Frontera Fund News Resources

New Program Helps First-Generation Students Achieve Success

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A young DREAMer launches a project to set students like herself on the path to college and meaningful careers.

All her young life, Jessica Rubio was told to keep her expectations low. College was not for undocumented students, her parents said, so she should finish high school, accept any opportunity that came her way, and eventually return to Mexico.

Anyone who meets the college graduate today would think that ridiculous. Passionate, bright and well-spoken, the 23-year-old has the go-getter grit of someone who runs an organization. And she does.

Last fall, under the aegis of the Center for Neighborhood Leadership, Rubio launched ALAS (Academic and Leadership Accelerator for Service, and “wings” in Spanish). The eight-month program prepares first-generation students from low-income areas for college, meaningful careers, and a life of service in their communities. 

The first group of 20 students will graduate from the Phoenix-based program on May 7, equipped with confidence, life skills and big dreams.

“We [got] the students into a mentality that it is not OK to have low expectations,” Rubio says. “It’s not OK to say, ‘I’m just going to finish high school and then get a job.’ Raise your expectations, because we believe in you.”

The program is challenging, Rubio says. Students meet as a group two Saturdays a month from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and twice monthly one-on-one with Rubio. They are required to complete 30 hours of community service and attend events such as visits to the state legislature and city council. For the final five months, students are paired with a mentor professional who works in their desired field. 

Students learn how to navigate the college system, strategically plan their goals, and manage their time and finances. They tap into their values to discover their personal missions and visualize the change they want to see in their communities. Then they research the college major that will help them fulfill that vision.

“It’s been a really interesting journey,” Rubio says. “This group of students is really special. We created a strong bond with each other, and it’s impressive to see the growth that they’ve made in the program.”

One high school senior said that without ALAS, she wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time.

A junior thought his dream of going to college was impossible because he’d struggled his first two years and had a GPA of 1.3. But during his time with ALAS, he raised his GPA a full point. “Now college is realistic for him,” Rubio says.

Another student’s parents expected her to get pregnant and drop out of high school. Now, Rubio says, “the student is like, ‘Hell no. I’m not dropping out. I’m not gonna get pregnant. I have these values, and I’m going to achieve my dreams and get an education, and I’m going to make sure my little brother gets an education as well.’”

Jessica Rubio (front) and the ALAS students

Jessica Rubio (front) and the ALAS students

The students also became empowered by learning about the lawmaking process, visiting the legislature, and even protesting a bill that would cut education funding. “They were never told, ‘You can make a difference if you go to this meeting; your voice is important,’” Rubio says. “Now they’re like, ‘If this is going to affect me, I need to learn the process and to make the impact. They’re more knowledgable about what’s going on in their own city and their state. They realize the power they have.”

Nearly half of ALAS’s high school juniors and seniors are DACA-mented. The rest are U.S. citizens. But all are first-generation college aspirants. 

ALAS’s focus is on not on valedictorians taking AP classes, or on the lowest-performing students. Rather, the program targets the middle population in that doesn’t get much attention. “I was there,” Rubio says. “I was a good student but not a top student, but I still didn’t have any information.” 

Only in the last month of Rubio’s senior year did an advisor tell her to apply for college. The woman remembered a single example of an undocumented student getting a scholarship, so she encouraged Rubio to give it a shot.

Even after Rubio became DACA-mented and was working 40 hours a week while attending college full-time, her friends and family questioned why she was “throwing [her] money away” on education. Now they’ve changed their tune. Her parents are even encouraging other young people to go to college, and Rubio is helping them.

“The work I’m doing with the program is making sure that we change those expectations for the students, and then they can change those expectations in their own family and community,” she says. “It’s changing those expectations in our own culture that is going to make us continue to move up.”

You can learn more at ALAS’ Facebook page, and on the Center for Neighborhood Leadership’s website. Professionals who would like to become mentors are also invited to attend or to contact Rubio at 602-432-9500 or jessica @ azcnl.org.