As thousands of local teenagers get ready to start their freshman year in college this fall, Palo Alto school district staff are hoping that 19 of them are particularly well-prepared: first-generation college students who face a different set of trials and tribulations.
These 19 students, mostly Latino, participated in the second year of the school district's new RISE UP program (Realizing Individual Success in Education for Undergraduate Preparation), which aims to give Palo Alto students the information and tools they might not be getting at home or elsewhere to feel ready to head to college and stay there.
Judy Argumedo, who oversees the district's English Language Learners program and Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) and who herself was a first-generation student, said there's a disconnect between getting some underrepresented students into college "and keeping them there." The district last year became aware of graduated students who didn't show up for their first day of college, she said.
Graduation rates for first-generation college students across the nation are lower than for students who come from families with higher-education histories. First-generation students are also less likely to start college directly out of high school than their second-, third- and fourth-generation counterparts, according to the Pell Institute.
Both of Palo Alto's high schools have programs in place to support and guide first-generation and underrepresented students toward college admission: the College Pathways Project and Gunn Foundation at Gunn and a relatively new first-generation student group at Paly. Numerous local nonprofits like College Track, Foundation for a College Education and Peninsula College Fund offer similar support with the same goal.
But for some students, that path can get disrupted after they graduate from high school and leave the support programs.
Argumedo, her husband (also a first-generation college student and local educator), two Palo Alto middle school counselors and a district social worker set out to address this gap last summer. They developed the program curriculum, invited guest speakers and organized a parent night. The first year, they invited 15 students to participate and 12 showed up.
For five days in June of this year and 2014, a group of students spent from 8 a.m. to noon learning more about housing, managing finances, stress-relief techniques, study skills, how much work to expect, how to access college web portals and understand their financial aid offers, and where to seek out tutoring or counseling resources on campus. The counselors helped them fill out necessary paperwork and, in some cases, called schools on a student's behalf. They set up some one-on-one meetings for students who were working and couldn't attend the daytime sessions. One student was cleaning houses with her mother to earn money to pay for college.
Guest speakers this summer included a former RISE UP student; a school resource officer who talked about campus safety, particularly for the female students; a Bank of America representative who talked about opening bank accounts, credit cards and budgeting; and a current community college student.
Araceli Castañeda-Ramirez, a San Francisco State University student who graduated from Gunn in 2014, participated in the pilot RISE UP program. Her mother, whose own education ended in sixth grade, signed her up.
"She was like, 'You don't know what to expect. It would be nice to have knowledge of what college is like because I can't give you that knowledge,'" Castañeda-Ramirez said.
The program was also the first time in Castañeda-Ramirez's educational career in Palo Alto that she was in a class surrounded by Latino students.
"I grew up with these kids, mostly white, who it was implanted in their heads that they were going to college, no question about it. For me, there was always that question and uncertainty," she said. "Being with people with the same background as me and culture, the same economic standing did raise my hope a lot."
During this year's program, the students also heard how important it is to cultivate relationships with their college professors, no matter how small or large their class might be.
"In class at Gunn, I never felt that I could speak up," Castañeda-Ramirez said. "I was so shy. I felt inferior to everybody else. I really, really did push myself to make a relationship with every single one of my professors."
She said without RISE UP, her freshman year would have been stressful. And the program didn't feel like an extra class.
"It was advice, and it really, really did help," she said.
Jose Torres, a Paly 2014 graduate who also attended RISE UP last summer, said higher education was long a priority in his family, despite the fact that his parents don't speak English and did not attend college. He's an only child, but all five of his half-siblings dropped out before graduating from high school.
His senior year, he was accepted to several schools and eventually chose the University of Redlands in southern California.
"After graduating, that week I was just thinking, 'What am I going to do in college? What is it going to be like? How different is it from high school? What's the workload going to be like?'"
Torres said he felt supported during his time at Paly, but RISE UP helped bridge the gap between graduation and the first day of his freshman year. He found advice about staying organized and the opportunity to simply ask questions the most valuable aspects of the program.
"I think the most important part was them just being there, giving you that week to mostly just talk things out," he said. "A lot of questions were answered there."
Torres will be entering his sophomore year at Redlands this fall with a major in physics and a minor in astronomy. He plans to attend graduate school in astrophysics.
Last summer, Argumedo was going through the same transition and preparation process with her own daughter, who was heading to the University of Southern California in the fall.
"My daughter had an issue. ... I called, sent an email, and now she does it on her own, but I was her model. The parents (of first-generation students) would do it, but sometimes there's a language barrier and sometimes they don't know what to do, and it's all on the students," Argumedo said. "I think that sometimes for these first-generation students we don't realize the big burden that we're putting on them because they're going to have to map all of that. Their parents are supportive but sometimes (they're) not in the bureaucracy."
Both years of the program, parents were invited to come in to hear from the parent of a first-generation student who is now at college. Argumedo said her own parents were supportive of her going to college, but had some anxiety about it. They said, "You could just go get a job," she said.
"The parent (speaker) was like, 'No, let them go. My daughter is going to have this kind of job, have insurance. ... That was powerful," Argumedo said.
At the end of the week, the students were asked to give back by giving a presentation about what to expect in high school to a group of students in Summer Bridge, a district program that gives support to rising ninth-grade minority students.
The first year, the program was supported by an anonymous donor who also both years donated iPad minis so the students could save money by renting textbooks online and have their own direct access to technology. RISE UP is now written into the school district's Local Control and Accountability Plan budget.
All of the students who participated in the pilot RISE UP program last summer are entering their sophomore years this fall, Argumedo said.
"My feeling is that the kids earned it. They got into a college. They followed our advice," she said. "I don't think we even knew we were missing that last step."