Students With Ambition Go (SWAG) to College is a nonprofit organization that aims to increase access to opportunities and knowledge of higher education through mentorships. The organization pairs high school students (mentees) with college students (mentors), which help and guide their mentees in the college application process. The goal for SWAG To College is to increase access to opportunities for students from underserved backgrounds and under-resourced high schools all around the country.
College mentors are a key to the program’s success. While there are currently mentors from all over the country, the organization has 38 mentors who graduated from 12 different schools in the Houston Independent School District, and represent a total of 26 colleges and universities across the nation. The organization aims to pair college students of similar backgrounds who could understand the circumstances that their mentees could face. Hence, 85.2% of the former HISD students who now serve as mentors are or consider themselves either Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or African American, meaning that more than three quarters of the HISD mentors are minorities. Additionally, more than half -- 69.7% -- of HISD mentors were on Free or Reduced Lunch. Because of the similar background between most mentor-mentee pairs, the mentees have been able to receive support and guidance, many of them getting into colleges and universities, applying to scholarships, raising their grade point average, being exposed to many different schools, and gotten more involved.
Sara Khan, a rising junior at Trinity University and a graduate from Bellaire High School, joined SWAG to College after receiving an email from her former college counselor and remembers thinking back to to her own experiences with the college application process. Khan says that, while her mentee and she have different backgrounds, she was able to connect with someone whose application process was not similar to her own. Khan attributes the impact of her relationship with her mentee to the bond and trust that has been formed, which was initially built through SWAG to College’s mandatory conversations and timeline, and consistent communication and co-dependency. She also talked about the importance of making a connection with someone and the bond that was created:
“I loved being able to connect with someone from a totally different walk of life. Being a mentor gives you a sense of responsibility and leadership; I knew I owed it to my mentee to be there for her as much as possible, even if that meant altering my schedule to make adequate time to talk to her and complete the check-ins. As our relationship grew, I was able to talk to her about her overall well-being- that trust/bond is an incredible feeling. Along those lines, her successes felt like my successes; I was so genuinely proud to watch her succeed, get into the school of her dreams, [and] bring her grades up.”
Similarly, Yeannet Ruiz, a current Clark University student and graduate from Barbara Jordan High School, joined SWAG to College because of its mission to help first-generation and other students from underserved communities apply and go to college. She says, “While I know that graduating high school and attending college are both big milestones, so is applying to college, and it is important to know your options.” Ruiz believes that SWAG to College has been successful thanks to its ability to recruit good mentors, and ensure both the mentors and mentees are held accountable.
Currently, there are 208 mentees from 24 schools from the Houston Independent School District, 16% of whom are part of the Class of 2017. Similar to the program’s mentors, HISD’s group of mentees is made up of a majority of females, 62.5% compared to the HISD’s group of mentors, which is composed of 73.7% females. Furthermore, 89% of mentees are either Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or African American, with an additional 5% who are mixed race with one or more of the previously mentioned races. Additionally, a majority of the mentees, 86.1%, are on Free or Reduced Lunch, and 62.1% are First-Generation students.
To measure the success of the organization, it is possible to look at the percentage of mentees who (1) would recommend the program to others and (2) want to continue with the organization. Based on a survey given to all mentees, 82.2% of students want to continue with SWAG to College and 70.9% of students would recommend the program to a friend, with an additional 26% responding that they would maybe recommend the program.
Dylan Alexander, a rising Senior at Sterling High School, thinks that being part of the program has created an immense difference for him, and his relationship with his mentor has created a positive impact in his life. Not only has his mentor helped him with exposure to opportunities, but their relationship has impacted Alexander by improving his study skills for the upcoming SAT. Alexander says, “SWAG to college is doing well with getting high school students to talk to college students to get a glimpse of what you need to do before and while applying to college and a glimpse of what you need to prepare for before entering college.”
Another HISD mentee, Ivy Costilla-Anderson, a rising Junior at Waltrip High School, joined SWAG to College to have a mentor who could help her think about different aspects of the college application process. Additionally, Costilla-Anderson says that her relationship with her mentor has made a positive impact in her life, grateful that she has someone who could not only guide her in volunteering opportunities, but also having someone to turn to when she needed help. Asking for help, as well, has been one of her greatest improvements since joining SWAG to College.
