Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Undergrad was ‘a click away from dropping out’ before finding UTSA support services

Undergrad was ‘a click away from dropping out’ before finding UTSA support services

UTSA student Deniff Lara (left) and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s Chief of Staff Zack Lyke (right) pose for a photo in the mayor’s office. After nearly dropping out, Lara was reinvigorated by public administration studies and became an assistant intern for Lyke.

MARCH 16, 2022 — When Deniff Lara enrolled at UTSA as a freshman, she was ready to jump into university life and all things UTSA. As a first-generation college student, there was so much she wanted to discover.

At the same time, the pandemic was just beginning and the world was slowing to a standstill. She remembers that the shift to online learning was difficult, to say the least. “I never imagined my college years would look anything like this,” Lara says of her first year at UTSA in 2020. “That year was one of the hardest years of my life.”

Lara continued to struggle throughout the fall and spring semesters with feelings of isolation and grief, as family members and friends passed away. Meanwhile, her schoolwork mounted.

She didn’t know where to turn and said she was “a click away from dropping out” when she discovered TRiO Student Support Services (SSS), a program that provides at-risk students with opportunities for academic development, assists them with basic college requirements and motivates students to successfully complete their postsecondary education.

“They gave me a reason to continue, because they believed in me. The fact that I knew that someone believed in me really made a difference.”

The goal of SSS is to increase the college retention and graduation rates of its participants. It is representative of UTSA’s mission to increase access to education and cultivate an environment where students from all backgrounds can achieve their goal of a college degree.

“Deniff and I frequently met to intentionally map out strategies that prioritized her mental and emotional health so that she could thrive academically and socially,” said Jaz Burgess, student development specialist. “Over time, she put into practice many of the concepts from our discussions and made the decision to maximize her life.”

Slowly but surely, Lara began to find her footing. It was a transformation she credits partially to TRiO.

“They gave me a reason to continue, because they believed in me,” she said. “The fact that I knew that someone believed in me really made a difference. That was the main reason why I didn’t drop out—because I knew someone was counting on me to be the best I could be.”

Armed with a renewed sense of vigor, Lara jumped back into university life and decided to try everything she could. She took classes in architecture, career planning and more.

“When I found sociology, I fell completely in love with it,” she said. “It just made sense to me. It’s the way I see the world.”

Now a student enrolled in the College for Health, Community and Policy (HCaP), Lara is inspired to create change within societal structures. To achieve that goal, she has added a second major in public administration and policy.

“How can I help the most amount of people?” she asked. “Public administration is my continuation of trying to serve people at a higher level.”

Lara thrives on social interaction and meeting people, so despite the pandemic, she still managed to join several student organizations at UTSA. From campus ministry organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ and Chi Alpha to the lighthearted “bubble believers,” she integrated herself into several facets of campus life.

“My faith resonated with me a lot through the struggles I endured,” she said. “Without knowing that I still had a purpose in life, I would have been blind to most of the opportunities ahead of me. But by seeing people invest that kindness and love in me, I truly was able to give back and reflect my potential in an exponential way.”

Now with campus operations back to normal, Lara’s commitments have multiplied. She currently serves as a representative for the President’s Student Advisory Council and the Student Services Fee Committee, representing HCaP students and bringing their issues to administration.

“I simply asked a lot of questions. I kept applying myself and trying everything, even when I knew I could fail,” Lara said. “I still have a lot to learn and discover, but I will continue to try it all.”

The “keep at it” attitude has also enabled Lara to earn opportunities outside of UTSA. She is currently serving in the Office of the Mayor of San Antonio as the assistant intern for its chief of staff.

Lara emphasizes that her lack of experience won’t hold her back, and she encourages other students to grasp every opportunity even if they don’t feel ready.

“How can you have a chance if you don’t try?” she asked.

The internship at the mayor’s office is a highlight of her time so far at UTSA.

“It’s been one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had,” Lara said. “It’s a very healthy environment where not only can I learn, but I can actually grow as a person and as a student. It has also challenged me in ways that I’ve never been challenged before, allowing me to pursue my biggest dream to give back to my community. Because by caring for people, you can never be the same.”

Learn more about how UTSA empowers and equips students to be active citizens and lifelong learners.

Looking back on the immense changes that have happened in such a short amount of time, Lara is decidedly grateful that she didn’t take another path.

“It’s easy to stop when you’re struggling,” she said. “At that point in time, dropping out seemed like the right thing to do. I wouldn’t have blamed myself for going through with it. But now I know that persistence and resilience really do pay off. Better things are yet to be seen along the way in the future.”

Amanda Cody

UTSA Today is produced by University Strategic Communications,
the official news source
of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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UTSA Today is produced by University Communications and Marketing, the official news source of The University of Texas at San Antonio. Send your feedback to news@utsa.edu. Keep up-to-date on UTSA news by visiting UTSA Today. Connect with UTSA online at Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram.



University of Texas at San Antonio receives ‘transformational’ $40M gift

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