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City College Program Develops Student Success

Created: 14 December, 2017
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

While science and math related courses are often thought of as difficult and inaccessible, one program at a local community college is improving student outcomes in these subjects through empowerment and redefining the way students think about schoolwork and themselves.

The Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement program (MESA) at San Diego City College provides aid to students in the sciences and mathematics who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Through MESA, qualifying students have access to tutoring, resources, networking opportunities, and summer programs, among many other services.

However, the greatest and most important resource is one that shifts everything a student thinks they know about learning and about themselves.

City College MESA Director Rafael Alvarez runs the program with an emphasis on the concept of “Learning Culture,” a series of practices which teach students how to succeed in the world of higher education, hold themselves accountable for their responsibilities, become better organized, and strengthen their weaknesses, all while fostering a sense of community.

Rafael Álvarez (center)
“One way I’ve been explaining Learning Culture to students is to think about it as the rules of the game for succeeding in higher education,” Alvarez explained. “New students are expected to succeed in college but no one ever shows them the rules. How is that fair? I train students in the rules and I expect them to live by the rules.”

This adherence to Learning Culture has created an environment where, according to Alvarez, the students become creators and rise above whatever obstacles they encounter in their lives.

Alan A. Hurtado is currently a MESA scholar at City College whose expectations of higher education were changed by the program. Like many first-time college students, he first enrolled in his courses thinking that higher education operated in the same way in which high school did.

The belief that just showing up to class and taking loose notes, which he wouldn’t look at again, was good enough for college quickly lead Hurtado to fail his first chemistry course.

“I ended up dropping the class because I was failing and that set me back,” Hurtado shared. “But one day, a classmate told me to join the MESA program.”

What appeared to Hurtado to be a simple tutoring group, proved itself to be a much greater resource than he imagined. Shortly after with MESA’s Learning Culture model, Hurtado found himself in control of his learning and mindset, leading him to greatly improving his grades.

“All MESA students must become trained in Learning Culture. I learned how to prepare for classes, what to do after class and things like that,” Hurtado added. “I used to have a mentality that if something is hard then it is not for me but I now I have a new mentality.”

Like Hurtado, hundreds of students have gotten their learning on track through MESA and have reached their goals of going to a four-year university, and beyond.

2017 has marked another successful year of sending off transfers into many four-year universities, with students going off to four-year institutions such as San Diego State, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, Cal Poly, USC and Georgia Tech, among others.

In past years, MESA alumni have also gone on to become doctoral candidates at prestigious universities such as Rice, UC San Francisco, MIT, and Harvard.

Alvarez states that the impressive success of students in his program is no simple coincidence, but rather an expectation.

“We develop scholars, we turn the lights on for them, we train them, but I want us to be known for more than that, I want us to be known for developing leaders,” Alvarez explained.

“We operate on a level where leaders come from this, it’s easy for a student to rise as a leader within our culture, but many students struggle to be scholars outside of the program,” Alvarez added. “It isn’t just strategies to know how to approach learning. It is a mindset.”