Every spring, hundreds of college-bound high school seniors from schools across the state come to the Forty Acres to spend a day touring the campus, exploring residence halls, public art displays, historic landmarks and, of course, the bigger-than-Texas football stadium. During the annual Longhorn Preview Day—temporarily on hiatus during the pandemic—the students get a glimpse into the future they have been preparing for in the Youth Engagement Center (YEC).
Since 1987, the program has been motivating and preparing tens of thousands of students for college life—many of whom have gone on to attend top universities across the nation. The goal, says Patrick Patterson, assistant vice president of the Longhorn Center for School Partnerships, is to guide them into college—whether it be UT Austin or another school of their own choosing.
“Not only do we encourage and provide support for our students to know and participate in the UT Austin application process, but we also provide best-match, best-fit guidance for every student in our program,” Patterson says. “So, no matter where they choose to attend college, we support them to achieve their dreams of college acceptance.”
Participating high-schoolers (grades 9-12)—more than half being first-generation—are provided with an array of resources that guide them through the admissions process, including one-on-one advising, SAT/ACT test prep, scholarship application assistance, weekend and evening college readiness workshops and more. The program also partners with other school districts in cities outside their target campuses to extend its offerings at school and community events.
Steve Chapa, director of the Rio Grande Valley-based YEC program, works with hundreds of underserved youth in several school districts including Mission, McAllen and PSJA. In collaboration with teachers, counselors and college-readiness personnel at participating high schools, he strives to get both students and their families into the college-going mindset. The challenge, he says, is planting that seed in a region with limited post-secondary school options.
“The RGV is unique; we have a beautiful beach at South Padre Island, and we neighbor a country in Mexico,” Chapa says. “However, there is just one major university, one community college, one technical school and several vocational schools. Compared to other cities we serve, there are more opportunities and higher education campuses outside of the valley.”
Despite those challenges, Chapa has watched many of his RGV students go on to flourish in college, graduate school and well into their careers—thus proving to their peers and family members that higher education is indeed practical and possible. Some return to their hometowns to work in jobs that allow them to make sustainable changes in the community.
“The people here in the RGV care about their communities; they want more opportunities for the next generation and are some of the hardest working people I have met,” Chapa says.
In addition to learning the nuts-and-bolts of applying for college, scholarships and financial aid, students are also gaining leadership skills through various activities coordinated with community partners.
“Not only do we assist them to be college-ready, we are also teaching them how to be responsible and autonomous,” Chapa says. “We have community-service projects as well, and we stress the importance of helping others and giving back to their communities.”
Funding for the YEC’s newly created community engagement and family-centered programming is provided, in large part, by the university as part of its efforts, announced by President Jay Hartzell in July 2020, to advance diversity and inclusion measures on campus. The YEC has also added six new staff positions for its centers in Houston, the RGV, and Dallas, and it has more than doubled its reach from 2,500 to over 6,000 students per year.
During the 2020-21 academic year, 349 YEC students, the majority identifying as Latino/a and African American, were accepted into UT Austin; 32 of those future Longhorns are from the RGV. Patterson attributes the program’s continual growth and success to the hard work and dedication of its staff, many of whom have walked similar paths while pursuing college.
“Another advantage we have is the fact that our staff works in the schools, not only during school hours, but after school and on selected weekends,” Patterson says. “All of our staff have the passion, know-how, and ‘no excuses’ attitude and action to help ensure success for the students we serve.”
For more than 14 years, Chapa has put in long hours of work to put his students on the path to success. He recognizes the significant barriers they face—from financial hardships to imposter syndrome to DACA and undocumented status fears. When they are on the fence about dropping out of the program altogether, he encourages them to focus on the future benefits of a college education.
“I tell them that an education is more than grades,” says Chapa, a Laredo, Texas native who holds an M.E.d in counseling and an M.A. in higher education administration. “College is about responsibility, accountability, maturity, life experiences and taking advantage of opportunities. These and many other experiences await you when you seek and education beyond high school.”
More about the Youth Engagement Center
A long-standing program within the DDCE’s Longhorn Center for School Partnerships, the YEC works to enrich the educational and professional pursuits of underrepresented students through intentional programming, experiences and relationships designed to grow leaders who will change the world. Visit the YEC website for more information.