By his own account, Beau Menchaca (M.A. ’02) grew up a bit of a gypsy, bouncing back and forth between Texas and Mexico. By middle school, his family settled in Mexico, where he completed high school and college. Like so many before him, Menchaca struggled to find his path during his formative years.
“In Mexico, there was no such thing as a school counselor. We had to figure things out on our own,” he said.
After moving to the United States as an adult, Menchaca worked in a clerical position at Carr Intermediate School in Santa Ana. There, he first saw school counselors in action.
“They had somebody for the students to talk to, for the parents to talk to, to help them through the process,” he says. “I thought, that’s something I’d love to do.”
This is a common experience among professional school counselors, says Kelly Kennedy, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the School Counseling and School Psychology graduate programs at Chapman University’s Attallah College of Educational Studies.
“People become school counselors for two reasons: They had a counselor in school they loved, who supported and mentored them, or like Beau they had no guidance at all,” she says. “Schools counselors are a passionate bunch who want to help students thrive. They want to model a fantastic mentor or be a mentor in a way that no one was for them.”
Now that Menchaca is an award-winning school counselor at Century High School in Santa Ana, it’s hard to overstate his impact. From 2013-18, when Menchaca was higher-education coordinator, the number of Century High students completing the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid submission jumped by 78%. In addition, Menchaca raised nearly $100,000 in grants for scholarships and support for higher-ed programs, and he organized Century’s first-ever College Signing Day.
Most impressive of all, on Menchaca’s watch the proportion of Century students attending college skyrocketed from 21% to a whopping 92%.
What’s the secret of his success?
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Menchaca said simply. “It’s coming up with a plan and building upon it every year.”
Insight and Financial Aid
For students like Yaribel Aguila Kumar, who graduated from Century in 2018, access to financial aid is a game-changer.
“I feel so incredibly blessed that I was able to work one on one with him because I gained so much insight on how to finance school,” said Aguila Kumar, now a sophomore at UCLA who plans to major in mathematics. “I learned that there are people who root for your success and are aware of the potential that you have. Having that reassurance is comforting, especially when things get rough.”
The focus on college and careers starts at Century even before the students reach high school. The earlier the better, Menchaca believes. This long-tail approach is especially valuable for first-generation college students like Litzi Ocampo, who graduated from Century in 2018 and is now majoring in education at the UC Irvine.
“I did not have the resources at home to maneuver the whole college process,” Ocampo said. “Mr. Menchaca was there to guide me and support me in any way I needed throughout that process.”
It’s important to meet the students where they are and nudge them to reach the next step, Menchaca said. The first goal is to create a culture of thinking about the future.
“Moving the pendulum a little bit forward, we can make huge strides,” he said.
A Team Effort
Although he’s known for seeking out and publicizing scholarships and even driving students to college interviews, Menchaca is the first to say he doesn’t do anything alone.
“It really does take an army,” he said.
In his first year as Century’s higher-education coordinator, Menchaca transformed the school’s Cash for College information night, increasing attendance among students and parents from just five to nearly 600. He brought in dozens of people to work the event – school staff, teachers and university partners as well as local business and alumni volunteers.
A parent support group makes phone calls and personally invites the parents of seniors to attend college and career events.
“It’s parents helping parents,” he said.
The Right Fit
When Menchaca thinks back on the help he got at Chapman, he returns to what he calls his “Dr. Hass Story.”
Menchaca started a school counseling graduate program at another university, where the classes were large and the interaction with faculty was limited. Exploring his options, he ended up at Chapman one afternoon where he shared his story with Michael Hass, Ph.D., now a professor of scholarly practice in Attallah College’s School Counseling and School Psychology programs.
Weeks later, Menchaca returned to Chapman without an appointment. From down the hall, he heard someone call out, “Santa Ana.”
“I kept talking to the receptionist,” Menchaca recalled, “and Dr. Hass again said, ‘Santa Ana.’ I thought, ‘Me? My name is not Santa Ana.’ He said, ‘You worked for Santa Ana Unified School District,’ and he listed what we had talked about.”
Menchaca thought, “At the other school, I was a number. Here, maybe today I am ‘Santa Ana,’ but I knew that eventually I’d became Beau.”
A New Challenge
Menchaca recently transitioned from his higher-ed position back into a traditional school counseling role. He missed the day-to-day interaction with students.
After 19 years at Century, he is turning his focus to the school’s Career Technical Education Pathways program, hoping to apply his signature strategic planning to create more opportunities for students.
With a 400-student case load, he admits the job is a challenge. But it is one he relishes.
“You can truly make a difference,” he said.