College Track: Providing Hope and Opportunity, One Student at a Time
Posted June 2016
High school graduation season is upon us. It’s a wondrous time — a time to reflect on the past and marvel at what lies ahead. While most of us experience this momentous occasion just once (or perhaps a few more times with our children), I’ve had the great privilege of taking part every year for nearly two decades.
Since 1997, the year I founded College Track with my friend Carlos Watson, I’ve mentored high school students and worked with them through college graduation. Each one has taught me something new and opened my eyes to the exquisite potential that exists, sometimes hidden, in each of us.
First-generation college students embody this potential. In a society that rewards college graduates with twice as many jobs and a wage premium of roughly 75 percent, a student’s decision to attend college can fundamentally shape the rest of their lives, especially those seeking to become the first in their families to earn a college degree. But these students are navigating in uncharted territory.
The students Carlos and I met when we began volunteering as college advisors in a Bay Area high school changed our lives. They were bright, ambitious, and determined, but lacked the support structure that every student needs in order to have a real shot at college. Their parents were loving and encouraging, but could offer little by way of practical advice about the arduous admissions process. Their school had just one counselor for every 1,000 students, and many seniors had not taken, and were not even aware of, the classes required for admission to a California state university.
These are steep odds for anyone to face. Observing students’ lives up close, I could see why so few made it to college, and why many didn’t even bother to try. Carlos and I were determined to build the missing support structures for students who were striving to change the course of their lives.
Today, College Track serves nearly 2,500 students across nine communities.Ninety percent of our high school seniors are accepted to four-year colleges, and our college students graduate at a rate more than twice the national average for low-income students.
With College Track now old enough to attend college itself, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on a few of the insights we’ve gained from our work, and on what they mean for the next generation of students.
High School is Not Too Late
When we began College Track, there were few organizations focused on high school students. This reflected the prevailing view that K-8 was the only window for effective intervention — that by the time kids got to high school, it was too late to help.
We refuse to accept the idea that by age 14, a child’s path in life is already set. We reject the notion that any group of students should be considered beyond help. We believe that when a team of mentors walks alongside a student — even one who has suffered trauma — it can fundamentally alter the course of that student’s life.
I have seen it happen again and again. I think of Troy, who was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina devastated his already fragile New Orleans community. He found himself displaced to Houston, without a home. When he entered middle school there, he was unable to read or do basic math. A group of committed teachers helped him regain some ground, but he returned to New Orleans a year later still significantly behind his peers.
It wasn’t until Troy joined the College Track community the summer before entering high school that he truly hit his stride. With the organization’s support, he developed an unstoppable drive and a voracious appetite for learning. Troy recently graduated from Bard College and this fall begins graduate work at Yale. His life, which could have ended — like so many others — in tragedy, was forever changed in a positive way.
Enormous leaps are possible during the adolescent years. Scientists have identified evidence of profound neurological changes taking place between the ages of 12 and 24, making adolescence one of the most developmentally important periods of a person’s life. Emotion, judgment, logic, specialization, and abstract thought all mature during adolescence, and environmental factors, like teaching and social interaction, play a crucial role in molding malleable young minds.
High school comprises some of the most exciting and promising years in a person’s intellectual and emotional life, but we don’t always see it that way. Too often, it’s the point at which expectations drop and hopelessness sets in. We can’t afford to let that happen. Our students can achieve amazing things if we challenge them, support them, and believe they are capable — and high school is not too late to intervene.
High School Habits Build Lifetime Muscle Memory
While solid grades and test scores are important to a successful college application, “non-academic” skills like time management, persistence, collaboration, and emotional maturity can be an even more powerful indicator of college and career success.
For most young people, college represents the beginning of a self-guided life — a transition from a world governed by parental rules. When a student is in high school, parents and teachers are there to monitor their efforts and, when necessary, nudge them back on track — but what drives a college student to study into the wee hours before a difficult exam? Or go to office hours to ask for help with a challenging assignment? Or get up each morning to attend class in the first place? The motivation has to come from the students themselves.
College Track helps students build those emotional tools. In addition to managing their homework and other school responsibilities, many students struggle to keep up with work and family obligations. When I first met Cendy, a College Track Aurora student, she was facing a crisis at home: several members of her family had been targeted for deportation.
At College Track she found respite, as well as the support and coaching she needed to troubleshoot daily issues and stay focused on her long-term goals. She graduated from high school, successfully applied for DACA, and is now attending the University of Colorado Boulder.
Students like Cendy need more than academic support. Before they can absorb new knowledge, they must develop the capacity to confront and navigate challenges. High school curricula that neglect teaching these skills and focus solely on knowledge retention are ignoring a crucial element of education.
Once developed, these skills stick, creating a kind of social and emotional muscle memory that they’ll use later in life. If students learn how to tackle a complex problem in chemistry class while also managing through family difficulties in their lives, they’ll be better equipped to handle the rigors of academia while persevering through personal challenges. Knowledge of facts can be fleeting, but skills like resilience and perseverance, once mastered, stay with us forever.
Parents Are Heroes, Too
In the eyes of their parents, first-generation college students are heroes. Like many of their ancestors who crossed oceans in search of freedom and opportunity, these students are a new generation of trailblazers — forging a path to economic mobility. Once they earn a college degree, their children are three times more likely to attend college than the children of parents with a high school education.
The character and courage required to make this leap are considerable. Yet time and again, I’ve found that parents are the unsung heroes of their children’s remarkable stories. Behind every successful student is a mother or father who has toiled and sacrificed to give their child the opportunities they never had.
Adela, a recent graduate from College Track Boyle Heights, spoke movingly at her graduation ceremony about how her mom’s faith in her abilities kept her from dropping out. Adela’s mom was the first to identify her talent for science, and urged her to join College Track. Within a year, Adela had earned the highest grade in her physics class. This fall, she’s attending Whittier College and plans to major in chemistry.
In some ways, Adela’s story is a familiar one: a student with great promise dedicates herself to her studies and finds amazing success. But when we widen the frame, it becomes clear that Adela’s success begins with her mother’s courage: her decision to immigrate here in the face of great hardship, and to dedicate herself to the singular goal of a college education for her daughter. This is a story of sacrifice, commitment, and unwavering perseverance. It’s a story of love.
In our work at College Track, parents are our most vital partners. They are their children’s fiercest and most dedicated advocates. Twenty years on, I am more humbled than ever by their tireless work and deep commitment to their children’s future. They set an example for us all.
As we honor the accomplishments of those moving on, we’re also celebrating all that it took to get to this moment. And by expanding the life prospects of all students, we expand the basis for our own hope.