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Members of PSJA College Scholarship Leadership Awareness Program encourage PSJA students apply for university.

PHARR, RGV – University should not be thought of as conveyor belt that churns out students for the workforce but rather a fun place to grow up and have a life-transforming experience.

This is the message a group of PSJA North alumni have for students who participate in their intensive summer mentorship program. The program is known as PSJA CSLAP, or the PSJA College Scholarship Leadership Awareness Program.

“I would say the ‘Why’ is the most important part of what we do because the actual ‘What’ and ‘How,’ can be covered very easily,” said Thomas Ray Garcia, who co-founded PSJA CSLAP three years ago with fellow alums from PSJA North High School. The ‘Why’ in this case refers to the question, why does a student go to college?

“I think the ‘Why’ really inspires and motivates the students to move on beyond getting college credits, or trying to get college out of the way, which I think is a common attitude in the Rio Grande Valley, where college, understandably, might seem like a burden because of the cost or the time issue, not wanting to take time away from family or work,” Garcia said. “We are trying to redevelop this idea of what college could be, the love of learning and this idea that you go to college to have a transformative experience that really can be fun.”

Garcia, a rising senior at Princeton University who was born and bred in Pharr, said he and his colleagues believe they have designed a curriculum to fit the needs of high school students. “We have some seminars where we sit around a round table and talk about finding meaning behind why we go to college. We go into the ‘Why’ and not just the ‘What’ and the ‘How.’ Then we get to the nitty gritty aspects of, this is what an application looks like. We give them materials we designed on our own, about how to get your voice out in an essay or get the confidence to go up to a teacher or counselor to get that support you need during senior year, finding scholarships, finding the most popular scholarships and getting the support of students who have won those scholarships.”

Garcia said the emphasis given to ‘Why’ is important for PSJA CSLAP because of the way education has changed at PSJA and other Valley school districts.

“With PSJA’s early college system I think this is a really important mindset to have since students are saving money already, by going to college with an associate’s degree. This big ‘Why’ question needs to be answered earlier, given that many students are going to be entering college or university as a junior. We need to give students a better support system very early, and have the right mindset in place early, as they enter the college campus.”

Garcia and his colleagues approached PSJA in early 2013 about setting up a mentorship program. Garcia said he wanted to give back to the community that raised him and thought that the best way would be help students avoid the difficulties he faced when he decided to aim for a prestigious, out of state university.

“We help rising seniors in the district with college essays, we help them find their voice, find the confidence to apply to out of state universities and serve as their mentors. We try to help them out in as many ways as we can, beyond test prep and essay workshops. Our mission is really to help as many students succeed in college as possible,” Garcia said.

“PSJA was very pleased and happy that an alumni was giving back in this way. We have had 30 to 40 students attending our workshops every single day. For those who want to participate but cannot attend we have an email list serve. Three hundred students have signed up for information on how to apply for college.”

Garcia said PSJA CSLAP holds its workshops over three weeks. There are two each week lasting two hours each. Each workshop has a different theme – how to apply, how to write an essay; how to do a personal statement. The program also has a focus on developing leadership.

“I think our program gives students awareness very early on, right before senior year so they are not crowded and confused during senior year, trying to get applications in at the last minute. I know many students would not be able to do this if they did not have this early awareness. An integral part is the mentorship, which they would not get otherwise. They might have amazing teachers and counselors but that student experience we can give them directly is unique.”

Garcia, 21, fits the profile of many students in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo area in that he comes from a family of modest means. “I come from a low-income household. I live with my mother who was a single mother. She is a supervisor at Leo’s Drive-In,” he said.” I remember the struggles I had in my senior year in applying for an out of state university. A lot of teachers and counselors just did not know how to give me the mentorship I needed because of my unorthodox desires to go out of state.”

Garcia gave a shout out to his colleagues in PSJA CSLAP. Paola Alaniz is a PSJA North Class of 2013 graduate. Andy Garcia is a PSJA North Class of 2013 graduate. Isaac Bailon is a PSJA North Class of 2012 graduate. “They are all close friends of mine. We have similar stories to tell. Andy is at Columbia, Paola ad Isaac at UT-RGV.” He said that in previous years the group has had help from Edgar Alaniz, a PSJA North Class of 2013 graduate now attending the University of Rochester, and Cristian Mercado, a PSJA North Class of 2012 graduate attending Texas A&M University at College Station.

Asked if the Valley’s geography, being so far away from major urban areas, has an influence on the attitude of students as they contemplate applying for university, Garcia said: “My experience with CSLAP is that students’ attitudes are on two extremes. There are students that desperately want to leave and experience new things. And, there are those who want to stay and you cannot change their mind about leaving the Valley. I think it has a lot to do with the Hispanic culture, whether you want to branch out and experience new things. There are students who want to keep their family ties strong. They want an education but they want the family support. We definitely respect both ends.”

Garcia is studying English and Education at Princeton. Asked how he is getting on there, Garcia said: “It has been brilliant, an amazing experience. I have had a mixture of humanities education and English and practical education, learning about the education issues plaguing areas like the Rio Grande Valley. In the classroom I have learned from world-renowned professors and really learned to love learning for what it is. I have learned outside the classroom as well, learning from classmates who come from all over the world. I am getting this taste of diversity that I would not get back home. It has given me a liberal arts approach to what I want to do. I knew from the beginning I wanted to go into education and now I have a more nuanced of integrating my liberal arts education and my knowledge of literature and my love for the humanities within that practical approach to education now.”

Garcia said his path to Princeton was “very difficult at first” because he did not have a mentor. “It is myth that students who go outside the state of Texas will not get great financial aid from private universities like Princeton. On the contrary, Princeton has some of the best financial aid systems in the country and I am qualified for a full needs-based scholarship. I was able to get everything covered, from tuition, boarding, books and personal expenses,” Garcia said.

Asked what he wants to do for a career, Garcia said: “I am interested in teaching English at the high school level. From there I am interested in going into K thru 12 Administration. I am really interested in college readiness and curriculum development and possibly policy in the near future.”

Garcia said the plan is to expand PSJA CSLAP to a full-year program. “Hopefully we can expand it beyond rising seniors and begin a four-year mentorship program beginning in the freshman year and truly give students the year round support they need with students and alumni here on the ground in the Rio Grande Valley.”

There is no PSJA CSLAP website yet. For more information go to PSJA CSLAP on Facebook or go to @psjacslap on Twitter.