Blanca Davila describes growing up in Brownsville ``with all these labels,’’ and then quickly names them:
“Poverty, low income, low socio-economic, and first generation, (college student),” she said in quick succession. “I felt like I had to break through all of these labels and be who I wanted to be.”
Davila made the breakthrough, graduating from Texas State University and going on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Texas-Brownsville. Today, she is the post-secondary success coordinator for All In, a United Way of Southern Cameron County initiative that partners with area universities, chambers of commerce and businesses to increase the number of local youth who attend and finish college.
All In is an initiative with a grand scope and long-term vision. Its overreaching goal is to double the number of young adults in Brownsville who attend and finish college from the years spanning 2010 to 2025. In 2010, the number of Brownsville Independent School District students who graduated and went on to college totaled 2,628 youths. By 2014, that number had grown to 2,771, an increase of 143 college-bound students, and an encouraging growth of about 5.5 percent.
The incremental but welcome growth shows the brick-by-brick and intensive work it takes to grow the community’s population of college-educated young adults. At the United Way office, Davila describes the six-step process that forms the building blocks of the All In project. The initiative began in 2012 with a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and since then has put many of its efforts into reaching Brownsville’s youth in its middle schools and high schools.
That’s where the dream begins, Davila said -- the belief that all of the labels she broke through “don’t have to be your reality.” One of the more important components of All In is the student ambassador program. Local college students are chosen to mentor BISD students and begin conversations about careers and postsecondary education. These ambassadors are today embedded in three BISD middle schools – Besterio, Cummings, and Stell.
Davila herself was once a student ambassador, holding out her example and life story as she progressed through Besterio Middle School and Lopez High School. One of the key ambassadors in her program today is a fellow Lopez High graduate – Pedro Reyna – who will graduate in May 2017 from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
“I see a lot of myself in these kids,” Reyna said in looking back to his youth. “What did I do at their age? What was I thinking?”
Following a detailed lesson plan and road map full of power point presentations and meetings with students and parents, Reyna works to provide that spark of inspiration to youngsters coming up behind him in Brownsville.
“My message to these kids is you have to value education,” Reyna said. “Get informed and get connected to opportunities.”
By Ricardo Cavazos