SWAG to College’s Essay Team is made up of a group of law students and college students--many of whom are first-generation college students-- who work with mentees on their college and scholarship essays. The readers help mentees edit, revise, and finalize their essays. Through this program, mentees actively receive feedback and guidance from people who have recently gone through the college application process. Currently, there are 44 students from seven HISD high schools who are part of the Essay Program. These high schools are: Bellaire High School, E.L. Furr High School, East Early College High School, James Madison High School, Ross Shaw Sterling High School, and Sharpstown High School. Students are writing essays on many different topics, such as their background and identity, their environment, and personal experiences.
HISD Teacher Testimonials
SWAG to College recently interviewed two current HISD teachers -- Keri Wittpenn from Jane Long Academy, and Sheela Keswani from Sterling High School. Both have been highly involved with the program in their perspective schools. When asked why Wittpenn decided to work with SWAG to College, she said, “We [Jane Long] are already part of EMERGE, but we wanted another outlet for our students to participate in getting college exposure. EMERGE only accepted three out of 60 sophomores, so we wanted an organization that would work with more students.” Wittpenn believes that it is important for students to gain early college exposure, and SWAG to College is providing that to their students. Additionally, she thinks that SWAG to College has given sophomores a sense of what is going to happen after high school, receiving often exposure and connection. Through SWAG to College’s flexibility with mentor-mentee communication -- whether by text message, email, video chat, or in-person meetings -- the program ensures that everyone who needs the support has the ability to receive that support. Additionally, through the organization’s webpage, both mentees and mentors can find timelines, which serve to guide the students in high school, in English and Spanish, as well as other online and college resources, such as a list of college fly-ins, that increase the exposure to opportunities.
Sheela Keswani thinks the biggest impact SWAG to College has had in Sterling has been the writing. As previously mentioned, Sterling is one of the schools with students in the Essay Program. Keswani says that the program has helped immensely with students’ writing, even outside of the application essays. While it may be too soon to tell, she believes that the program will make a big difference in the campus.
SWAG to College has demonstrated a positive impact in HISD schools, and has been able to successfully make mentor-mentee pairings. SWAG to College has already increased access and knowledge of opportunities for HISD students, exposing them early to college and the application process. Furthermore, the percentage of students who want to continue with the program and would recommend the organization to a friend shows the success of the program.
As with any other organization, there are ways to improve. After interviews and surveys taken by both mentees and mentors, there are a few recommendations for SWAG to College and ways in which the organization can be enhanced.1. Person-to-person meetings (mentor-mentees and mentors-mentors)
Teachers, mentees, and mentors think that there should be a way in which mentees and mentors can meet in person to create a better relationship. Additionally, mentors believe that having more mentor events could help with not only in getting to know each other, but with receiving support from each other.2. System for mentees to be held responsible
Mentors would like a way for mentees to be held responsible when they do not complete their requirements or meet the expectations of the program.3. Check-ins once a month
Mentors are busy, and having weekly check-ins adds to their time requirements. Instead, a once-a-month check-in allows for them to gather more information and submit it all at once.4. More feedback from mentees to mentors
Mentors are usually the ones who always reach out to the mentees, creating a feeling that they are bothering their mentees, or that their mentees do not want the help. If mentees were to initiate conversation more often, or make questions for their mentors, the conversations would flow smoother and the mentors would be able to tackle the concerns of the mentees without having to guess what they need. 5. Clubs in high schools with a good number of mentees, to meet every week to talk about their progress
Some high schools have a large number of mentees. Setting up a club on campus would allow for weekly or bi-weekly meetings where students, with a teacher who would work with SWAG, could debrief and talk about their progress. This could also help mentees formulate questions or reflect on their concerns to create a two-way and active conversation with their mentors. 6. SWAG To College liaison should visit schools more often
As with point five, there should be more involvement with the high school students and the campus coming from SWAG to College. Having a representative go to campus to touch points and guide with more cohesive meetings will increase the student interest in SWAG.7. Improved mentee recruitment
A major mentor concern was some mentees’ inability to follow through with their responsibilities or exhibiting a sense of uninterest. For the program to have a better success, it is important to recruit mentees who truly want the help and who would do the work they need to do.