For low-income students hoping to become first-generation college graduates, seeing themselves as capable of success is often one of the biggest barriers. The university’s partnership with Breakthrough Central Texas is helping to change that.
Adriana Reynoso ’22 stomped her boots on the slick green grass to warm her toes as the wind whipped her hair across her frozen nose. She shoved her numb fingers deeper into the pockets of her khaki coat and took a moment to capture the view in her mind’s eye. Swaths of sugar beets and just-harvested Riesling vines flutter in the vicious wind. Fir and beech trees climb the Vosges mountainsides, their crowns concealed by swirls of fog. Raindrops as big as pebbles pool on rusty barbed wire and run down the eaves of the austere crematorium. October had come to the Alsatian countryside — and Natzweiler-Struthof, France’s only World War II concentration camp.
As she stood, Reynoso thought of the brilliant reds, blues, golds and purples of the intricate stained-glass windows that she and her classmates studying at Université de l'Ouest, a St. Edward’s partner university in Angers, had just seen at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. Light from a hundred flickering candles casting shadows across the smooth pews. A reverent stillness.
Humanity at its best and its worst, she realized, just 30 miles apart.
And all of it was a world away from the Austin neighborhood where Reynoso grew up. A native Californian, she had moved to Texas in kindergarten, eventually attending Manor Middle School and Manor High School, both federally designated as Title I schools with high percentages of students living below the poverty line. College wasn’t in the cards for Reynoso and most of her peers — in fact, only 6 percent of middle schoolers in low-income Central Texas households similar to Reynoso’s earn a degree.
Reynoso is working hard to beat those odds. She enrolled at St. Edward’s after visiting campus with a high school classmate and an advisor from Breakthrough Central Texas, which provides resources and support to help low-income students in becoming first-generation college graduates.
In middle and high school, students who join Breakthrough receive academic support after school and through weekend and summer programs, including standardized test prep and help applying for college. They work one on one with an advisor, who serves as an advocate and mentor, and they participate in internships and projects organized by Breakthrough to build their leadership skills. When Breakthrough students enroll in college, they meet regularly with a college completion counselor who helps them navigate challenges like applying for financial aid, managing their time and talking with professors.
Reynoso felt at home on the hilltop as soon as she visited, thanks to the peaceful campus and welcoming faculty and staff. In Fall 2018, she moved into Hunt Hall, joined the Social Justice Living Learning Community and started studying the history of the American school system. And just as she had in middle and high school, she kept hearing about Breakthrough. That’s in part because School of Human Development and Education Dean Glenda Ballard had made it a priority to develop a partnership with Breakthrough when she was hired in 2016. Ballard, a descendant of sharecroppers and a sixth-generation Texan, is a first-generation college graduate herself.
“There wasn’t anything like Breakthrough when I was growing up,” she says. “I was lucky that my group of friends wanted to go to college. We didn’t really have any idea how to make it happen, but we were each other’s motivation when things got tough.”
Then, after graduating from Texas A&M University–Commerce and earning her teaching certification, Ballard came to rely on her colleagues for professional and moral support as a novice English teacher at Commerce High School in the late 1970s. “Needing help and not knowing where or how to get it is a very lonely place to be, whether you’re trying to graduate from high school, get through college, or do your job,” she says. In the field of education specifically, a lack of resources, training and support has taken a toll, with 17 percent of new teachers quitting within five years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Partnering with Breakthrough, Ballard knew, “would put even more resources into helping everyone — their students and ours — succeed.”
When Ballard approached Breakthrough Executive Director Michael Griffith, he immediately agreed to collaborate. “We knew a partnership would be successful because our missions are so much alike,” he says. “St. Edward’s is thoughtful about the student services they have in place. The student experience is of utmost importance to them, and their staff and faculty are accessible and approachable.”
“Needing help and not knowing where or how to get it is a very lonely place to be, whether you’re trying to graduate from high school, get through college, or do your job.” Glenda Ballard, Dean of the School of Human Development and Education
In fact, in the Austin education world, St. Edward’s has long been known for its rigorous teacher preparation program thanks to partnerships with local school districts forged by associate professors Steven Fletcher, Kris Sloan and others. Education students begin observing and teaching in real classrooms as early as their first semester. In 2018, Ballard and Fletcher added another hands-on teaching experience when the School of Human Development and Education began welcoming Breakthrough middle schoolers to campus three Saturdays throughout each semester.
