By: 
Marcia Layton Turner
Honoree: 
NorthWest Arkansas Community College

An influx of Hispanic residents over the last decade has created an opportunity for NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.

Recognizing that a significant percentage of Hispanic students from outside the area had little experience with higher education—including what it is like, how to apply or even that it was an option for them—the college in 2012 developed a program to introduce high school students to the basics.

Named LIFE—for learning, improvement, fun and empowerment—the program connects minority and underserved high school students with mentors from similar backgrounds.

National Trends Link

  • College enrollment increased across all ethnic groups between 1996 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. However, enrollment among Hispanics age 18 to 24 increased an impressive 240 percent during that period. By 2012, nearly 1 in 5 Hispanics in this age group were enrolled in two- or four-year college programs.
  • Despite the big enrollment gains, Hispanic students are less likely to graduate from college. In 2012, only 9 percent of Hispanic adults ages 24 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree.

The eight LIFE mentors are first-generation college students who have already overcome some of the same challenges that high schoolers are facing. They make frequent trips to area high schools to build relationships with teens, says Codie Ryan, director of the LIFE program.

The high school students are then invited to a three-day program on campus during the summer. That’s when the peer mentors engage students in fun activities while also educating them about the admissions process and college life.

Staff from admissions, student activities, financial aid and other offices work alongside the LIFE mentors, helping to forge bonds with prospective students, says Ryan.

But the mentors take the lead because “we get such a different response from high school students when college students speak to them. We don’t have to break down any barriers” before sharing important information, Ryan says.

This past summer the LIFE program had the largest number of participants yet: 125. Of those, 123 indicated they plan to enroll at NorthWest Arkansas.