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Where We’re Going: The Power of Student Engagement

Where We’re Going: The Power of Student Engagement

“You wouldn’t believe how much these students change. They go from saying ‘like’ every two seconds to being really articulate and confident. It’s been so much fun for me to see!”

Navile Rodriguez, 22, co-leads the All In Student Ambassador program, a high-school-to-college advocacy and support program thriving in the bicultural, border city of Brownsville, Texas. I’ve met her several times and easily imagine her smiling through the phone, alternating between measured responses to my questions and these bubbly bursts of enthusiasm about the education program she calls her “baby.” Here Navile shares her own high-school-to-college journey; the video was recorded at an MDC 2013 Learning Institute in April:

Navile Rodriguez, Part 2 from MDC on Vimeo.

Brownsville, Texas, is the southernmost city in Texas. The city limits are marked by a winding barrier wall, interrupted only by a guarded border crossing and a section of the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) campus, where Navile is a senior. The ocean air blows in from the Gulf, across the renowned bird-watching reserves of neighboring South Padre Island to the small downtown, heavy with traffic from those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The families of many students at UTB live on both sides of the bridge. Poverty and low educational attainment are persistent problems in this area. Brownsville-Harlingen ranked second among the poorest metropolitan regions in America in 2011, and only 60 percent of the adult population here has completed high school.  

Today, Navile Rodriguez and 14 other college students are working with students in Brownsville public high schools to change this. Their Student Ambassador program connects university and college students (the “Ambassadors”) with high school students, taking care to place Ambassadors at their own alma maters whenever possible. Navile and other Lead Ambassadors developed their own curriculum for teaching high school students skills needed to access and complete postsecondary education—everything from filling out the FAFSA and the Apply Texas state-wide college application form to drafting resumes and cover letters. They now teach other Ambassadors to deliver this content and mentor high school students considering what to do after high school.

“It’s important that we aren’t going to the high school on behalf of a specific college or university to recruit students,” Navile says. “We’re there as members and leaders of this program, and as members of the All In partnership.”

The All In partnership started in 2010 as part of an MDC-led initiative, Partners for Postsecondary Success, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All In is a Brownsville-based community partnership formed to double the number of young adults with postsecondary credentials that will lead to living-wage employment. Community members and representatives from 13 major educational, employment, and business organizations—including Navile and other college students—work together to create stronger pathways for young people to attain living wage work. In the three years since the work began here, MDC coaching teams have assisted the partnership in producing a detailed analysis of local educational and employment data and begun a large-scale project to align high school and postsecondary curriculum. They have also developed programs like the Student Ambassador effort that provide student-to-student support for local youth.

In addition to working in the high schools, Navile and other Student Ambassadors play active roles on the All In Task Forces that design and implement multi-year strategies for the work. Navile attended the 2013 MDC Learning Institute with lead Ambassadors Janeth Rico and Blanca Davila, and all three noted the importance of students working in collaboration and unison with the rest of the All In partners. At this event, representatives from community partnership efforts across the country heard directly from this group and considered how similar models might be used in their communities. In this video, Janeth explains how she incorporates her personal experience into her work as an Ambassador:

Janeth Rico from MDC on Vimeo.

Currently, the Student Ambassadors are leading discussions within the partnership about developing meaningful ways that parents of middle and high school students can contribute to the postsecondary success initiative. “We should just ask parents how they would like to be involved, right?” Navile said to me more than once when we were chatting, her enthusiasm evident even over the phone. She tells me again with a slight sigh how much she “really, really loves” this work and is so thankful to be a part of the change afoot in Brownsville.

“I had this one kid,” Navile says, “who told me that he just came because his friend did. I pushed him on it—you know—asked him what he wanted to do after high school, and he finally told me about his interest in a school for criminal justice in Coastal Bend, but wasn’t sure if he should go for it or not. I told him of course he should go for it, and I’d find him information about the program. He did end up coming back , and when he did he said that he and his buddy had plans to drive up to the school, which is four hours away. That was a big deal for me. Just to hear him thinking about it was a step.”

The compass points north: MDC knows place-based educational initiatives are stronger and better when students are meaningfully involved. By making decisions in concert with other partnership members and designing the student programs they then implement, Navile and the other Student Ambassadors in Brownsville are setting a new standard for inclusivity in community partnership. The next time you’re heading down the coast of Texas, notice the billboards along US 77 promoting the All In partnership and rest assured that here, students are driving a large part of the effort. 

This is the fifth installment in a series called “Where We’re Going: Places on the Road to the North Star,” which explores lessons from the past three years of the Partners for Postsecondary Success (PPS) initiative and looks ahead, toward the North Star goals the partner cities are aiming to achieve. PPS, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and led by MDC, is an effort by partnerships in Amarillo, TX; Brownsville, TX; Raleigh, NC; and affiliate site Charlotte, NC, to increase the number of low-income young adults getting postsecondary credentials that lead to living-wage jobs.