Southwestern College’s Puente Project Celebrates 30 Years of Student Success

The 2019 Puente Project cohort of students with Puente counselor David Ramirez.
The 2019 Puente Project cohort of students with Puente counselor David Ramirez.

The Southwestern College Puente Project is celebrating 30 years with a special event Saturday, Sept. 28 at 5 p.m. on the Chula Vista campus. The Treintañera celebration and fundraiser will feature Puente alumni, special guests, current Southwestern College Puentistas, the Southwestern College mariachi, dinner and dancing.

“We’re celebrating 30 years of Puente students transferring to universities and completing their degrees,” said David Ramirez, Puente counselor and co-founder of the Puente Project at Southwestern College.

Ramirez helped start the program 30 years ago along with English Professor Phil Lopez. The Southwestern College Puente Project is one of the first in the state and one of the first in San Diego County. Since then, Puente has expanded to 57 community college, and 36 high schools in California.

The Puente Project at Southwestern College is a learning community that places primarily Latinx students in a cohort with other students of similar backgrounds. These students have a specialized English class, a dedicated counselor, develop academic success and receive learning and mentoring inside and outside the classroom. Many Puente alumni also come back to serve as mentors to current Puente students.

The program’s goal is to significantly transfer more Latinx and underrepresented students to universities and set them up for success. In their second year, the Puente students began to see acceptance letters to top universities such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego State and UC San Diego. Now, the Puente program’s transfer rates are near 50 percent, one of the highest success rates among similar groups at Southwestern College.

“We’ve matured in 30 years,” Ramirez said. “We know how to get our students to transfer to great universities across the state. This fundraiser is about celebrating our success but also to help us grow and cast a wider net. We want to help our students consider transfer across the country. Our students make decisions about what they know. If no one talks to them about UCLA or Brown or Princeton, then they won’t consider it.”

The program doesn’t just focus on academic preparation, it also helps students develop their social consciousness, cultural enrichment and creates service learning opportunities outside the classroom. Puente Professor Francisco Bustos arranges a tour of Chicano Park, students attend annual conferences and tour universities across the state. As part of the Puente Club, students have volunteered with Border Angels and orphanages in Tijuana.

“Our students are leaving the program not only with the requirements they need to transfer to a university but with a stronger sense of identity, a stronger self and a sense of social consciousness and awareness,” Ramirez said.

Virginia Perez and David Ramirez at UC Davis.
Former Puente Project student Virginia Perez with Ramirez at UC Davis. Perez transferred to UC Davis from Southwestern College and met with the new Puente students during a UC Davis campus tour.

Virginia Perez considers herself a legacy Puentista because three of her siblings have gone through the Puente program here at Southwestern College. Perez was a student leader at Southwestern College through the Associated Student Organization, a student worker at the Academic Success Center and transferred to UC Davis where she graduated in Chicano studies.

“Being in Puente showed me that Southwestern College had so many opportunities,” Perez said. “When I visited UC Davis with Puente, it clicked that this is where I needed to be. Puente allowed me the opportunity to see different universities and realize my own potential. I didn’t see it in myself at that time. That trip changed my major and my whole academic trajectory.”

The Treintañera will be a chance for alumni and friends to help give back to the program and expand with donations through the Southwestern College Foundation. The Puente program shows no signs of slowing down and wants to create a second cohort, possibly STEM-focused, and increase the campus tours to top out-of-state universities.

“We need to do that extra work for our students, it’s not enough to write an education plan and say we’re done because there’s a lot more,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes it doesn’t take much more other than truly caring for our students. That sense of cariño that we have for them. They’re not only students, but they’re also Puentistas.”