northwest Vista College Jasmine Cortinas 09 1660773562
Jasmine Cortinas tackled college while working full-time and caring for a young daughter. Photos by Ed Ornelas for EdSurge.

Jasmine’s Upward Journey

Jasmine Cortinas is relentlessly curious.

As the 29-year-old describes her path to Northwest Vista College—a short drive from her previous workplace at a hotel that caters to vacationers bound for SeaWorld—her hands flutter excitedly as she pauses to explain how commercial HVAC systems differ from those in the average home.

It was her ambition that got her a job in the hotel’s kitchen right after high school and, despite having no prior experience, a spot on the hotel’s maintenance team.

When Jasmine was ready to move on to the UT Health Sciences Center—her eyes fixed on a more-advanced HVAC job—she convinced the hiring manager to take her on and train her.

“It’s gonna be four years, and I’ve been promoted twice already,” Jasmine says, “because I’ve shown them. During my interview, I told them, ‘I can prove to you that I could be a great asset.’ And I did. I never stopped proving that until now.”

That’s why it’s so surprising to hear that when Jasmine reached her senior year of high school—when it’s easy to imagine her flipping through college brochures and writing scholarship essays—she found herself with only nine credits.

Jasmine would make a mad dash for the rest of the year to make up her credits and graduate.

“I didn’t have that good of a boyfriend at the time. He actually dropped out and he was bad enough that he was telling me like, ‘You’re gonna be like me. You’re gonna drop out,’” Cortinas recalls. “I didn’t have enough knowledge being in a relationship [to see] that it was actually bringing me down.”

Jasmine dumped the boyfriend, but she says the rest of the problems with her high school classes fell on her. She regularly skipped class—except for the culinary program, where she and her classmates essentially ran a restaurant under the exacting guidance of a former professional chef.

“I guess it was because I liked the hands-on. I didn’t like the school aspect where you had to sit and read,” Jasmine muses.

It’s a moot point now to ponder whether a leap to college right after high school would have benefited Jasmine, or just been more torturous. What’s clear is that she discovered her passion in the decade since, and it’s that—not a sense of academic obligation—that led her to the electrical engineering program at Northwest Vista.

Making Her Own Path

For the past two years, Jasmine’s days have started promptly at 5 a.m. After dropping her 5-year-old daughter off at daycare, she spends the free hour before work doing homework.

Then during her 30-minute lunch break, more homework.

After work, still more homework, until bathtime. When her daughter finally falls asleep—well, you can guess.

“I would get back on the laptop,” Jasmine says. “I would be on the laptop ‘till about midnight or one in the morning. Then I would go to sleep. I would wake up at five in the morning, and I would do it all over again.”

Unlike the typical image of a first-time college student, Jasmine had been in the workforce for a decade when she enrolled in Northwest Vista College. And she’s got the unending needs of her daughter to tend to. She says one support program that has helped keep her on track is Summer Momentum—part of the Alamo Colleges District’s Keep Learning Plan—which offered her free tuition for summer classes. That took some of the financial burden off her shoulders.

“My plan was to take summer classes from the start because at the age that I started college, being 28, I felt like I was so late taking it,” Jasmine says. “But knowing that they were gonna be free, that was really great news to hear.”

Jasmine has consistently taken three classes per semester while working full-time.

Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District, says there’s been a conversation happening in higher education over the past four years on serving a student body that is changing. Students like Jasmine, who have jobs, families and a slew of responsibilities demanding their attention. Colleges and universities are recognizing that their students aren’t worried just about their education.

Those changes are fueling the direction of the Keep Learning Plan, a collection of programs at Alamo Colleges District campuses that aim to help students stay enrolled by providing free summer classes, textbooks and reductions in other fees. Beyond the program, campuses also provide food pantries, clothing pantries and mental health counseling. It’s part of the district’s credo to end poverty in San Antonio through education.

“We are looking at today’s Alamo College student, whether they’re 18 or 38, and saying, ‘These are their current needs. How can we partner with them to address those needs?’” Flores says. “They’re not academic challenges. They’re life considerations.”

The college district—made up of five community colleges in San Antonio—serves a student population of around 72,000 that is 64 percent Latino, according to the most recent available figures. Nearly half are considered economically disadvantaged, and 73 percent rely on financial aid and scholarships to pay tuition. Most of its students—68 percent—attend part-time. Flores says around 15,000 students are parents.

Colleges in the system are equipped with Advocacy Centers, where students can find help accessing support, Flores says, either on or off campus. The college district has partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank, for instance, to fund staff called “benefit navigators” who help students apply for services like SNAP or link them to community resources.Jasmine Cortinas, a graduate of Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas

“Sometimes these are students who are in crisis. They reach out and come to the Advocacy Center, talk to the staff [about] wraparound support,” Flores says, “and then they end up being successful within the courses and within the semester.”

Just Say Yes

Jasmine says her aunt and sister have been big sources of support while working on her associates degree. There were her professors, too, who always made time to help with class material, and fellow students who never made her feel out of place for starting college later in life. But when she walked across the graduation stage and accepted her associates degree in May, there was also a coworker present to watch her walk the stage—he’s the person Jasmine says encouraged her straightaway to take the leap to college.

“He was like, ‘If you’re thinking about going to school, just do it,’” Jasmine says. “I’m so glad I did. I would’ve regretted not enrolling at the time that I did. And it was just because he said to do it. Don’t even talk about it. Just take action.”

Jasmine has carried on that attitude, taking hold of whatever opportunity came her way, be it the two honors societies she’s part of, or setting a phone reminder for her financial aid applications. When she received a recruitment email last year for the NASA Community for Aerospace Scholars—a program for community college STEM students—she decided to apply.

Jasmine was accepted for what the program calls Mission 1, a five-week lecture series with NASA scientists and engineers. It was a fantastic opportunity—that just so happened to coincide with her college finals last fall.

“I was [a working] full-time, single mom, taking three classes, and then I was like, ‘This is just five weeks long,’” Jasmine recounts. “Then it was the most stressful semester. It was just so intense, but it was fun.”

Jasmine was invited back for the program’s second “mission,” a week-long challenge where her team of 12 students had to formulate a plan for sending a rover to Mars. As she prepares to shift this fall to the electrical engineering bachelor’s program at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Jasmine is already part of another NASA workforce pipeline program called the L’Space Academy. Her new team is learning how to plan a Mars mission.

“It focuses a lot on the instruments and all of the robotic components on the rover itself, as far as the systems part of it. And that just intrigues me a lot,” Jasmine explains. “What are we gaining from this mission? What kind of instruments are gonna be on a robot and why?”

Along the way, Jasmine’s pursuit of an associates degree shifted from an endpoint to a launching pad. Her plans have evolved to include spending summers getting as much experience with NASA as possible, with the goal of working in robotics there after her next graduation.

Knowing what she knows now, Jasmine says she would have pushed herself to start college right after high school—when she had more time and less responsibilities on her hands. Still, Jasmine doubts she would have thought about becoming an engineer back then. She definitely has a clearer vision for herself now.

“I’m so glad that I found that, and I have a passion in something,” she says. “I would definitely be surprised, and I would root for myself. ‘You just keep going. You’re there.’”