Meet the TIAA Difference Maker 100 being honored for their work in their communities
Cynthia Teniente-Matson | President | Texas A&M University – San Antonio
Cynthia Teniente-Matson leads Texas A&M University-San Antonio, established in 2009 and accredited as a stand-alone university in 2014. The university has 6,500 students, approximately three-quarters of whom are the first in their families to attend college.
I grew up five miles from our current campus and left when I was six years old. Back then, south San Antonio was an education desert—there were no institutions of higher learning.
When I came here in 2015, we were starting from scratch—an enviable position. Our first freshman class of full-time, four-year students was what I call a “majority minority,” with 75% being the first members of their family to attend college, and more than 80% self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino. I refused to look at the racial, social, and economic diversity within our community as a challenge; rather, I saw it as an opportunity to boost service to a community historically underserved.
I knew we had to offer more than the physical space and academics: We had to establish a series of programs to ensure all students are positioned to succeed academically.
We are laser focused on becoming a national model for student and academic success. Every student is assigned a student success coach, someone different from their academic advisors and faculty mentors. For all students, especially for those who are the first in their family to attend college, attending a university is akin to an international experience. We want to make sure all students feel welcome.
We also set up a 15 to finish Graduation Pledge, which is an initiative to help students complete their baccalaureate degree in four years. This necessitates a balance of intentional student programming, structured advising and student roadmaps. Joining the university community begins with a mandatory one-week orientation “studio” called JagX – named after the University’s mascot, General the Jaguar. Following is “Jaguar Tracks” – a four-year stackable course plan. During year one, students learn academic skills like research and writing while participating in activities designed to build a sense of community and belonging. Jag Tracks also focuses on opportunities to transfer knowledge to students who may not have college in their family history. Career advising is built into the curriculum through all four tracks. In addition, the Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement was established to provide students with hands-on experience in varying environments within the community.
In collaboration with my Cabinet, we continually ask ourselves, “What do our students and parents need to know about the transition to college, and what role do parents play in student success?” I spend a significant amount of time talking with parents during orientation about our University structure and writing informative letters to parents throughout the year regarding roles and expectations. Because a majority of our students live at home, we have to educate the whole family network about the collegiate experience and opportunities for building pathways to prosperity.
Our goal is to graduate students in four years at levels above the national norm with as little debt as possible. As a result, we’re doing everything to scale. We don’t think we have time to experiment with pilot programs. We’re continually making modifications to improve our process and programs as we move forward.