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Our “Course” in Community El Centro College

When we sat down with various members of the El Centro college faculty to discuss some of the challenges prospective students, in particular Latinos, face when beginning their college career, we surprisingly found that starting college isn’t necessarily the problem. As a matter of fact, enrollment has continued to increase and according to the Fall 2010 El Centro Student Profile, over 45% of new FTIC (First Time in College) students were Hispanic. Although Nataly Saucedo, school alliance coordinator, did acknowledge some of the challenges amongst Latino students getting into college include an undocumented immigration status and lack of financial funds for some Latino students, she also listed various programs in place to overcome these obstacles. The Education is Freedom (EIF) and Rising Star programs assist to “eliminate financial need as a barrier to higher education in Dallas County”. There are also programs in place following the Noriega Act of 2001 which address the issue of undocumented immigrant students. Saucedo mentioned additional college career fostering initiatives such as the mentoring program involving El Centro student mentors in place at fifteen of their “feeder” high schools and a dual credit program that allows students to potentially graduate high school with college credit hours.

The unanimous response to the question regarding the more critical challenge facing Latino college students is the perceived inability to complete their selected course of study or degree program. Joe Martinez, advisor over the Title V program (designed to support Hispanic-Service Institutions (HIS) of higher learning), introduced us to some of the retention efforts he and his colleagues are looking to implement with the help of grants provided by said program. Since the struggle becomes retaining some of the unprepared students with poor study or research skills on top of family and work challenges once they are enrolled in college, his team is proposing a campus-wide mentoring model that involves faculty, administrators, staff and established students. The goal is to increase the success rate in developmental programs by strengthening student support and providing peer mentoring and leadership skills. The “Brother to Brother” student organization already in place along with the upcoming “Sister to Sister” are examples of the efforts to retain first-year students to the point needed to see their degree completed. This commitment to the success of their students gives El Centro an overwhelming sense of community. It makes it less of an institution and more of a cooperative center that goes above and beyond when it comes to advising.

Both potential and established students are offered a “self-direct” course of study as Jessie Yearwood, Professor, Food and Hospitality Services Institute, describes it. While the college’s programs include set requirements for completion, students can follow their own accommodating timeline. “We train professionals, as well as chefs and cooks,” says Yearwood. For a “growing minority group, there should be comparable representation at the management level,” she goes on to say referring to the large number of Hispanics employed by the restaurant industry. She is proud that her culinary division offer three degrees accredited by the American Culinary Federation and transferable to a public University along with four certificate programs, all which increase the students’ potential for a successful future career, as opposed to focusing on job placement alone. El Centro’s culinary professors work with the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association and act as advisors to culinary programs that are in place at “adopted” public high schools. They also support community service and work closely with those teaching at the high school level. This is where Yearwood feels that the “conversations about college and the possibilities” should begin in order to reach and prepare potential first generation college students.

It is also because of partnerships like those between the Allied Health division and local area hospitals, that El Centro has seen an “increase in nursing minority students” says Julia Harryman, Dean of Allied Health Programs. Through the “Grow your Own” nursing program, full time employees of participating hospitals can become registered nurses and may be offered free tuition after as little as six months of employment. Some hospitals guarantee RN positions after successful completion of the program. In the case of health occupations, there are about fifteen different degrees and/or certificates that encompass the medical profession. All begin with a health care core curriculum. The various career options available to students who complete the prerequisites can then be explored with the help of staff from the newly formed HCRC resource center, yet another retention effort put in place to promote completion. This is when learning through on-site clinical experience in highly impressive surgical and simulation labs begins.

When El Centro College opened in 1966, establishing the Dallas County Community College District, it was intended to meet the increased need for opportunity in higher education that the Dallas County’s expanding economy and growing population demanded at the time. With the adjunct downtown Dallas Paramount building on Market Street, the Bill Priest Campus in southern Dallas and more recently, the West Campus, El Centro College has become a multi-campus institution. Unlike proprietary (business) school advertisements that make job placement promises and offer non-compete programs, El Centro offers real transferrable college credit and encourages further education upon completion of their programs along with the added benefits of cost efficiency and even public transportation accessibility. Some of the additional associate degree options available at El Centro include Accounting, Computer Information Technology, Fashion Design, Fashion Marketing and Paralegal. We received such a wealth of information from members of the faculty at El Centro College that we felt as if we had just completed a “Community” course. As Ms. Yearwood stated to us, El Centro College helps students “look beyond what they think they see”.

For more information regarding El Centro college, visit them online at www.elcentrocollege.edu.

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