High Potential Celebrates 40 Years

High PotentialPast and present SMC community members will gather Tuesday, April 22, 4-7 p.m., at the Soda Center to celebrate the High Potential Program’s 40 years of excellence. Founded in 1973, the Program initially targeted under-represented students, beginning with about 25 undergraduates admitted to the college on the condition of joining HP. Today, the Program has grown, and just extended invitations to 90 admitted students who are the first in their families to attend a four-year American college. The goal remains the same: to offer students the support and skills necessary to their success at Saint Mary’s.

With more than 500 High Potential alumni, involved faculty, and many current HP students, the event promises to attract a large number of Gaels.

HP aims to address the challenges many first-generation students may face, including being the first in their families to attend college and not having someone to describe the college experience, said Tracy Pascua Dea, co-director of the Program and director of student engagement and academic success. Asking for help can be students’ biggest hurdle, Pascua Dea said, adding that once they do, they find a plethora of resources at their fingertips.

Pascua Dea affectionately describes the hands-on role the Program plays in a student’s academic and personal success as “intrusive advising.” All admitted HP students are invited to attend the Summer Bridge Program that offers a glimpse of college life with classes, academic empowerment sessions, and workshops in personal and academic skills to help them during their first year of college. HP students also participate in a First Year Advising Cohort specifically tailored to the experiences of a first-generation student, with a peer mentor and a student engagement and academic success specialist who meet regularly with students.

“In everything we do here—in the classroom, in support services, through mentoring and all the dimensions of the student’s experience—we strive to ensure that students will be successful, will be able to navigate these transitions, and have all the support they need to do that,” said President Jim Donahue, confirming HP’s place in the community and the integral support it provides.

Right away, support tools such as Summer Bridge introduced HP alum Anthony Zapien ’08 to the expectations set by HP instructors and peers to reach his potential. According to Zapien, during his Summer Bridge courses fellow incoming students encouraged each other to talk and lead discussion: “They knew when you got into [a non-Summer Bridge] class they wouldn’t be there for each other, so you needed to be comfortable in that role,” said Zapien, who said that Program coordinators made it clear that “HP students sit in the front of the class.” For Zapien, the support and push provided by the HP community was always clear, encouraging him to actively pursue his success at SMC.

Pravda Wright ’94, another HP alum, remembers her own experience. “The people who ran the Program really cared about you and kept an eye on you all four years.”

HP keeps tabs on how the students evolve during their time on campus and encourages them to mentor younger members of the Program. “It is so neat to see the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior versions of our students,” said Pascua Dea. “You see the freshmen who are so shy and then the seniors who do all sorts of things on campus. You think, ‘How do you do all that?’ They are living up to what they set out to do when they arrived on campus.”

HP has also served as a successful retention tool for the College, its rates of returning students and student performances constantly on the rise. To continue this success, the Program has been awarded an assessment grant that will help identify student-learning outcomes and hold focus groups with both current students and graduates. The aim is to continue a narrative project they implemented this past summer. Students attending Summer Bridge read a collection of narratives from first-generation students at other campuses and our own HP Program hopes to soon write its own narrative collection. The goal of the project is to create a positive narrative that documents the history of the Program through the voice of the participants, said Assistant Professor Gloria Aquino Sosa, co-director of the High Potential Program.

A book will be available at the anniversary event for returning and current HP members to write about their experiences. Other future goals include a possible alumni panel and more scholarships specifically for first generation students. “We want to do a lot!” said Pascua Dea about the future of HP.

The late John Dennis, a History and Collegiate Seminar professor who served as HP’s director for 12 years, was a devoted supporter of the Program. Wright remembers a time when Dennis challenged her. “One day when in Seminar he pulled me aside and said, ‘You know you have a lot to say but you need to speak. Some others are talking to talk. You need to speak up.’ I went on to take other classes and right now am back at a master’s program at SMC. When I am in class and speak up, I think of him.” Dennis was an important part of HP history whose contribution to the Program will be remembered.

Joining the High Potential Program is joining an intentional community where you receive support from fellow peers, past graduates and the specialists who are trained to ensure student success.

“Central to the mission of the College is a commitment to be consistent in our Lasallian traditions and mission—to serve the underserved and those in need,” said President Donahue. “The HP Program is part of what makes us distinctive. We strive to coordinate what we do with who we are and what we believe is valuable and important. Then we translate that into very specific actions and walk the talk.” It personifies the core principles of Saint Mary’s, Sosa said.

An entire network of people care not only about the HP student’s academic success, but also care about their personal success. Victoria Roca ’17 praises the benefits of the Program, saying it is helping her “physically and mentally prepare” for college and also has given her an “HP family.” Alumni claim as their dearest friends the people they met in the Program, something current students have already discovered. Forty years of devotion to students have produced a rich past, a bright future and a network of profoundly appreciative Gaels.