Special to The Daily Record//March 27, 2023
//Special to The Daily Record
//March 27, 2023
When Jorge Torres Romo was a sophomore in high school, he was not thinking too much about college.
“My dad was in construction, and my mom works in cleaning services, and none of my older siblings went to college. Higher education wasn’t something that we talked about at home,” he said. “I always thought that going into construction right after high school was the natural path for me to choose.”
His perspective changed when he was introduced to the Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) program, a collaborative effort between Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Montgomery College (MC) and The Universities at Shady Grove (USG) to provide a structured pathway to a bachelor’s degree.
Students from select MCPS high schools are eligible to join the program, where they receive individualized coaching and support aimed at reducing barriers to college achievement. The program offers a clear path from high school to MC for an associate degree, and then to USG to complete a bachelor’s degree from one of the nine partner institutions available on the campus. Students have opportunities for career immersion experiences, workshops, leadership training and service opportunities.
While at MC, Torres was introduced to a dental office in Bethesda. He ended up working with that practice for four years as a dental assistant, which solidified his decision to pursue a career in dentistry, something he had been interested in since childhood.
“I remember going to the dentist once as a kid, and I realized that the tools that my father uses, like the drills, are not that different from dental tools,” he said. “While working as a dental assistant, I learned so much about the ins-and-outs of dental practice and relationships with patients.”
Nearly 1,700 MCPS students begin the ACES program each year, and 2,700 students are served by the program annually throughout the MCPS to MC to USG pathway. Of those, 85% are Hispanic/Latino or Black or African American and 86% are first-generation college students.
“This is equity in action,” said Dr. Anne Khademian, USG executive director. She explained that the program was created with intentionality to reach students, who for various reasons, feel that a 4-year college degree is out of reach. “Specifically, first-generation students, those for whom English is a second language, those who are working or have other responsibilities that mean a 4-year college is just not on their radar.”
As the son of immigrant parents, Torres said ACES was invaluable in helping him and his family feel confident that college was possible.
“I am originally from Mexico, so my parents are not too familiar with the education system in the U.S. I was able to have conversations with my ACES coaches that I wouldn’t be able to have with my parents,” said Torres.
This support was especially helpful when it came to figuring out college costs, Torres said. Not only did it feel unaffordable, but they didn’t know how or where to look for scholarships, financial aid or other options. And, the process of applying to college was tricky and overwhelming.
“The ACES program made things a lot more easily digestible,” said Torres. “And, because it is a transfer program from Montgomery College, it made the price of going to college a lot less drastic than it would have been if I had gone to a four-year institution for my first two years.”
In addition to that, Torres also received several scholarships to help pay his tuition at MC, and when he transferred to USG he was awarded a full scholarship for his final two years.
Khademian said that building intentional pathways to a career is vital for the future of higher education, and for future students.
“The future of higher education needs to be designed for the fluid student,” who she described as moving in, out, and around higher education. These students may take breaks from school to work, or may look at stacking credentials from shorter-term learning experiences as they build towards a greater degree or career goal. “The traditional model will also be vital, but it does not work for everyone.”
Strategically, USG is focused on working with its university partners and the workforce to align academic, leadership, and career competencies with workforce needs.
“USG has been a leader for many years in developing competencies such as leadership, teamwork, DEI, communication, and data literacy, regardless of subject matter,” she said. “Doing this work requires close partnerships with employers to make sure we are building career readiness into the college experience.”
USG is working on creating hubs that center around different industry sectors, with collaboration among USG’s partner universities and the business community on planning, design and data. The goal is to get ahead of emerging workforce needs by preparing students for a wide range of careers within a specific path. The structure would allow individuals to build credentials over time, in a flexible and fluid manner that is responsive to the needs of today’s students and employers.
“The vast majority of students are what we would consider nontraditional. These students may not have considered higher education, and that is a lost opportunity for the workforce, society, and our communities,” said Khademian.
A big part of the hub model relies on workforce partners, who provide career exposure and learning experiences to inspire and engage students.
“We want to move away from the more traditional idea of an internship for a semester,” Khademian explained, pointing out that longer-term internships are not necessarily accessible for students who are juggling multiple priorities outside of school, and unpaid internships are not feasible for many. “Alternatives might be working for a company on a short-term project, maybe a few weeks or even just one day.”
While Khademian looks ahead to a new future for higher education, Torres is already benefiting from his experience in the ACES program.
“I could have easily been lost in the weeds. If I had not joined the ACES program, I would not have taken college as seriously as I did. They do not stop helping you until you graduate, and even after that they are still helping,” he said.
Torres is currently a first-year student at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. His younger siblings and cousins are looking to follow his path toward higher education and his parents are thrilled with what he has achieved.
“They’ve always been very supportive of my education,” he said “But, ACES helped bridge that gap between understanding how it all worked and me doing it.”t