San Antonio's Café College Brews Opportunities for Latinos

Thrust into the spotlight as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro introduced himself to the country in a debut speech that even prompted future presidential candidacy whispers.

"It starts with education," Castro proclaimed about America's future. "You can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education."

Political rhetoric aside, Castro highlighted one particular initiative he considered a difference maker called Café College, "a place where students get help with everything from test prep to financial aid paperwork," he proudly said.

Café College opened on Sept 28, 2010, and while there is a small pot of coffee in the back, people are flooding to this cafe to pursue higher education. The energy they are receiving comes not from caffeine, but from the advisors.

Anyone in the community can come into Café College and meet with an advisor who will help them achieve a higher education in any way they can – for free. From inviting elementary school kids to decorate graduation caps with what they want to do when they grow up, to helping adult students go to school for the first time, advisors say what they do is simple.

“We help students go to college,” said advisor Sarah Serrato.

They are helping about 400 students a week, many of them Latinos. Many of the most popular resources they offer, such as pamphlets explaining financial aid, SAT, and other college options, are in Spanish. Café College also provides help for undocumented students.

All of the services are free, even the SAT test prep. At a time when test prep can cost thousands of dollars, students who go to Café College are able to receive expert preparation from a woman Serrato called “The SAT Queen,” Norma Davila. “Students come back after they take their test and tell us Norma really helped them,” Serrato said. “We have many students who come back and tell us that they are in college now.”

As Eyra A. Pérez, Executive Director of the San Antonio Education Partnership, which runs Café College, said “The San Antonio Education Partnership is serving as the catalyst and convener for major college access and success efforts, especially targeted towards our Latino students and families.” And according to Pérez, their efforts are “helping San Antonio achieve its educational transformation.”

According to Communications Director for the Mayor’s office, Jaime Castillo, Mayor Castro “spearheaded the creation of Café College because he was alarmed by the average student-to-counselor ratio in Texas public schools which is more than 400 to 1.”

Serrato, one of six college access and success advisors, spoke warmly of Castro’s involvement at Café College, “This is his baby.”

Castro sees higher education as a way for people to achieve despite barriers.

"The reality in this 21st century global economy is that more than 60 percent of the jobs today require more than a high school education," he said. "Café College provides a vital service in our community by knocking down the barriers of misinformation or lack of information that keep many students form pursuing higher education."

As I finished my conversation with Serrato, a student walked in, looking confused. She explained to the woman at the front desk that she needed help with some financial aid paperwork. As the woman explained everything to the student, I could visibly see the lines in the middle of her forehead disappear, and her straight mouth curl into a smile.

Being the first in your family to go to college can be one of the scariest things in the world, but Café College is erasing those fears daily, and making college a possibility for students for whom barriers outside their control might have made it impossible.

There are very few centers like this one, and as far as Serrato knew, about only four other cities are doing something similar. Serrato expressed the city’s ultimate goal for Café College simply: “We want this city to be powered by brain power.”

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