Texas A&M - San Antonio looks to city's culture and history to build student success model
Focusing on San Antonio's heavy military population and large contingency of students in poverty, President Cynthia Teniente-Matson works to send a message that 'you belong here.'
The main entrance to Texas A&M University’s San Antonio campus sits just off Highway 410. A mile down University Way sits a small, but rapidly growing, collection of buildings marked by copper doors, imported Mexican tile, a flowing blue fountain and the unmistakable architecture of the Spanish missions that border the campus.
The missions — and the broader idea of mission generally — are at the center of the campus identity. The shared architecture was intentionally planned to promote a sense of belonging for the students in the surrounding area, who comprise the majority of the campus population.
The university’s new tagline, a result of a multi-year rebranding project that was just recently completed, is “on a mission” — which relates not only to the culture and history of the region, but speaks the language of the institution’s heavy military population and keeps administrators and staff ever mindful of the fact that the expansion campus was placed in San Antonio specifically to serve the needs of underserved minorities in the city.
“We’re a very mission-oriented organization,” said David Perryman, Texas A&M – San Antonio’s director of communications and marketing. “We’re always aware of the fact that we were founded at a specific time and place” to serve this specific population, he said. “We’re very rooted to that.”
Accessibility for all
As the system’s only campus that is located in a large, urban center, the San Antonio campus leaders are heavily focused on taking the high expectations for excellence and achievement and global engagement with alumni that comes with the Texas A&M brand, and packaging them in a way that is accessible to students who may not have otherwise thought they had an opportunity to study at a major university and do it in a way that is future-looking, in keeping pace with the burgeoning city it calls home.
Mercedes Ayala, senior who transferred from a local community college, said she was initially struck by “how affordable it was” to enroll at Texas A&M – San Antonio. In the two years since she’s been at the institution, she continues to marvel at how much growth it’s experienced, “both in population and in the buildings that are going up,” and how it’s managed to maintain a close-knit, personal atmosphere that makes all students feel like the institution is invested in their success.
And in turn, Ayala and a lot of her fellow students want to help the institution grow as they grow individually to “put a better name on the Southside of San Antonio,” she said.
More than three-fourths of the students come from first-generation households, and many are from low income households. But “this school is very approachable,” she said. And everything from the design to the approach by staff has been intentionally planned to keep up that perception of accessibility.
Even in the brand re-design, one of the pillars of the school’s brand is the idea of breakthrough — first-generation students breaking through real or perceived barriers to become the first in their families to earn a college degree, breaking through into new markets, and breaking through in research or trying to discover a new solution — it’s all centered around overcoming obstacles to come out on top. This embraces the spirit of the students of San Antonio’s Southside.
“We try to have this sense of ‘you belong here,’” said President Cynthia Teniente-Matson, who added, “as long as I’m here, we’re looking at a business model that focuses on faculty and student success.”
Teniente-Matson is adamant about maintaining a student-first model, even as the university continues to expand in size — and growth has been rapid. In August 2016, the university, which had entirely served upperclassmen since its 2009 founding, welcomed its first freshman class. In fall 2017, the first residence hall opened.
Today, there is a constant whir of construction, as new buildings are being erected, and Teniente-Matson, who arrived in 2015, laughs at her oft-repeated, but ambitious decree that there could likely be a new building opening every year of her tenure, or at least for the foreseeable future.
Opportunities and challenges
The rapid rate of change on the campus has yielded both excitement and opportunities for students and faculty and has brought with it some challenges for staff to overcome. In many senses, the fast pace was helpful because it forced leaders to make decisions and “we did things we wouldn’t have done” if given time to deliberate, Teniente-Matson said.
Ashley Spicer-Runnels, the institution’s assistant vice president for its University College, said “flying the plane while you’re building it” provided “a lot of opportunities to enhance learning, but also a lot of challenges,” particularly around constructing infrastructure around policies and “backtracking on definitions” to make sure everyone was speaking the same language.
Particularly challenging, said Heather Olague, director of the institution’s first-year experience, was trying to build programs for freshmen when the university had never had any — and with nearly all of the support staff hired six to eight months before these students would be arriving on campus.
Spicer-Runnels said administrators “made a lot of assumptions about our student population” but didn’t realize how critical things like transportation issues would be to the overall picture of student success.
Despite the challenges, there are no plans to slow down any time soon. Administrators are “seeking out unconventional partnerships,” realizing “we can’t sit here and wait for students to arrive and take them through a four-year experience” before their educations yield any benefits for them.
“We’ve got to tackle some of these challenges that are rooted in society and present barriers for our students before they even get here,” said Perryman.
Teniente-Matson is chairing San Antonio's tricentennial celebrations at the request of the mayor, which gives her unique access to push her agenda of transforming the city into “an education city” with Texas A&M – San Antonio helping to lead the way.
“You can play it safe, or you can challenge your internal and external folks to be aspirational,” Perryman said. For the staff, they’re working hard to “never get comfortable or apathetic in where we are,” he said.
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