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Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was first published by The Hechinger Report, and is presented here in collaboration with Voices of Monterey Bay and palabra, the digital news site by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
By Carolyn Dorantes
Ask any high school 11th grader and they will tell you: Applying to college is a cutthroat competition. Thousands of high school seniors apply to highly ranked universities, hoping that their academics and extracurriculars will be enough to set them apart from the crowd.
But for many first-generation college-bound students, it’s really no competition. They are often stuck studying in school during the day and left feeling helpless by nighttime, having to face the reality that they are constantly unable to keep up. Each day they wake up wondering if all of their studying and hard work will ever be enough. They go through the day affected by internal fears and external limitations.
“¿Mija, cuándo vas a empezar a aplicar para becas?” my mom asks me, wondering when I’ll start applying for scholarships.
“Sé que hay algunas que se abren en el grado once, pero no estoy segura,” I reply, telling her that some are open for 11th graders like me, but I’m not sure.
“Ponte lista porque no te puedo ayudar mucho en eso,” she adds, reminding me to be prepared because she can’t help me much with the applications.
My mother did not attend high school, so she has limited knowledge about college readiness. Most parents in my community, on the growing north side of Salinas, California, are in the same position.
We need a new tradition
In all of Salinas, 79.3% of the population is Latino, 37.3% is foreign-born. Just 13.3% of adults have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Living in a community where many students are first-generation college-bound students, the idea of going to college is accompanied by extra pressure. Yes, every U.S. high school student considering college faces daunting deadlines for scholarship and program applications. For many, there are aware and proactive parents, and even professional coaches, to help track all the requirements and deadlines. But for those of us who end up going alone on this journey, it’s easy for opportunities to slip by.
Instead of being preoccupied with the prom committee or planning for summer trips, others are left worrying about how we’ll find time to study for those SATs that are only a month away.
For many high school students who are first in their families to get this far in school, the junior year is the most stressful. We’re constantly told that if we want to go to a four-year college, we must take the most rigorous high school courses possible, filling our schedules with AP classes that make us feel like we’re drowning in classwork. We’re left combating a foreboding sense of inadequacy as we see peers from other neighborhoods and means apply to national summer programs and take trips around the world that will enrich their college application. Meanwhile, we have to pick up summer jobs to help our families make ends meet.
At my school, many students struggle to find resources that can help them figure out college applications. It is common to hear students complain about slow responses from school guidance staff.
I am a junior, and my lack of access to quality college information has been particularly stressful. I’m researching my options, although I fear it may not be enough.
I attend a new public high school that was built to accommodate students who live on the outskirts of Salinas. Here, agriculture is the main job sector and some students live with farmworking parents. A new school can be a blessing for a neighborhood. It helps establish new cultures and traditions. But it can also be a curse since a college-going culture needs time to develop.
I do not possess the experience of watching students in the year above me get letters of acceptance to their dream universities. I do not get to be in the room when they sit in class, silently debating the pros and cons of different financial-aid packages. I am not exposed to the thrill that seniors experience when they commit to a college and start planning out their lives for the next four years.
A simple remedy
Because there is a lack of resources to help the college-bound, I am calling on my school and any community organizations around me to invest more in college readiness. This could be done through programs that promote earning credits for an associate’s degree during high school, college student panels, and college counselors.
Administrators at our school have said there are programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination, which prepares students “in the academic middle” for college, and Puente, a four-year college prep program by the University of California’s Center for Educational Partnerships. Also, administrators say, every campus has a career center. But from what I’ve seen, these actions are limited and for specific students. I’ve found that parents and students want schools like mine to make college guidance available to all students, whenever they need it.
We could do what schools in other parts of the country have done:
In Mississippi, Natchez-Adams High School students can participate in a program that gives them a head start on higher education. They can enroll at their local community college and take classes to get associate degrees. This pathway is strongly encouraged by administrators there, and 75% of students in the 2021 graduating class of the Natchez Early College Academy received associate degrees this way.
And in Minnesota, Minnetonka High School offers a considerable amount of college prep for students. The school maintains a college and career center that is truly active, especially compared to the career centers in my school district. Minnetonka High boasts more than 175 colleges and universities that send representatives each year to visit the campus. The high school also provides an annual College Forum, where recent high school graduates share the journeys and experiences of their first college semester. These actions help create a college-going tradition among the school’s students and alumni. This is something I find lacking at my school.
Minnetonka High School also has a college counselor whose specific job is to provide information to guide a student’s college search. The advice includes presentations and webinars for juniors and seniors at the beginning of the school year. Again, these counselors are specifically hired to provide college resources; they have more experience in college research than regular school counselors.
I believe that the Salinas Unified High School District should place similar counselors on our campuses, where students either have to do the research themselves or rely on a supportive teacher for help. Unfortunately, I know students who choose not to go to the regular counselors because they know that they will only be receiving surface-level information about college. Right now, some 60 students at my school have turned to one teacher for advice about college opportunities. They know this one teacher has substantial experience with the college application process. But depending on one singular teacher, who also has lesson plans and meetings to worry about, is unsustainable over the long run.
A model for success
It is worth noting that a couple of high schools in our same district have advanced their college readiness in the past few years.
Alisal High School, located on the Eastside of Salinas, has done a significant job of promoting college as an option for its students. The school holds quarterly assemblies informing students about the college application process. From freshmen to seniors, students are informed about what they can do that year to be prepared for college admissions. The support from staff and access to information has paid off as Alisal High School has the highest Salinas’ number of applicants and enrollments in the University of California system.
It is important to highlight these achievements. But I have to ask: Why hasn’t every high school implemented the same initiatives? Why are some students suffering from not finding enough information, while a handful thrive from the allocated funding?
I encourage all districts to consider creating more programs that help students get not only high-quality information but also high-quality assistance as they plan for college. Consider it an investment in the future: A 2019 report said about half of Latino students are likely to be the first in their families to go to college.
Being one of the first in my family to seek a college admission, I am looking for the tools necessary to compete in such a cutthroat competition. But when copious numbers of students benefit from college-information resources, applying for college will be a normal thing in my community.
Carolyn Dorantes is a junior at Rancho San Juan High School in Salinas, CA. She is passionate about uplifting student voices to create meaningful change. In college, she plans to study computer science and business.