Nieves at his university -and high school- commencement ceremony.
YouTube / WSVN 7 Miami
And a story in purposeful college and career pathways
When Senior Nathan Nieves graduated high school last June, he did so with a unique distinction no other student could claim. He had already earned a four-year, post-secondary degree. Only days before, he graduated, this time from Doral College with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education.
Nieves’ achievement is ground-breaking in its rarity. While the option to earn an Associate’s degree through dual or concurrent enrollment is now a standard part of many college preparatory programs, high school students who manage to complete four-year programs are still few and far between. Doing so meant simultaneously completing the requirements for the high school diploma, the general education coursework required for the Associate in Arts and the specialized, prescribed coursework for the Bachelor’s.
In all, Nieves earned over 130 college credits. He passed three state certification exams in the span of four years. All while graduating high school early, at 17 years old.
To fit it in, he maximized the dual enrollment opportunities offered by his school, SLAM Boca Raton, a charter school in Palm Beach County, Florida. SLAM’s partnership with Doral College allowed for early acceleration and a personalized program. The college’s administration worked closely with the team at the school. Together they outlined a plan for Nieves to graduate with his high school diploma and his bachelor’s degree at the same time – and – most importantly, debt free!
His Principal Matthew Bieule says he knew Nieves had the potential to excel from the first time they met. He noted that Nieves had previously skipped a grade and excelled in high school courses as a middle school student. As his Geometry and Algebra II teacher, Bieule was impressed by Nieves’ natural academic abilities. “He is able to synthesize and retain information with ease,” Bieule says. “It’s a rare quality that makes him a fast learner and an excellent test taker.”
Bieule is a firm believer in the importance of early college. “Providing access to post-secondary education to all students, no matter their socioeconomic status, is crucial both for their academic success and financial stability in the future,” he says. He credits Doral College with providing a flexible, quality program he could build into the fabric of his school. He uses access to a collegiate computer lab and other perks to incentivize students.
Nieves’ Boca high school SLAM Academy offers dual enrollment programs for interested students.
SLAM Boca Raton
Doral College President Judith Marty says the college is eager to meet the need for innovative opportunities like the one designed for Nieves. “As a lifelong educator, I am concerned about the rising costs of higher education and dedicated to providing solutions that enable students to reach their career goals without going into debt.”
Unconventional from the onset, Doral College initially enrolled only high school students in early college programs. The college now leverages technology to offer low-cost, flexible programs to both dual enrollment students and high school graduates alike. But high school students seeking advancement opportunities remain an important focus. The college’s early program encourages acceleration in line with Florida’s dual enrollment law. The law provides academically qualified students the opportunity to enroll in college courses at no cost to them as early as sixth grade. As students and families struggle with higher-than-ever college tuition rates, early college programs like Doral College’s represent a lifeline. Doral’s program saves students both time and money. “These innovative models help thousands of families who could not otherwise afford the cost of college” said Fernando Zulueta, President of Academica and founder of Doral College. “This can facilitate students’ paths to success and benefit their families.”
Dual enrollment programs have grown overwhelmingly in popularity in recent years. According to the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) “Fast Facts,” 34% of students now take college coursework in high school. The benefits of these programs are numerous – linked to improved outcomes including a higher likelihood of graduating high school, attending college, and completing a degree.
While Nieves is incredibly proud of his accomplishment, he admits it was not without struggle, especially at the end. “It was actually the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I failed my first courses. I’ve only passed two of the nine [Advanced Placement] tests I’ve taken,” he said. When most of his classmates were enjoying their last days together as high school seniors, he was several miles away at neighboring Somerset Boca Academy, teaching a classroom full of second graders as a student intern. This part of the bachelor’s program was particularly intensive, requiring he keep the same hours as a regular teacher, including after school lesson planning and grading. Succeeding meant he was often absent from his school campus. He even missed club photos the day the yearbook staff was kind enough to photoshop him into images after the fact.
Still, Nieves insists he isn’t extraordinary. “It was a lot of hard work, but it’s an achievable goal if you are really committed.” Coming from an immigrant family with three other siblings and a single mother, Nathan emphasizes “you just need opportunity and determination.” Given the benefits of earning a bachelor’s degree early and the costs of traditional college programs, he believes more students will follow in his footsteps.
I wanted to know what compelled him, though, and did he miss the traditional college experience.
“Initially, my motivation was honestly more economical – I wanted to earn a free bachelor’s degree and save myself time, ” said Nieves. “It wasn’t until I began my upper division courses that I really fell in love with education. My field experience hours and internship showed me how much of an effect I could really have on my students. Now that love for education is motivating me to continue to explore the field.
“This exact road may not be for everyone. I understand that I won’t have a traditional college experience, and some people might not be OK with that. But the way I see it is that I now have time to create my own unique experiences in that space, and I believe I’ll enjoy those even more. Regardless, I do believe that most students could benefit from some form of acceleration. By replacing less meaningful electives with advanced options, students can better use their time to focus on coursework that will benefit them at the next level, saving both time and money.”
Nieves’ has a good point about tailoring coursework to the actual needs of students. Personalized learning is indeed the future. And he had this advice to offer other students who are interested in following in his footsteps:
“The best piece of advice I can give is to stay organized. Being disorganized will ultimately lead to failure. I know this because I have experienced it. If you are someone who struggles to keep organized, then you should rely on those around you. Ask for help, seek guidance from your mentors, research strategies you can implement. I think surrounding yourself with the right people is also very important. If you look to those around you and don’t see people that you can rely on, then you need to change your circle. Find those who are willing to motivate you to do better and will support your success.”
Nathan Nieves represents a new kind of student, those who are leaving the traditional districts in droves, to find the kind of education he has had. His future is clear to him, too, something many college students cannot say. “I’m looking forward to working with students. I’m excited to help them achieve their full potential and get the most out of their education. I’m also applying to graduate programs and intend to complete an MBA. Earning my bachelor’s degree is only the beginning for me.”
This time of year can make or break students, especially for seniors. As the semester winds down, anyone whose work is lagging will find it difficult to catch up, let alone follow a pathway that ensures their learning is connected to their future aspirations. That’s why it’s so critical to ensure that every student has access to the kind of exceptional learning opportunities Nathan has, from the very start.