Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2016 •

Editor’s Note: The superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, Dr. Daniel King, saw that many of the district’s students were registering for college, but they weren’t actually staying and completing their studies. So seven years ago, he brought in “college transition counselors.” I interviewed two of PSJA’s counselors: Vera Boda, PSJA college transition lead, and Cynthia Martínez, PSJA college transition specialist. Following is a synopsis of their conversation.

Dr. King wanted to make sure that the school district’s responsibilities didn’t end when students graduated from high school and that there would be counselors who would follow them throughout their time in college. Transition counselors are both in the district to work with all the high schools and at the college campuses. We work with all seniors from day one. We have five comprehensive high schools and three special purpose campuses. All of them are early college campuses.

Transition counselors are critical because it is so important to work with students one-on-one. We must establish trust and build relationships. We have activities with students that include the parents so they understand that college is possible. It’s irrelevant what the home conditions are.

College is life changing. It opens doors and gives new possibilities. It changes everything about opportunities that are offered to the student. It changes the family, siblings and neighbors. The increased earning power affects everyone. Having a more educated population will attract industry to the area. It impacts us in so many ways, we don’t have to convince the families in the benefits of a college education.

We’ve outlined a set of effective counseling practices for a college-going culture:

•   Provide academic plans for college readiness early on.

•   Provide information necessary for future aspirations.

•   Engage and assist students in completing critical steps for college entry.

•   Provide academic support.

•   Facilitate applying for financial aid.

•   Provide social and emotional support for academic success.

Our critical task is having the students trust us and helping them make the best decisions possible. We let them know what they need to do to apply to college. We guide them through all the forms they have to fill out, all the requirements, including the common application that must be filled to apply to the college of their choice.

We also work closely with students and their families to fill out financial aid forms, both the generic and the Texas-specific forms. We have Go Centers at all of our high schools that are run by our students and supervised by financial aid officers. Even in outreach projects, our students are best able to reach other students at their level.

We particularly need to help those who are undocumented students, which this year is about 13 percent of the graduating seniors, with their applications. It is more challenging for undocumented students to receive financial aid because only about 10 percent of the funds are allocated for them. We counsel them to take one or two courses so that they can afford the cost but not give up on college. The irony is that, if the college doesn’t give out its financial aid money, it loses it. The more the college gives out, the more it’ll get the next year.

The challenges for our students who are first-time college attendees in their families are many. It might be something as simple as receiving an email from the college and not knowing how to respond. Guiding them through the process has been very helpful because, without that support, they would have been stopped right there and dropped their studies. Colleges don’t personalize their support for students, so many get lost in the system’s requirements. They can easily fall through the cracks.

Typically colleges don’t reach out to the students. The students must seek them out. So as transition counselors we are actually on campus. We monitor their data. We’re able to get in touch with those who are on borderline with their GPA. We follow them throughout their college career not just their first year.

Some students go off on their own and only touch base with us once in a while. Those usually do well, but others require our ongoing support throughout their college stay. It’s the ones who are shy and don’t contact us and are having problems who we have to seek out. Having access to the data to identify students who need help is very important. Sometimes the first couple of emails aren’t responded to, but when they see we’re not going away, they contact us.

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We know it’s possible to bring back students who left without completing high school because we see it happening in our school district. We offer many options for our students so that if they are unable to complete an associate’s degree, they might be able to complete a certificate program, and that is huge.

Our district’s “college for all” policies are working very well. The technical certificates some of our graduates are completing carry college credit. In each high school, a significant number of students are graduating with an associate of arts degree across all high schools. The high school located in what was once considered the poorest part of the district had students scoring very high on their SAT exams. Our goal is for all of our high school graduates to have a minimum of 12 college credit hours. It is possible.

The confidence that is instilled in a student when he or she completes even one college course is huge. It is life-changing.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, Ed.D., is a senior education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]