As we near the end of another year and professionals in every sector reflect on their annual progress, the educational sector will see that it has unequivocally made strides in 2015. Though getting into college continues to be an overwhelming challenge for many students, especially minorities, the US Department of Education reports that progress has been made. High school graduation rates are at their highest ever—81 percent—and the dropout rate is at a historic low, with the greatest progress made being among minority students.
College enrollment for black and Latino students is up by more than one million since 2008. That’s not to say that educational challenges for minorities are no longer; studies also show that black and Latino students have the least access to classes needed to prep them for college and that black, Latino, and Native American students are more likely to attend schools with a higher concentration of uncertified teachers.
With all of that data to analyze, Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson remains optimistic, insisting that education is the great equalizer for ethnic minorities and Latinos in particular. As president of Texas A&M University–San Antonio (A&M–SA), Teniente-Matson sees firsthand, year after year, how attending college can make the biggest difference in the course of a person’s life. But the proof is in the pudding: 67 percent of A&M–SA students are Latino, and 60 percent are first-generation college students.
Being able to create a system that ensures success for students such as these, who are overcoming a variety of challenges in their pursuit of a college degree, has become Teniente-Matson’s most driving motivation at one of the fastest growing universities in the country. Now at the point in her career where she is able to help generations behind her own graduate, Teniente-Matson believes that she would never be able to offer that help had it not been for the help she herself had been offered as a student.
“My experience with higher education was that it enabled me to evolve into a better version of myself, and I want that for our students. I come from a background similar to our students, and I always try to put myself in their shoes,” the university president says. “[A&M–SA] students are these amazing, raw products that need a little help to be shaped into better versions of themselves. Being able to help with that is incredibly fulfilling, and it’s why I’ve stayed in higher education all of these years.”
Though she has worked in higher education for 20 years, Teniente-Matson says it wasn’t the original plan for her career; rather, it evolved this way naturally as each opportunity presented itself. The San Antonio native took on presidency of A&M–SA in January of 2015 after more than 10 years at California State University Fresno, where she was CFO and VP of administration. Prior to that, she held various administrative positions at the University of Alaska–Anchorage, where she earned her master’s degree.
Coming from the administration side, Teniente-Matson characterizes her road to president as “non-traditional.” But it was this path, handling everything from finance to student affairs, that has given her top-down knowledge and a depth of experience that enables a unique insight into students—insight she considers extremely valuable at this particular institution.
“I’ve acquired more knowledge that can make the lives of students in San Antonio better,” she says. “My lens changes and evolves over time, and now, as I’m operating at the highest level within the university, there are institutional changes that can be made that will develop a road map for students like ours.”
Texas A&M–SA has fought very hard for everything it offers its students, according to Teniente-Matson. From a fiscal-management standpoint, questions have been raised about the public good of public education. That’s the wrong question, she says. “We need to be asking how we can change the system to make public education more accessible.”
Few public education institutions know more about making the most of its resources than Texas A&M University–San Antonio. The university’s roots only go back to 2000, when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved Texas A&M University System’s request to create a system center in San Antonio to meet “critical educational needs” in the city’s historically underserved south side. The university officially emerged in 2009 as a stand-alone university offering graduate degrees, as well as courses to juniors and seniors. From 2008 to 2013, enrollment grew by 216 percent, and A&M–SA is now well on its way to becoming a four-year university, ushering in its first freshman class in 2016 pending accreditation.
“We’re in the very unique position of being able to create intentional practices that will shape the pathway and improve practices to help our unique student body be successful,” Teniente-Matson says. “We’re building the university model of the future, and it has the chance to change the landscape of higher education—not just in South Texas, but nationally. We’re leveraging the excellence of Texas A&M University System to serve our state and create a new model that goes beyond the US.”
Teniente-Matson attributes the success to the tenacity of the entire faculty, of course, but also to location and timing. There was great demand from within San Antonio; one look at the breakdown of the student body makes this hard to dispute. 90 percent of the students who attend the university are from within the city limits.
The top priority of the A&M–SA president is that she be accessible to students. Teniente-Matson maintains both a physical and a “digital open-door” policy, enabling students to tweet her and message her with their thoughts and ideas. Teniente-Matson finds this to be fascinating for her as well as empowering to her students. She does all she can to take the students’ feedback and turn it into action.
The digital open-door policy idea came from the university’s mass communications department when students were assigned to study the president’s social media presence, offering critiques, while also coming up with strategies that she could use to engage students. She also created a “share” button on the university’s website to encourage faculty, staff, and students to share news, information, and events, among other things.
Such practices, alongside A&M–SA’s continued focus on experiential learning, are transforming the actual learning experience, providing students with real-world skills that will improve their employability.
Teniente-Matson repeatedly refers to the university’s many thoughtful practices and approaches as “pathways to prosperity.” These approaches are also intended to help students simply make it through college.
“So many of our students have no frame of reference because they are the first in their families to attend college,” she says. “They don’t know what it’s supposed to look like or feel like. When they hit their first snag, which will happen to everyone, we want to prepare them to handle the challenges. Being proactive is so important so students don’t give up. Pathways to prosperity are deliberate and intentional, so that we can be student-ready, and so that our students are life-ready.”