Young Alumna of Historically Black College Recruits Half the Class, 2 Years Running

Paul Quinn College

Jessika Lara
November 11, 2012

Paul Quinn College, a campus in suburban Dallas that has struggled for years, is working hard to turn itself around, in part through the efforts of a 23-year-old graduate.

Jessika Lara recruited more than half of the historically black liberal-arts college's new students in 2011, and again 2012.

"I discovered I had a passion" for bringing people to Paul Quinn, she says.

Ms. Lara, who is originally from Mexico, started off using word of mouth, telling her family, "this is a great school, with great opportunities." She offered to help relatives with the admissions process, and some of them enrolled. She also visited high schools to share her story and sought out high-school graduates who were enrolled at community colleges or working.

Paul Quinn, which is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is small, with about 200 students, the vast majority of whom are black. Applications from Latino students have quadrupled over the past year, the university says, but the enrollment of new freshmen and transfer students has dropped: 93 new students enrolled at Paul Quinn in 2012, compared with 114 in 2010.

Ms. Lara began working as a college recruiter in March 2011, and did so well that Michael J. Sorrell, president of the college, named her director of recruiting this year, in early October.

Her success lies in her ability to connect with students through her experiences, officials say. "She's not just selling it," Mr. Sorrell says "She lives it and believes it."

Mr. Sorrell recruited Ms. Lara and offered her a presidential scholarship in 2007—she was an illegal immigrant then who ranked seventh in her high-school class. Under Texas law, any student who has lived in the state for three years before graduating from high school can pay in-state tuition at public colleges and receive financial aid, regardless of immigration status, but those who are illegal must pledge to apply to become permanent residents as soon as they are eligible. Ms. Lara became a legal resident right before graduating from Paul Quinn and hopes to become a citizen next year.

Her student years at Paul Quinn came during a challenging period for the college. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges revoked its accreditation in 2009, though a court order temporarily restored it.

The college was reaccredited by another agency, the Accreditation Commission of the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, in April 2011.

As she talks with potential students, Ms. Lara tries to assuage their concerns about the college's past reputation and help them find a way to afford to enroll. Tuition and living on the campus cost about $20,800 a year.

Celia Soto, a sophomore, says she did not have enough money to go to college. A phone call with Ms. Lara persuaded her to apply anyway, and she received a full presidential scholarship from Mr. Sorrell.

"Most Hispanics are going to relate to my story—'If she can do it, I can do it,'" Ms. Lara says. "But I'm not just focused on the Hispanic population." She intends to expand her four-person recruiting team's reach as enrollment grows.

"I am betting my presidency on her being a transformational recruiter," Mr. Sorrell says. "This is one of the safest bets I've made."