Navigating around educational hurdles
In 2020, the Catholic Charities Fort Worth Rural Vocation Program helped 382 low-income community college students in rural areas face the obstacles of a global pandemic. Of those students, 116 graduated or transferred to a four-year college.
Rita Gauthier, CCFW Northwest Campus director of client services, said the program also maintained its high persistence rate despite pandemic challenges, with 94 percent of students returning to school between summer and fall semesters.
In comparison, Gauthier observed that most rural colleges in Texas have an 18-22 percent completion rate. “We don’t lose students like schools that don’t have this intervention,” she said.
The secret to that success is holistic case management, Gauthier noted. In fact, with holistic case management, strategic financial assistance, and personal and financial coaching, many students were well prepared for the changes forced on them by the pandemic. They switched from in-person to online classes, helped their own children get through online classes, and continued their full or part-time jobs.
“Within a week our students transformed themselves,” Gauthier said. “They didn’t miss a beat. They just embraced those changes.”
She said case managers (called client navigators) helped students with their most immediate needs, such as access to computers, internet connectivity, or financial assistance due to job loss.
“We had students going to the parking lot of their schools to do homework and take tests because that’s where they could get internet access,” Gauthier said.
She said navigators contacted local internet providers for reduced-cost internet or hot spots for students. They also worked with CCFW to access grant funds and contact philanthropic partners for laptops.
The Rural Vocation Program serves 25 active students on each of eight community college campuses and at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Gauthier explained. Ten full-time navigators meet at least twice monthly with each of their students.
When the pandemic forced schools into online learning, Ricky Espinoza had never owned his own computer or participated in a virtual class. So, when he started classes at Vernon College this past fall, his navigator helped him acquire a laptop from the Stand Together Foundation, a CCFW partner.
Espinoza discovered the Rural Vocation Program last year when he was a high school senior. The youth minister at Holy Family Parish in Vernon invited a navigator to visit the youth group.
“I’m a first-generation college student,” Espinoza said. “So when it was time to register for college, I couldn’t turn to my family.”
He said his navigator guided him through the registration process, helped him schedule the Texas Success Initiative Assessment needed for admittance, and even helped gather textbooks.
“Having someone to guide me throughout college — to answer any questions … made it a lot easier and less stressful,” Espinoza said.