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Puente: A Bridge to Opportunity

Before Miguel Hernandez got involved with the Puente Project, he was just another community college student trying to make it through San Francisco City College. Today, he is the Assistant Director of Admissions at UC Berkeley.

The academic preparation program helped him to succeed and to envision a better future for himself.

“Puente helped me see in myself what others saw in me: a confident, capable, hard working individual with a deep desire to serve,” Hernandez said. “It provided a platform for success and a lot of good friends that let me know I am by no means alone in my academic experience, or the world.”

Hernandez grew up in Richmond, CA, and candidly admits he didn’t make much effort in high school. He spent eight years in the U.S. Marines before enrolling at City College. There, he got involved with the Puente Project, which pairs students with professors, counselors and mentors who help them achieve their academic goals and dream of bigger things.

With Puente’s support, Miguel was able to transfer to UC Berkeley, where he received a BA in English. He held posts at NASA and Arizona State before coming to Cal.

Miguel Hernandez

Miguel Hernandez, Assistant Director of Admissions at UC Berkeley

The Puente Project is an academic preparation program sponsored by UC’s Office of the President with additional support from California’s community colleges and private funding. Puente, which means “bridge” in Spanish, has been a bridge between classrooms and communities since 1981. Its goal is to increase the number of educationally disadvantaged students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities, earn degrees, and then return to their communities as mentors and leaders of future generations.

Building a community of support for Puente students makes the program work, said Frank Garcia, Executive Director. To date, more than 4,000 professionals have served as mentors to Puente participants, and many of those mentors are themselves Puente graduates.

“We have a philosophy of coming back and giving back,” Garcia said.

Puente programs – now found in 57 community colleges and 35 high schools –  have an impressive track record of success:
•    In 2007-2008 Puente students passed the California High School Exit Exam at a significantly higher rate than all students statewide: 95% vs. 79% on the English section.
•    Seventy-eight percent of 2007-2008 Puente high school graduates enrolled in two-and four-year colleges, compared to 51% of California public high school graduates statewide.
•    Puente students in 2006 were twice as likely to be eligible for a UC school than non-Puente graduates of the same high schools.
•    Eighty-three percent of Puente students who enrolled in community college in fall 2006 were still in school a year later, compared with the statewide average for all community college students of 68 percent.
•    Fifty-two percent of Puente’s 2002-03 particpants had transferred to four-year colleges and universities by 2007-08, compared to 39% of all California Community College (CCC) students, and 29% of all CCC educationally disadvantaged students.

Excelencia in Education, a program that informs policy makers and institutions about practices that yield better outcomes for Latino students, recently recognized Puente’s Community College Program for its success. Puente received the Associate Level Examples of Excelencia award in September.

Frank Garcia

Frank Garcia, Director of Puente

“We were honored to win Examples of Excelencia,” Garcia said. “Puente students, counselors, mentors, teachers, administrators and other community members have invested so much time and energy into helping disadvantaged students succeed and it has really paid off.”

Despite the program’s many successes, it still faces one large challenge: the budget. Since 2003, Puente staff has been cut from 60 to 22.5 full-time employees. The community college budget has been cut by 28%, and that could fall another 10 percent when federal stimulus funds dry up. Puente’s high school program has also seen a 10.5% budget cut.

“We need to maintain the program structure and increase the number of students we serve, yet we’ve had to cut back to the bare bone,” Garcia said. “UCOP restructuring and the loss of funding has been a challenge.”

But while Puente might have to pinch pennies, there’s one thing it won’t hold back on: Helping disadvantaged students thrive. “We’re always trying to close the achievement gap,” Garcia said.

And Miguel Hernandez, along with hundreds of other Puente graduates, plan to support Puente well into the future.

“I have spoken to counselors and teachers in my travels and know one thing is for certain: the success and progress of this program is without question a result of a lot of great people who know that there are students like myself out there who can flourish given the appropriate direction and care provided by Puente,” Hernandez said.

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  1. Lourdes DeMattos November 5, 2009 Reply

    As always, I find this story and the Puente program truly inspiring. It is a privilege to work with the Puente team towards supporting students and the community.

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