Former St. Vrain student’s higher ed advice: Take the first step, break the barriers, seek support if you need it

When Giovani Hernandez first saw Skyline High School shortly after moving to Longmont from Chihuahua, Mexico, he thought he’d arrived at a university.

The middle school where he’d come from had broken windows and no air conditioning. Skyline was gleaming by comparison.

But it was also tricky to navigate for Hernandez, whose only English vocabulary when he arrived there was asking for directions to the bathroom or the cafeteria.

Hernandez learned English quickly and soon was doing well in school, as he had in Mexico. He graduated high school with nine college credits, then went on to earn associate degrees from Front Range Community College in science and science with mathematics designation, before transferring to the University of Colorado Boulder to study civil engineering, with minors in construction management and applied mathematics.

He wants to make good on his parents’ dreams for him.

“My Dad said, ‘I don’t want you to work like me — shoveling and moving bricks around,’” he said.

Front Range Community College works to close gaps.

Elena Sandoval-Lucero, president of the FRCC Boulder County campus in Longmont, admires the example set by Hernandez, and said her school is working hard to ensure more students find success as Hernandez has. School leaders want to increase graduation rates, transfer rates, developmental education completion rates and retention rates. They want to close gaps between white students and students of color across the board.

A newly assembled Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council will work to develop a plan across the state’s community college system to reduce equity gaps between white, non-Hispanic students and students of color. The campus in Longmont is making facility improvements that leaders say will make it feel more inviting, increasing chances students hang around before and after class. Studies show increased involvement on campus leads to improved student success.

The college is pursuing a new “guided pathways” initiative focused on improving the student orientation program, making college advising more effective and offering supplemental instruction. The college will also soon offer a new student success course.

Front Range was recently approved to offer its first four-year bachelor’s degree in applied science, focusing on geospatial science. Students with the degree could enter a range of careers in industries such as health care, criminal justice, forestry or climate science.

The college is also working closely with St. Vrain Valley Schools to offer more concurrent enrollment opportunities for high school students. In 2019, the partners planned to open an advanced manufacturing academy, providing students an overview of the jobs they could pursue in manufacturing.

The academy will dovetail with the new Center for Integrated Manufacturing, opening at the same time, that features classes in optics, electronics and automation engineering.

CU Boulder diversifies with more personalized, customized approaches.

David Aragon, Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Student Success at the University of Colorado Boulder, met Hernandez as a guest instructor at Front Range Community College. “It’s amazing how enterprising some of our first generation students are,” he said. He went on to become a mentor to Hernandez when Hernandez enrolled in CU’s Latinx Leadership, Achievement and Development Scholars program. The two have stayed in touch.

Establishing personal connections with students before they enroll is one way the Boulder campus has diversified its student body. Students with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds made up 27% of the Boulder Campus in the 2018-19 school year, compared with 15% ten years earlier.

The campus now boasts 14 academic learning communities that ensure more personal and customized connections to campus for diverse students. The university increased its financial aid commitment so that students from low-income families can have their tuition, fees and supplies covered by a combination of Pell grants and supplemental assistance.

A pre-collegiate program brings about 35 diverse local high school students to campus to live for two weeks each summer, to expose them to the college experience. And the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative allows the university to award financial aid to students whose families earn up to 250% of the poverty threshold defined by the Pell grant program.

The progress is necessary to keep pace with the rapid diversification of not just Boulder County, but the United States as a whole. It also comes at a time when a high school diploma is no longer sufficient to ensure middle class wages.

Resources exist for enterprising students.

Hernandez said the final challenge is convincing students they have the ability to take advantage of the new opportunities. He understands their lack of confidence. It took a lot of courage for him to join the robotics club and move into higher level courses in high school, in which fewer Latinos were enrolled. At Front Range he also learned a valuable lesson outside his coursework. He could receive free academic support if he tapped into the resources available to him.

His advice for other students: First, take the next step, then break through the barriers, as he has.

“Don’t be afraid to start your college career, because resources are available for you. You just need to find them,” he said.

by Chris Barge