AUSTIN - Annette Garcia was 16 when she enrolled in Riverland Community College's "Be Your Best" College Prep Academy.
It was the spark to Garcia's college career. Garcia went on to graduate from Riverland and Winona State University. And this fall, she will start work as a sixth-grade math teacher at Sumner Elementary School.
But the 21-year-old never forgot the role Be Your Best played in her life. So for the last four summers, Garcia has worked as a program tutor, doing for its students what the program did for her.
When Riverland held a graduation ceremony for 17 Be Your Best graduates Thursday, Garcia was there as a symbol of what they can be come.
"I can relate with them so much," Garcia said. "Sometimes, we get off track and we just start talking. I'm like, 'OK, we have to get back to work.'"
"She's a wonderful tutor," program director Betsy Goetz said. "She looks at everyone and says, 'if I can do it, you can do it.'"
Be Your Best, now more than a decade old, is an eight-week summer program that serves students who for reasons either of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status are under-represented at college campuses. It offer students a leg up by offering courses in math, reading, writing and academic success strategies. Students range in age from 16 to 22.
"It gave a jump start to my college career," Garcia said. "I got to know Riverland. I got to know who I can go to for extra support. And I also got to know the staff."
Not that Be Your Best is always an academic grind. The program also mixes social with the academic. There are potlucks and bonfires and trips to the trampoline park and Valleyfair.
The program is funded by donations from The Hormel Foundation, Alliance for Educational Equity, The Riverland Community College Foundation, and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.
From the time she entered high school, Garcia, a Hispanic-American, knew that college and a career in teaching lay in her future. Her dad, Fernando Garcia, was her inspiration. He never graduated from high school himself, but always told her to follow her dreams.
As she made her way through college, Garcia seized on opportunities to be a nurturing influence, tutoring at a day care center and at Riverland. Now her ability to shape lives will expand.
"I'm excited but very, very nervous," Garcia said about her new teaching job. "I love it. I just love connecting with students."