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Political Science Graduate Mentoring At-Risk Youth with City Year AmeriCorps

May 14, 2019

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As a native of San Antonio’s West Side, Sal Acosta ’17 understands the obstacles many neighborhood children face when it comes to their education. An English-Language Learner (ELL) until middle school, Acosta admits having a classroom mentor would have made a huge difference. The political science major has now stepped into that role for students at Lanier High School, also on the city’s West Side, as a City Year AmeriCorps member.

City Year is a nonprofit that partners with schools to help bridge education gaps by providing diverse, talented, and trained young adult tutors, mentors, and role models who work alongside teachers to support student success.

According to their website, 10 million students nationwide live in areas of concentrated poverty and are twice as likely to face traumatic experiences that interfere with their ability to arrive at school every day ready to learn. They are also nearly 22 percent less likely to graduate than their middle and upper income peers.Acosta is one of thousands of City Year members serving at-risk youth across 29 communities in the U.S, guiding them in their academics and encouraging them to pursue their dreams.

“When I was in school, I really wish I’d had someone from City Year there with me,” Acosta said. “It was so hard for me as an ELL and no one at home was good at English. I always talk to my students about when I was in middle school and started making the wrong choices. I tell them that it’s ok to make mistakes. The real challenge is realizing what you’re doing and deciding to make a change.”

During his time at TLU, Acosta led voter registration efforts in partnership with the Center for Servant Leadership to form connections between the campus and Seguin community. Not only did he focus on the importance of voting and letting people know that their voice matters, his goal was to build a foundation so more good things would develop from those initial efforts.

Now in his second year working with high school freshmen, he continues to encourage individuals to build a foundation for success.

“I help them a lot with their English and if a student is behind or doesn’t understand very well,” he said. “I work with them on translations and my goal is to get them to get them to the point where they can understand. I also want them to know that I graduated from college and so can they.”

For several of Acosta’s students, going to university was something they never thought possible.

“I’ve had a few students who didn’t think they’d ever get in to college or actually go because of financial aid or legal status,” he said. “I talk to them about the possibilities and how there are many universities that are very open to accepting DACA students. I do always tell them that the better your grades are the easier it will be for you in college. I want to be honest with them, but still be that encouraging voice.”

Lack of parental involvement is another challenge many students in high-needs districts face. Acosta says it’s important to remember that for some of these families, parents are working two or three jobs each just to make ends meet and are unable to be up at the schools. Some students are also working to supplement family income.

“I definitely talk to them about these things too if it comes up,” he said. “A student might be falling asleep in class so I’ll ask them why they’re so tired. They’ll often say they had to go to work as soon as they got home from or they have to clean and take care of the house."

He makes it a point to communicate with parents whenever possible to let them know about City Year and what the organization does, including phone calls with them about their students to share positive affirmations or accomplishments.

That positive reinforcement is what he says City Year does best for both students and mentors.

“You develop so many valuable skills as a professional you didn’t even realize would come from the position,” he said. “You learn how to log and track data, create initiatives, and host events. This is a great choice for anyone who isn’t sure if they want to be a teacher. It’s that perfect middle ground to see if teaching is for you or if you might want to do something else.”

Acosta plans on staying in the nonprofit realm for a while in roles where he can continue to work with at-risk youth.

“The most rewarding thing for me is seeing how the students grow academically and socially,” he said. “They develop more of an adult attitude and I can see them calm down and stay focused. The growth really shows in relationships and how they’ve matured in their daily language and interactions. It’s great to see how far they’ve come.”

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