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The Latino Adult Student Success Academy and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi : Perspectives From a Participant

Margaret Dechant has devoted her career -- all 35 years (and counting) of it -- to helping students at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). For the first 31 of those years, she did so through roles in enrollment and admissions. Then, four years ago, she became associate vice president for school and community relations. That was when she was introduced to CAEL, via TAMU-CC’s participation in the Latino Adult Student Success (LASS) Academy. TAMU-CC was one of fifteen colleges and universities selected for the Academy's inaugural, three-year cohort, in 2018. The Academy focused on helping institutions plan and execute strategies optimized to support student access among Latino adult learners and adult learners generally. Her work with CAEL has become "part of my soul," said Dechant, whose own career began with working with adult learners.

Dechant’s prior leadership in enrollment and admissions lent her perspectives critical to understanding the impact adult learning strategies such as credit for prior learning, wraparound support, and institutional flexibility can have. "It's everything that touches the educational life of an adult learner," said Dechant, "and that's why I felt so excited and honored when I was asked to work with CAEL as part of the inaugural LASS cohort."

After years of being so close to students' enrollment and admissions experiences, Dechant knew that finances always play a major role in decisions to begin or continue college. Reflecting on her first job with the university, which was in the financial aid office, she said, "I knew full well, instantly, that we could send a recruiter out all day and all night, but unless we sent someone who had a financial aid background and a scholarship background with that recruiter, we couldn't provide the complete picture students need."

Dechant was also familiar with how child care, job demands, and campus scheduling weighed heavily in enrollment decisions. "Adult students want to know exactly what they need to take in order to achieve their degree. They're at the point in their lives where they need a specific degree plan and someone to help keep them on track."

Recalling her first LASS planning meeting, with Rafael Pasillas and Beth Doyle, Dechant said it was immediately apparent that CAEL was not like any other company she had dealt with during more than three decades of higher ed interactions. "Every company provides value, but none greater than CAEL," she said. "Rafael and Beth Doyle are so dynamic, and they're so genuine. They truly are putting their own heart and soul into the work that they do with adult learners."

“CAEL was excited to welcome Texas A&M Corpus Christi to the inaugural Latino Adult Student Success Academy,” said Pasillas, who is director of initiatives for CAEL. “TAMU-CC was selected as one of the 15 selected Academy participants, from among many applicants, based on a review and selection process led by CAEL and our project partners at Excelencia in Education. The university’s demonstrated commitment to Latino and adult learners was evident in its responses to the Academy application.”

During its participation in the first LASS Academy cohort, TAMU-CC emphasized enhancing academic support services and advising for adult Latino students. It also focused on increasing Latino student representation in STEM fields

In fact, one of the key takeaways from the LASS experience, said Dechant, was the importance of academic advising and coaching. Even as she and her colleagues painstakingly worked a list of every student to ensure they understood how they could access funds made available during the pandemic through the Cares Act, “We recognized as well that maybe we needed to improve our academic advising with our adult student learners, and especially those Latino adult student learners who have been historically underrepresented in higher education."

"We were very open with them," recalled Dechant of the interaction among her and her staff, Rafael, and Beth. "They coached us, and helped us get to where we need to be." That destination includes a new and improved academic advising center, which Dechant described as deeply rooted in their work with CAEL.  "It's invaluable. You cannot put a price on the impact that CAEL has made on our institution."

Dechant again recalled the worst days of the pandemic to explain how being part of the LASS Academy was like being part of a family. "CAEL operates like a family, and what I mean by that is their team members stood by us during the pandemic so we could continue our work and training virtually. They were there for us, like family, in good times and not so good times."

Dechant added that even as the LASS Academy helped her and her colleagues identify opportunities to improve, the CAEL team "never judged us. Instead, they listened to what our situation was, and then provided very thoughtful feedback and very thoughtful training." This approach, she said, was a difference maker in encouraging uptake of best practices like adapting legacy communications into outreach targeted to adult learners.

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi will have an opportunity to amplify these best practices even further, as it is among the institutions selected for a continuing LASS Academy cohort in Texas. During this cohort, TAMU-CC will build on its commitment to enhance the advising process for Latino adults by focusing on improving retention of Latino adult students through personalized coaching and awarding credit for prior learning to accelerate degree completion.

"What's really exciting is that we're going to be bringing in a group of individuals who are part of that new academic advising area and others from across the campus," said Dechant, who described the second LASS Academy cohort as perfectly timed to support the university's already-planned strategy of building on the first cohort's outcomes.

Visit cael.org for more information about CAEL's student success academy model and the LASS academy.


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