Area Foundation Helps Unique College Accessibility Program Get Off The Ground

By Kiko Martinez

SAN ANTONIO — Kaylah Smith has always loved animals, specifically marine life. She spent many summers with her family at the ocean off the coast of South Carolina. She shares her affinity for sharks with her father.

“I want to be a marine biologist and work with animals,” said Smith, 19. “I started doing a lot of research on sharks around my freshman year of high school, but I never knew you could do that as a career.”

Currently, Smith, who graduated from John Jay Science and Engineering Academy High School, is studying biology at Northwest Vista College and then she’s hoping to transfer to the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

None of those studies, nor her career goals, would’ve ever likely gotten off the ground had it not been for AlamoPROMISE, a program that covers the cost of tuition at one of the five community colleges comprising the Alamo Colleges District.

“I was very concerned about where I was going to get the money for college,” shared Smith, who works part- time as a barista. “AlamoPROMISE was a lifesaver for me. I was able to go to college for no cost and explore my options. Now, I know what I want to do.”

AlamoPROMISE was established in late 2019 with help from the San Antonio Area Foundation (SAAFdn), which invested in the program through a $200,000 grant to make college more accessible for local graduating seniors. 

Since SAAFdn’s intial contribution, AlamoPROMISE has expanded from 25 eligible high schools to 30. One of its goals is to increase the rate of students attending college in San Antonio from 49 to 70 percent over the first five years of the program.

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, Texas ranks 40th in the nation in graduates going to college directly from high school with 58 percent. Patricia Mejia, SAAFdn’s Vice President for Community Engagement and Impact, said the organization looks at daunting statistics like these when it comes for the  Area Foundation to decide where its grantmakingcould have the most community impact. 

“We’re really looking at the data and understanding poverty and segregation and listening to the conversations that are happening at the city, state and national level to align dollars to go in that direction,” Mejia said. “If we want to change the trajectory of the city, we must get our families educated. This is the way to be able to do that – by removing any barriers that they might have to go to college.”

Stephanie Vasquez, Chief Program Officer at AlamoPROMISE, said that thanks to SAAFdn’s $200,000 infusion, the program was able to hire enrollment coaches to help strengthen relationships with local colleges, high schools and community-based organizations. During its first phase, AlamoPROMISE served nearly 3,000 students. They hope to increase those numbers under the new expansion.

“Our AlamoPROMISE scholars have a whole network of support once they are enrolled with us,” Vasquez said. “This is one less thing they have to worry about. They have time to do other things outside of the class like internships. It’s really making a direct impact on the students.”

Lanier High School graduate Matthew Ramos is another student who has benefited from the program. Currently, Ramos is studying to become a cyber security specialist at St. Philip’s College. He also hopes to transfer to UTSA next fall. Without the financial support from AlamoPROMISE, Ramos isn’t sure he would’ve even been able to go to college.

“My family doesn’t have a lot of money, so it was important for me to make a game plan,” said Ramos, 20. “AlamoPROMISE has given me the chance to go to college and have a better life.”

Ramos, who works as a plumber and as an AlamoPROMISE peer mentor, knows how important a college education is for his future. With a 9-month-old daughter at home, he’s making every opportunity count not only for him but for his whole family.

“With all this hard work I’m doing in college, it’s going to be worth it,” he said. “Not everyone gets a chance to go to college, so I’m making it matter. When she’s older, I want my daughter to be able to say that she’s proud of me.”

Francisco “Kiko” Martinez is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and part of the San Antonio Area Foundation Marketing & Communication Department’s new Storytelling Ambassador contributor network.