On Dec. 14, 2015, the halls of Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA) buzzed with excitement. The results of early action applications trickled in, and one student after another logged onto the portals of their top choice schools to find out if they had been accepted.
As the day wore on, senior and likely valedictorian Nadia Balderas had heard nothing from her top choice, Yale University. Finally, at 4 p.m., she received a notification. The results were in. It was time to log in and find out whether she would be Yale-bound, or waiting to hear from her other choices – all of which were impressive.
She asked that her friends leave her with the computer to check in solitude. When she logged on, a short video played on her Yale student portal home screen. It seemed celebratory, but she didn’t want to allow herself to be excited until she read the word: accepted.
When the video concluded, the word appeared. She was accepted to Yale.
“I was shaking,” Balderas recalled during an interview last week.
Word spread quickly around the school. Balderas is the first YWLA student to be accepted to Yale, though not their first Ivy Leaguer. One of her older “sisters,” as YWLA students call their schoolmates, is currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania. The SAISD in-district charter has consistently produced high-performing graduates and was named a National Blue Ribbon School earlier this year.
Not only did Yale accept her application, but the university offered Balderas a financial aid package that will cover her full tuition and nearly all of her living expenses. Working with the university’s financial aid tools, Balderas estimated the total yearly cost of attending Yale at around $65,000 per year. So far they have offered her more than $61,000 in gift aid, meaning she will not have to repay it.
SAISD administrators and teachers would like to see more of their students go on to top universities. They believe that many have the academic ability, but may not realize which schools offer adequate financial aid. Because the vast majority of SAISD students stay close to home, some of the nation’s top schools are left out of the conversation with counselors and college advisors.
Students on the Rise is a new district initiative designed to increase student exposure to out-of-state options. SAISD’s legislative coordinator Seth Rau is taking an active role in the program.
“Our goal is to expose top SAISD students from all high schools to the best colleges and universities in the country with a focus on the 62 schools that meet full financial need for low-income students,” said Rau.
Soon after she heard the good news, Balderas received a text message from YWLA principal Delia McLerran.
“I’m so proud of you Nadia! You have no idea what your success means for your younger sisters on campus. You’ve given them hope and true faith that anything is possible when you work hard for it.”
Reflecting on that hard work, Balderas knew that she had done all she could. What comforted her in the nerve-wracking application process, now made the success even sweeter.
“I don’t think I could have done any better than I have with what’s available to me,” Balderas said.
McLerran couldn’t agree more. Balderas has taken every opportunity and sought more, she said. The National AP Scholar, National Hispanic Scholar, and National Merit Commended Scholar has taken 14 AP classes, far beyond the eight required for any designation or award.
Of course, Balderas will also be the first to tell you that she’s benefitted from an excellent support system. She comes from a supportive family, where college is highly valued. Her older sister goes to St. Edwards University in Austin. Her parents, Rene and Elizabeth Balderas are both college graduates, and while they own a design firm and have three lovely daughters, they still reflect on college as one of the best times of their lives. That family lore is deeply engrained in their middle daughter.
“Growing up I sort of romanticized the idea of college,” said Balderas.
The other resource that led to her success was YWLA. The high performing school is part of the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, a nonprofit that partners with school districts to bring public all-girls schools to districts across Texas. Since its inception in 2002, schools belonging to the network have produced a number of Tier One and Ivy League graduates, though Balderas will be their first Yale-bound alumna.
With schools in Austin, Grand Prairie, Houston, Lubbock, Dallas, Fort Worth and YWLA in San Antonio, the network reaches 4,150 young women, 70% of whom are economically disadvantaged. Of the graduates in 2015, 68% were first generation college students. Every single student in the network is accepted to college or university, most with substantial scholarships.
“YWLA is one of the main reasons I am who I am,” said Balderas.
From day one, YWLA students focus on college. They start taking the SAT for practice in middle school, and advisors keep girls up to date on all things admissions-related so that their applications stand out. During the summer, YWLA connects students to programs at prestigious colleges where they can test drive potential target schools, or simply enhance their learning. Balderas has participated in three-week programs at Texas A&M University, Rice, and Columbia.
During the year, YWLA helps students find internships, like the one Balderas has with Ana Acevedo, the City of San Antonio’s education policy administrator. Her time with Acevedo has inspired Balderas to pursue political science in college so that she can work in educational policy like her mentor.
The school’s aspirational academics are lived out within a warm sisterhood. The girls support and challenge each other to excel in remarkably healthy ways.
Balderas will miss the sisterhood. The only hint of nervousness she gives off is when she talks about leaving home. She’s afraid she’ll be lonely, or feel out of place. Yale is less than 10% hispanic, which will be a big change from YWLA, and San Antonio.
Balderas is less worried about the academics. She knows it will be difficult, but she’s ready to grow and learn.
“I’m up for the challenge,” said Balderas.