ACE: Empowering Underrepresented Students Toward a College Education


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Thursday, May 18, 2023
Selene Contreras

Selene Contreras

Evangeline Valez

Evangeline Valez

Xitalali Gonzalez-Molina

Xitalali Gonzalez-Molina

Sapphire Vargas

Sapphire Vargas

Twenty students celebrated completion of Rio Salado’s Adult and High School ACE programs this spring, marking their achievements and looking toward their futures.

Rio Salado College's High School ACE and Adult ACE programs help underrepresented high school students and adults get a start at college. The program's name, ACE, stands for Achieving a College Education. For high school students, it aims to give them a jump on their college education by taking online college courses while finishing their high school diplomas. The Adult ACE program is designed to support adult learners who may have barriers to accessing higher education due to financial constraints or other life circumstances. 

During a celebration in April, four student speakers - two from high school and two adults - shared about their journeys.

Meet Selene Contreras, High School ACE

Contreras, a student at Heritage Academy Laveen, has dreams of attending Arizona State University and becoming a lawyer. But she knew that getting there would be a challenge, especially with her busy schedule of playing volleyball and softball, as well as being involved in various clubs. Then she heard about the High School ACE program at Rio Salado.

Contreras's cousin went through the program previously and recommended it to her. Selene enrolled and said she learned how to balance her academic and social life while still playing sports and participating in clubs. Though she sacrificed time with friends and family and missed out on big family trips, Selene persevered, completing the program at Rio and her high school diploma. She even earned scholarships to attend ASU this fall.

“Choosing to pull through and finish my classes one at a time was the best decision I could have made,” she said. “I learned the importance of time management and it all gave me the chance to really strengthen my ability to balance out my work properly. Having that big workload helped me prepare for the future and gave me an idea of what to expect as I go on to study in college.”

Meet Evangeline Valez, Adult ACE

Evangeline Valez started college in her home country, but didn’t finish. After immigrating to the U.S. a few decades ago, Evangeline became a mother of three boys. Despite the challenges of parenting and working, she knew she wanted to pursue an education in her new home country. When she found Rio Salado a few years back, she knew it would be the best way to achieve her goals. 

“When I first got introduced to the Adult ACE program, I thought to myself, ‘This is an opportunity I cannot turn down,” she said. “I immediately applied for the scholarship. Being an Adult ACE student has helped me develop new skills that I thought I’d never have.”

Valez said it grew her confidence to keep learning.

“I plan to continue my education to get my associate’s degree here,” she said, noting she is already enrolled in classes to earn her associate degree in communication. “What I learned from being in the scholarship program is that I have what it takes and I can go after my dreams.”

Valez believes education is vital, she told the group, and it’s never too late to obtain it.

“Remember, if you don’t step forward, you’ll always be in the same place.”

Meet Xitalali Gonzalez-Molina, High School ACE

Gonzalez-Molina shared that though ACE was difficult and required more than what her fellow high school seniors needed to complete, it opened her eyes to what was possible.

“ACE has given me - and I’m sure my fellow ACE seniors - an opportunity to do more than what was expected of us,” the North Canyon High School senior said. “As a first-gen student, it hasn’t always been easy to get the opportunities that everyone else has. ACE gave me that.”

Being in the program meant students worked on lessons during vacations, studied college-level curriculum and had to plan appropriately to get assignments done for both their schooling paths.  Gonzalez-Molina said that she was motivated because of ACE and praised the “world full of traits” that she and her cohort received.

“The Class of 2023 had to overcome more than any other class, especially having to start off ACE in the middle of a pandemic and needing to do classes over the summer,” she said. 

But, in the end, “I have extra knowledge that no one else has.” She will take that knowledge to NAU this year to study biomedicine. 

Meet Sapphire Vargas, Adult ACE

Saffire Vargas said completing the program is “bittersweet” because of all the ups and downs she and her fellow students have been through together. She was finishing her high school equivalency diploma through GED tests when she heard about the Adult ACE program. She saw an opportunity to earn college credits and keep going with her schooling. But it wasn’t always easy.

“For some of my classmates, they know that during this program I became a mom. They’ve seen me with all the struggle to keep up with all the assignments … however through the hardships and learning curve I’ve been able to overcome all obstacles and complete this journey with them,” she said.

She also thanked the staff and instructors, but put a special spotlight on her main motivator: her daughter.

“She is the reason I did not quit and the reason I will continue my educational path and be the best role model I can for her,” she said. 

Her advice to her daughter mirrors her advice to adults thinking about going back to school.

“I hope she’ll see that you can accomplish anything. I’m almost 30 and still trying to go to college … for anyone looking to do it, just do it. You don’t even need to think about it. If you want it, do it.”

Vargas is applying to Rio Salado’s dental hygiene program and hopes to follow that into a career path.


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