By Sam Boykin
When Texas A&M University-San Antonio reached out to Eric Cervantez and Perla Sifuentes earlier this year about the new La Familia program, they saw it as a life-changing opportunity.
La Familia offers parents of high school students a six-week workshop covering topics including college course requirements, higher education and financial aid options, digital literacy and civic leadership. Following the classroom sessions, there is a graduation ceremony for the parents and the opportunity to attend additional workshops and visit the campus to meet with students, faculty and staff. Upon successfully completing the transformational program, parents can earn up to $1,000 in a one-time institutional scholarship for their student to attend Texas A&M-San Antonio.
Cervantez and Sifuentes jumped at the chance to participate. The couple, who together operate a lawn care service, moved to San Antonio about five years ago with their two children. Their oldest, 17-year-old Eric Cervantez, will be a senior at Cast Lead High School next year. The proud parents saw La Familia as a powerful way to give him a head start toward his future.
“Eric will be the first in our family to go to college, so we had a lot of questions,” said Sifuentes.
A&M-San Antonio launched the multiyear La Familia program with the aid of a $1 million grant from USAA to help first-generation college students and their parents navigate the admission process. The USAA contribution followed a $25,000 grant awarded by AT&T to kick off the project.
Since La Familia officially launched in the spring of 2022, 178 parents have graduated from the program and $167,000 in scholarships have been awarded, according to A&M San Antonio’s Director of Parent Outreach & Engagement Jesse Garza.
“La Familia is committed to breaking down barriers, creating access to quality education and involving the entire family in the student’s journey as they enter into their higher education years,” said Garza. “Families really appreciate gaining this kind of knowledge and the fact that the university helps guide them through the process.”
The academic enrichment and family engagement program supports the university’s ASPIRE network, a collaborative effort with seven traditionally underserved South Bexar County ISDs that focuses on developing educational programs and services. The La Familia workshops have been held at Edgewood, East Central and Harlandale ISDs.
La Familia is one of many resources that enables A&M-SA to serve the community. The university is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and has earned the Seal of Excelencia from Excelencia in Education, the nation’s premier authority on efforts to accelerate Latino student success in higher education. More than 75% of A&M-SA students identify as Hispanic and nearly 73% are the first in their family to attend a university.
“What USAA has made possible with the La Familia program at Texas A&M University-San Antonio is innovative and impactful,” said Jesse Pisors, Vice President for University Relations & Advancement. “This grant is fueling a program that engages families in meaningful ways, which is critical to help prospective first-generation college students achieve the dream of an A&M degree. We could not be more grateful to USAA for making this happen through their generous gift.”
The U.S. Department of Education has reported that one-third of first-generation college students drop out of college after three years, compared to 14% of their peers whose parents had earned a degree. In San Antonio, only 17% of Hispanics hold a bachelor’s degree, well beneath the degree attainment rate of the region’s White and Asian populations, according to the U.S. Census.
For parents like Cervantez and Sifuentes, La Familia is breaking the cycle. Once they committed to the program, they met weekly with about a dozen other parents for the free bilingual workshops, during which time they learned how to best support their son in his college journey. Pursuing post-secondary education can be daunting, and Sifuentes said the experience helped alleviate her and her husband’s fears and showed them that a college education is possible for their child.
Once the program was over, Cervantez and Sifuentes celebrated their commitment to their student with a parent graduation ceremony. And as part of the program, the family, including daughter Ariana, whose going into 9th grade next year, toured the A&M-SA campus.
“At first (Eric) was a little bit scared, but after he saw the campus, he became really excited going to college there,” said Sifuentes, who added that Eric plans to study business. Moreover, Ariana is also thinking about going to A&M-SA once she graduates high school.
“We learned so much during La Familia,” said Sifuentes. “We’re really excited about the future.”