This summer two current Collegiate Challenge students are working in the Spring Branch ISD Finance division and two former program participants are working in the Community Relations office. Each is benefiting from valuable, real-world experiences that add authenticity to their resumes.
For the past 18 years in SBISD, mentors and SBISD staff have invested time weekly with Collegiate Challenge cadres of high achieving students at six high schools to assist with the processes of college and career exploration, writing application essays, submitting college and scholarship applications, navigating financial aid, and encouraging them to maintain strong academic standards.
“I knew I wanted to go to college ever since I was a student at Spring Shadows Elementary,” said Katie Redd.
She is a 2013 Spring Woods High School alumna who benefited from Collegiate Challenge and now works full-time in SBISD as a community relations specialist under the leadership of her former mentor, SBISD Community Relations Officer Linda Buchman.
“When I first got the email about being nominated for the Posse Scholarship, I thought it was spam,” said Katie. She showed the email to her mentor and was told enthusiastically that it was real and that she should definitely apply. This advice and encouragement resulted in Katie receiving the prestigious scholarship (full tuition at Bryn Mawr) as she began her college journey.
After her return to Texas, Katie worked as an intern in the SBISD Community Relations office while taking classes at Lone Star College, prior to a transfer to Texas State University. In 2017 she graduated with a major in political science and a minor in psychology.
“It is very rewarding to work in SBISD, where I grew up and had good experiences,” said Katie.
“It’s cool to come back and do work [matching offers from community partners with the needs of campuses] to create great experiences for other students.”
Two class of 2020 Collegiate Challenge mentees from Spring Woods High School are getting hands-on experience in SBISD Accounts Payable this summer, under the guidance of department manager Tiffany Morawiec. Both Brittnie Balbuena and Andrea Ramirez also participate in the Academy of Finance program at SWHS, where they began taking business-related courses as sophomores.
“I am really excited to have Andrea and Brittnie working in the finance department this summer,” said Morawiec. “My goal is to expose them to all the departments in finance. By the end of the summer, I want them to be able to see how, even though the departments are separate, why they are all under the same umbrella and how they affect one another.”
As a future first-generation college student, Brittnie hopes to attend Brigham Young University in Utah as a finance major. With the help of her mentor, Tatiana Kouznetsova, they have begun steps towards applying to multiple colleges and scholarships.
“Brittnie is very organized,” said her mentor. “This is a great talent for someone who wants to earn a business degree.”
Andrea Ramirez wasn’t sure what Collegiate Challenge was all about when she received an invitation to hear about it during her junior year. A respected teacher told her the program would be a good way to get college-focused assistance, so she applied and joined the program.
Andrea is aiming to attend Stephen F. Austin University and participate in a five-year program to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in accounting. She also has set her sights on passing the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam in order to get a good job with an accounting firm.
“My dream is to have my own [accounting] firm once I get some experience,” said Andrea.
Her mentor in the Collegiate Challenge program is Rey Paz, bond accountant in the SBISD Finance division.
“I believe this internship is a wonderful opportunity for Andrea,” said Paz. “She will be able to witness firsthand how school district finance functions
and how it impacts her community. Andrea is very intelligent and her help
this summer will definitely be a benefit to Spring Branch ISD.”
Both of these mentees are also involved in other school-based activities. Andrea is president of the service-based Key Club, and Brittnie participates in three sports.
As these two rising seniors look to their final year at SWHS, both echoed hopes of staying focused and not getting “senioritis,” a common habit of laziness that many high school seniors get as they near the finish line.
“They say that it is easy to slack off during the senior year,” said Brittnie. “But I want to end the year strong.”
Another Collegiate Challenge alumna from the SWHS class of 2014, Maria Alvarez, interned in the SBISD Community Relations office for three summers during high school and college.
“It was always expected of me to go to college,” said Maria.
“The sacrifices that my grandma and parents made to give my mom, my siblings and me a better life in this country should not have been made in vain.”
Although there was the will to go to college, Maria did not know how to make it happen until she heard about and joined Collegiate Challenge during her junior year at SWHS.
“I learned a lot of writing and resume tips that I continue to use, as well as time management advice that I put to use once I got to college,” said Maria.
She also noted that Collegiate Challenge taught her how to find grants, scholarships and fellowships to fund her college experience. With careful management of her time and participation in unique funding programs, Maria graduated practically debt-free in May 2018 from the University of Texas Moody School of Communication.
“I took the advice from Collegiate Challenge and applied it once I got to college,” said Maria.
“I am now able to pass along the same advice to my five siblings. It’s like I am their mentor.”
Following a post-college-graduation job at advertising firm 360i in New York City, Maria has again worked in the Community Relations office on a temporary assignment since fall 2018. She has assisted with social media, event planning, web posting, communications planning and research projects.
She is currently interviewing for the next chapter in her career path, and plans to land a position with another advertising agency or tech company to contribute her talents to a consumer research team.
Collegiate Challenge continues to be a springboard for more than 100 SBISD students in the program each year as they pursue their college and career goals. If you would like to invest a little time and a lot of heart into the life of a college-bound student, please contact Mary Pizana for information about becoming a mentor at, 713-251-2212 or email@example.com.
by Becky Wuerth, SBISD Communications