The Texas Story Student Q&A: Vanessa Larez

Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy. (Andrew Kaufmann / George W. Bush Institute)

This piece is part of “The Texas Story,” a four-week series produced in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute examining how well Texas students are being prepared for the workforce as the country recovers from the pandemic. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our previous accountability series here and here.

Vanessa Larez graduated in 2018 with an associate degree from Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy in Dallas ISD. She attended Southern Methodist University with support from Dallas County Promise, graduating in three years in 2021 with a degree in communications and Spanish. She is now a development and communications coordinator at Bachman Lake Together, an early-childhood program in Dallas. The Bush Institute’s Justine Taylor-Raymond sat down with Vanessa this fall to discuss how her high school experience shaped her.

The following interview excerpt has been edited for clarity and length.

JTR: How did early college help you?

VL: Having access to college classes in high school helped me understand that you sign up for classes – and if you don’t sign up within a certain time, those classes will disappear. Or understanding that you have to read your syllabus, that the syllabus has a purpose, and you follow the deadlines and policies they have with missing a class, being tardy, or late assignments. It’s not the same as high school. What may seem like common knowledge isn’t. And having access and exposure to that was important.

Do you feel like you are in a better position coming from your high school? Do you feel like going to the collegiate academy, getting your associate degree set you on a different path?

I don’t know if it set me on a different path, but it made the path easier. I feel like because I already got the two years and got exposure to things, I didn’t have to struggle and relearn those things.

Tell me about your SMU experience.

I do feel like I had a head start, but still it’s not the same. I think it was hard for me to adjust socially and that impacted how I adjusted academically. I failed my first exam at SMU. I was so shy to ask questions. It was a lecture-style class. Wasn’t too large, less than a 100 students, but I was too shy or embarrassed to talk to people next to me or ask a question if I was a little bit confused. SMU isn’t that big of a school compared to a UT, but it was big to me.

When I got to SMU, I was a part of a program called Rotunda Scholars. They focused on bridging the gap for traditionally underrepresented students, like first generation college students, low-income students, students of color, students from very rural areas, students from certain religious backgrounds, etc. So, I was with other students who shared similar feelings, maybe on varying degrees, but we all had that shared experience of being underrepresented. Knowing other students like you helped and the staff leading the program were there to help you. We were paired with peer counselors, older students who had been part of the program. My sophomore year, I worked as a peer counselor. So, I feel like it still took me a while to adjust, but it would have been way worse had I not been a part of that program.

Did having access to an associate degree make a difference? Would it help others, too?

I did benefit from the head start. You give students access to free classes, but that does not mean all kids are going to succeed. The barrier isn’t just money or not having classes in front of you. Some students have to prioritize work — helping to provide for their family. Having free college classes doesn’t matter if your lights aren’t on.

Not all students got an associate degree in your high school class. What were some of the barriers for those students?

College is not for everyone, and that is totally okay. I think support at home — maybe if your parents or family don’t go to college, you don’t have that extra understanding of the value. You may already feel it’s not for you because haven’t seen anyone before you do it. So it’s not just the barriers of family needs, but also mental barriers.

I have some peers that say my dad works in XYZ field, I’ll just do that because I know it will make money. That is secure. To them, college wasn’t secure. And, honestly, it isn’t. College doesn’t get you the job. You get the job with the tools you got from college. But it’s still not guaranteed.

Follow this four-week series here.

Justine Taylor-Raymond is senior program manager for education reform at the George W. Bush Institute. 

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