Empowerment Center celebrates 40 years of helping SAC students reach their potential

October 22, 2021

When Bertha Ovalle decided to enroll at SAC, her goal wasn’t to get a degree. It was to encourage her adult daughter to continue her own education.

Bertha Ovalle web.jpgOvalle had spent more than three decades raising her children and helping with her grandson. When her daughter opted to work full-time instead of continuing to attend SAC, Ovalle decided the best way to entice her daughter to return to college was to enroll herself.

“I told her ‘guess what, I’m going to start this fall and you’re going with me to help me navigate campus,’” Ovalle recalls.

Her plan worked. Once Ovalle enrolled, her daughter agreed to return to SAC as well.

With her initial goal met, Ovalle quickly realized she needed help to stay in school.

“I wasn’t thinking of myself too much as I was registering, but it hit me when I started classes. I had doubts,” Ovalle said.

As she began her college career as a 51-year-old with a GED, she turned to the Empowerment Center (then known as the Women’s Center) for guidance.

“The women at the Empowerment Center held my hand and told me everything was going to be okay,” Ovalle said.

EC at 40 copy 1.jpgFor four decades, the Empowerment Center has been helping non-traditional students like Ovalle succeed at SAC. The Center provides comprehensive support for students to succeed both in and out of the classroom. By providing both encouragement and connection to resources, the Center helps remove obstacles that keep students from enrolling and staying in school.

When it started in 1981, it was known as the Women’s Center. The department was created to assist women who were considered displaced homemakers and needed marketable skills after raising children or getting divorced.

Helen Vera Empowerment Center at 40.jpgDr. Helen Vera, Director of the Empowerment Center, began working there as a counselor in 1984. In addition to advising women in academics, her role included convincing students they were capable of succeeding.

“They had a lot of apprehension and fear of the unknown with the transition of leaving behind old roles and moving into new ones,” Vera said.

While the initial focus was serving women returning to school, the center has expanded its services to meet a wider scope of needs, including support for first-generation college students, undocumented students, students with young children and even students without high school diplomas.

“We were sending away students who didn’t have a GED and telling them to come back when they had their GEDs, and then we wouldn’t see them again,” Vera recalls.

In response, the Empowerment Center created GED-Thru-College, a free program to help students earn their GEDs with a goal of entering college. Created in 2009, it’s one of the only programs of its kind in San Antonio.

The Empowerment Center has expanded its focus over time to reflect the changing needs of the community. The EC works with several local agencies to recruit individuals who don’t typically consider college as an option for themselves, including women’s shelters and low-income housing residents. An EC outreach coordinator regularly works with populations that aren’t typically approached by colleges.

“I saw it was a need in our community,” Vera said. “If these populations weren’t assisted and reached out to, they would never have a chance to change their lives and have something better.”

Once enrolled, the Empowerment Center helps students stay in school, providing advising, referrals to childcare, leadership development programs for women and assistance with scholarships and financial aid.

Empowerment Center at 40 .jpgThat support helped both Ovalle and her daughter not only graduate from SAC, but inspired them to earn bachelor’s degrees. Today Ovalle works full-time as an administrative services specialist at SAC’s Student Learning Assistance Center, where she regularly refers students to the Empowerment Center for the kind of help that she received as a new non-traditional student. Her daughter is now working on her master’s degree.

“They empowered me to have confidence in myself and believe that I could do it,” Ovalle said. “And I did it!”

By shifting its focus to reflect the changing needs of students, the Empowerment Center has not only lasted 40 years at SAC, but is positioned to continue supporting SAC students into the future. A new 12,500-square-foot building for the EC is currently under construction on the east side of the SAC campus and slated to open in August 2023.

“A lot of college Women’s Centers have gone away. Ours has not,” Vera said. “We still feel there’s so much work that needs to be done.”