When Madison White was in the eighth grade, just four years ago, she began the biggest challenge of her life. It’s one that has paid off. White made history recently by being among the first students in Tarrant County to earn her Associate of Arts from Tarrant County College before receiving her high school diploma.
She and other Marine Creek Collegiate High School students received their first college degrees earlier this month as members of the inaugural graduating class from TCC’s first Early College High School. TCC opened MCCHS with a freshman class from Lake Worth Independent School District in fall 2010 as part of its ongoing mission to provide “affordable and open access to quality teaching and learning.”
The first Fort Worth ISD students enrolled in fall 2011. The 13 graduates, three of whom actually will complete their college requirements this summer, were among the 5,734 TCC graduates who earned 6,627 degrees and certificates from the summer and fall 2013 and spring 2014.
“When I heard about the program, I really wanted to join because it would be free college credit hours and put me ahead of everybody else,” said White, who hopes to become a librarian. “It was important for me to be ahead so I (could) get a head start on life and start earning money and do what I want to do.”
ECHS programs are designed to help young people who might not otherwise attend college to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree or up to two years of credit toward a bachelor’s degree tuition-free. Targeted groups include low-income youth, first-generation college attenders, English language learners, students of color and other young people underrepresented in higher education.
The opportunity was one they appreciated. “It’s been an excellent experience (that allowed me to) push myself academically,” said Lalita Sundarrajan, one of two students whose home school was in FWISD.
Starting college at such a young age has made a difference in many of their lives. “Having college classes has changed me,” said Adelaide Boak, also a FWISD student. Boak plans to study pre-med at The University of Texas at Austin and wants to be orthopedic surgeon because her mother suffers from arthritis. “I have learned what it really takes to be successful in college,” she said.
White agreed, saying she has learned to set her priorities. “Now, I’m just a more hard- working student. I know what I need to do and don’t worry about what else is going on around (me).”
Because of the small cohort size, the the students developed a special bond. “The best part for me was being with them,” said Dennis Ralon, who will transfer to the University of North Texas. “We got close. They are like a second family.”
It also has instilled pride for many of the students including Ralon’s friend from elementary school, Robert Trejo. “It feels good being in the first graduating class because everybody looks up to us. It’s kind of like being a celebrity,” said LWISD student Trejo, who wants to be a software engineer. Trejo said he knows his parents also are proud of him and brag about him to their friends. He knows because when he meets some of his parents’ friends they say, “Oh, so you are the famous Robert!”
LaLita Sundarrajan, the second graduate from FWISD, plans to study accounting at TCU and wants to work for one of the four top auditing firms before earning her doctorate. She believes her participation in the historic class was an “excellent experience that she definitely would do again” because it caused her to push herself academically.
Parents are thrilled by their children’s accomplishment, especially since they have watched the sacrifices they have made to succeed.
“I am excited. It’s a chance – a good opportunity for students,” said Ricardo Aleman, a proud father who observed his twin daughters ignore his concerns as they kept late hours studying and finishing projects.
His wife, Elena Aleman, recognizes what it means to their future. “The opportunity to transfer to the other college is good.”
Their daughters offer this advice for students considering ECHS.
“I would tell them to see their instructor during office hours. I would tell them that is when you build relationships with your instructor,” Andrea Aleman said. “When they see you have an interest in the course, they’ll do anything to help you.”
Her twin, Alondra added: “I would tell (them) you have to push yourself. No one is going to hold your hand.”
It’s important to know that the challenges are real.
“You are going to get lost and maybe cry. But it’s part of the whole experience. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s exciting,” Andrea said. “Looking back, it’s funny and something you’ll always have with you.”