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Regional College Access Center offers free assistance to students continuing education after high school

Regional College Access Center offers free assistance to students continuing education after high school

  • Updated

Pima County high school students and recent graduates have a resource to help them plan and continue their education.

For 30 years, the Metropolitan Education Commission has been helping young people and their families find answers about continuing school after graduation.

“That is the No. 1 question our students and our parents and families have, whether they are first-generation college students or students whose mom or dad went to college a long time ago. Applications and processes and financial aid have changed so much and no matter who you are, everyone wants to know where to start,” said Georgina Valencia, program manager for the Regional College Access Center for the commission.

The center is Arizona’s first — and Pima County’s only — free community-based college access center. It serves about 2,000 students annually, offering a range of services such as advice on preparing for and paying for college — including information on state and federal financial aid and local and national scholarship opportunities — as well as assistance filling out student-aid applications.

The program also promotes awareness about college and university transition and on-campus support programs designed to help students adjust to the first year in college. It also publicizes resources for academic and social support, guides students toward college graduation and facilitates access to career preparation resources.

The outreach, which is available in English and Spanish, isn’t limited to information about college, said Arlene Benavidez, executive director of the commission.

“There are so many opportunities to help students with their postsecondary education, which could be technical or vocational programs, community colleges or universities. It is our job to find out details about their lives and increase not only their college knowledge, but awareness about other options they might not know about,” said Benavidez.

While appointments with access center advisors have traditionally been in-office, the program began offering online assistance last year. Although in-person appointments were suspended due to the pandemic, virtual and telephone operations and meetings have continued.

“We started our virtual service a year ago, so we are ahead of the game,” Benavidez said. “Now that people have been forced to use virtual tools, I think students will be a lot more receptive to this form of advising. I anticipate that we will be even busier next year.”

Over the past decade, the access center has also expanded outreach through a peer-to-peer College Coaching Program, which is implemented through 30 AmeriCorps AZ Serve members at nine local high schools in three school districts and at St. Augustine Catholic High School.

Ideally, the peer counselors and access center advisors will reach students early on to assist with formulating plans and timelines that will optimize educational opportunities.

“Especially if we can get that conversation started in a student’s freshman year, we can give the student an overview of the preparation during the time of high school and how that fits in with plans for post-secondary education,” said Benavidez.

Even at later stages, students shouldn’t hesitate to begin planning, according to Benavidez.

Getting the family involved

“We also help returning students who have been out of high school and later decide they want to go to college,” she said. “We meet them where they are and give them updated information on options. We help with exploration and advising and the completion of applications once they choose a pathway.”

At every point, Valencia emphasized that engaging the entire family in the process is imperative.

“For most of our community, going to college is really a big family decision and we see the entire family come in to talk to us, from mom and dad to brothers and sisters and in-laws. It helps to build a college-going culture and align expectations for the whole family,” Valencia said.

Additionally, the planning includes various alternatives and different scenarios. Valencia said finances, inadmissibility to different schools or program, or simply changes in circumstances commonly cause setbacks that require flexibility.

Jocelyne Castro-Maldonado, 24, has seen the value of a backup plan.

Castro-Maldonado, a 2014 graduate of Canyon del Oro High School, earned an associate’s degree in general studies from Pima Community College in 2017. She transferred to the University of Arizona to attain her bachelor’s in the College of Nursing, but her plans took a detour after she failed a class last summer.

With Valencia’s help, Castro-Maldonado explored other options, submitted applications and updated financial paperwork. She is now pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing at PCC while working as an undergraduate intern at SinfoníaRx.

“I am pushing through and feel much better,” Castro-Maldonado said. “I believe this is the right career for me and it is something I have dreamed of despite the obstacles.

“I know that nurses are right there at the bedside and sometimes patients are overlooked. Doctors have lots of patients and can’t be with them all for hours like nurses can. After all the setbacks with school, I still want to do it.”

Castro-Maldonado said her family is grateful for Valencia’s assistance in accessing resources and financial assistance to help relieve the burden on her mother, a single parent.

“The program has helped me so much in such a short time period and I wish I had known about it earlier,” she said. “It would have helped me make more connections and that is very important since college is a networking experience.

“As students, we often don’t know who to ask for help and I definitely recommend students use this program.”

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net

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