It was their choice. No arm twisting. No haranguing. The freedom to make a life-altering decision when barely in their teens empowered Andrea and Alondra Aleman to pursue a career they previously did not know existed.
“When my parents talked about early college high school, they told us, ‘If it’s a college course, it’s probably going to be difficult, especially at 15 years old,’ but that we should give it a shot and see what it was like,” Andrea said. “They didn’t put pressure on us, so we said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ We never said, ‘No.’ We immediately said, ‘Yes.’”
They also never considered that one of them would try it and the other would not.
“My mom’s always had us very close. Whenever she would notice an opportunity that was given to the both of us she would say, ‘Do it together.’ We would always be together,” said Alondra, born mere seconds after her sister. “The idea of one of us doing it and the other not doing it didn’t feel right. We were able to help each other a lot.”
Together, they mastered the skills needed to successfully maneuver the rigorous academic courses in high school that earned them an associate degree. When they transferred on scholarship to a four-year institution, they embraced recommendations to volunteer so they could learn more about the medical profession they planned to enter. Seeing firsthand what each job entailed persuaded them to abandon their original career path to strive for a greater challenge.
Being exposed to more encouraged me to continue my education. The more I am learning, the more I want to do because I am seeing what is out there.
“My sophomore year, when I first found out about neuromuscular research, I became very interested in it,” Andrea said.
She will need to earn her doctorate to conduct the research that inspires her. Using the critical thinking skills honed while in high school, she and her sister have charted a new strategy to create a competitive edge. They plan to earn physical therapy assistant certificates so they may work in the field as they work toward higher degrees in the profession they’ve come to love.
“Being in college, you needed to have a plan and it made you hungry for more. With an associate degree, you could do something, but when you learn about more, you don’t want to stop where you are,” Andrea said.
Exposing students to myriad career opportunities is one of the founding goals for the educational initiative that has become known as early college high schools, said Melissa Henderson, deputy director of policy at Educate Texas, a public-private initiative of Communities Foundation of Texas. Educate Texas introduced the Early College High School model to the state of Texas in 2003 in partnership with the Texas Education Agency and with the support of a multi-million-dollar grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
We want to encourage students to explore and understand what they want to do. That may mean taking a course in biology, because they want to be a doctor. By taking that course in biology, they realize they don’t want to be a doctor, but they want to be a journalist instead.
Deputy Director of Policy, Educate Texas
The non-traditional educational initiative that began to take root in Texas in the early 2000s also continues to improve student outcomes by exposing students to the college culture and college knowledge.
“The idea is when you’re in high school, you can build support structures and provide students a gradual release into college culture,” said Kelty Garbee, deputy director of programs at Educate Texas. “These include skills such as learning to read a college syllabus, understanding scheduling, signing up for classes and knowing how to create a study group.”
Alondra and her sister recall how they became more responsible as their early college high school prepared them for where they are today.
“Our parents weren’t aware of our schedule. You have a syllabus, it’s not something you have in high school,” she said. “Getting the hang of looking at your syllabus, getting your Scantron, reading ahead before the class. Keeping up with quizzes because teachers weren’t going to tell you the day you had a quiz. You had to look at the syllabus.”
Benefits of the experience are apparent, but come with a price that not everyone is willing to pay.
“We saw our college peers leave because of sports. Some were getting signed,” Alondra said.
Andrea added, “We thought those people getting their high school experience was great, but this was for us and it was great too.”
Alondra is not certain the path she and her twin took will be the best one for their 12-year-old sister. “I think it would be difficult for her because I think she has a passion for her sports.”
They believe she and other students should have the same opportunity they had to make up their own minds about their educational paths.
“You can try anything, but if you’re not motivated and determined or your head’s just not in it, you’re going to fail. It’s going to be a lot worse down the road because it’s not something you want to do, you were pressured into it,” Andrea said. “We weren’t pressured into it. School was something that was always our priority.”
She said the important issue is to ensure that students are encouraged to think about the long term and develop a plan. “Having a plan is for your benefit in the long run because at one point you’re going to need to be independent,” she said. “I would say just always be thinking about a plan and thinking two steps ahead.”
Following her own advice, the Aleman twins have done just that. Andrea plans to earn her Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) degree by the year 2020 with Alondra earning hers shortly thereafter.
Andrea’s interest in neuro-rehabilitation is drawing her to a career in a hospital setting. Describing herself as an introvert, Alondra, on the other hand, envisions working one-on-one with patients.
“I don’t like the hospital setting. I like the little facilities and the little clinics,” Alondra said. “We shadowed a PT who has a twin. One works in a hospital while one is in an outpatient facility. That’s probably going to be us.”