Linked to the Schooling, Education and Society course, the Saturday workshops offer Education majors at St. Edward’s the chance to implement a curriculum and manage a classroom, skills they research and discuss throughout the semester. As the St. Edward’s students lead Breakthrough’s middle schoolers through a project — anything from designing their own energy bar to showcasing their community through photography — the 6th, 7th and 8th graders practice teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, public speaking and more. They get the added benefit of visiting a college campus and interacting with college students and professors.
“It’s a chance for us to say, ‘I see you. I know what you’re dealing with. I’ve been right where you are,’” says Reynoso, who led a Saturday group as part of Schooling, Education and Society during her second semester at St. Edward’s. “Seeing that my own story meant something to them gave me even more confidence to open up and try to connect with them.”
That’s exactly the point, says Assistant Professor of Education Arcelia Hernandez, who started coordinating the Saturday workshops last year. “Our students get to see firsthand that building relationships takes time — and that they have what they need to build them,” she says. “It’s not easy and there are uncomfortable classroom moments early on, but they learn what to expect — and how to respond when those moments happen next time,” she says. “They feel closer to their students by the end.”
Hernandez and other Education faculty members also recommend their students for Breakthrough summer fellowships where they teach local middle and high schoolers alongside other college students and Breakthrough alumni. After two weeks of intensive training, the fellows lead six-week sessions at schools in Austin, Manor and Del Valle independent school districts in core subjects like math and language arts, and in electives that help students explore interests, like art or fashion. Like the shorter spring and fall workshops, the summer session puts aspiring teachers at the head of the class right away.
“Sometimes you’re standing up there and the kids won’t listen, or someone’s being disruptive, or your lesson is not getting through to them,” says Reynoso, who has been a summer fellow with Breakthrough twice. “You just want to cry, but you know you can’t. You have to figure it out and keep going.”
Even though she’s just a freshman, Kasie Guzman ’23 knows that frustration well. With one summer session and the Schooling, Education and Society course under her belt, the Elementary Education major already has a few classroom-management tricks for keeping her students engaged, like quick walks on a nice day, call-and-answer cheers, and icebreaker games of Uno before school. She also looks for creative ways to present lessons, like “trashketball” contests with crumpled-up paper to illustrate fractions and percentages: 4 out of 5 shots made equals 80 percent.
“I’ll try anything if I think it will motivate my students,” she says. “So many kids who are part of Breakthrough have a lot to worry about at home, and sometimes a teacher or a counselor who always shows up is the only consistency they get. If I’m not energetic, I certainly can’t expect them to be.”
Guzman, a Breakthrough student herself, understands this better than most. She joined the program as a 6th grader at Fulmore Middle School (now Lively Middle School) and has relied on her Breakthrough mentors to help her through her mother’s incarceration and conflicts with her stepfamily, as well as challenges applying to college and securing financial aid. “If you have people in your life who will find any way to be there for you,” she says, “you never feel alone, especially when you want to give up.”
That kind of teaching tour de force is often what low-income or first-generation students need most, says Griffith, Breakthrough’s executive director. “They need someone who believes in them before they believe in them no matter what barriers they face.”
Ultimately, that’s the caliber of teacher that Ballard and her faculty strive to produce in the School of Human Development and Education. “Have we helped our students thoughtfully consider whether teaching is truly their calling, their vocation?” asks Hernandez. “Have we helped them learn, adapt and grow into teachers who have the skills to thrive in any classroom environment? And how can we do more?”
How can I do more?
That’s the question Reynoso asked herself as she stood in the wind just inside the barbed-wire perimeter of Natzweiler-Struthof. She felt the weight of her responsibility as a citizen of the world — as someone who wants to teach citizens of the world. “Suddenly the history that I’d only read and learned about felt very real,” she says. “I realized we all have the chance to choose something different for ourselves and our community.”
When she stands in her classroom this summer, her third as a teaching fellow, she wants to share that sense of awareness and purpose with her students. “They’re the future,” she says.
By the Numbers
St. Edward’s graduates currently working at Breakthrough
Current Breakthrough students attending St. Edward’s
Breakthrough students with degrees from St. Edward’s since Breakthrough began in 2002