Journey to College Series: Introducing Our Students

By Robin Levi, Advisor
Students Rising Above

The following is the first installment of the Students Rising Above's College Application Journey series, which profiles four high school seniors as they overcome the odds and strive to become first-generation college students.

Every fall, high school seniors across the United States go through the sometimes tortuous process of applying to colleges. High school seniors in Students Rising Above (SRA) are no different, although many face challenges very different from most high school seniors. In fact, the vast majority are the first generation to attend college, they are all extremely low-income, and many attend severely under-resourced high schools, with overcrowded classes and little to no counselors.

SRA students are often one of the few students in their class and neighborhood to pursue a four-year college degree. Consequently, they must navigate this process with little guidance from family and friends.

Even more challenging, they regularly encounter unexpected obstacles such as not being able to fly to visit a college because they do not have a government ID. We could discuss these obstacles all day, but we thought it would be much better to share the compelling stories of our students.

Below is an introduction to four of SRA's Class of 2016 members who have graciously allowed us to follow them on their college application journey. We invite you to follow their experiences throughout the next several months as they work through the admissions and financial aid application process, participate in college visits, and ultimately make the final decision of which college they will choose to attend.

Gracie Charles, Wilcox High School
Santa Clara, CA

What Gracie Charles is most looking forward to in college is the opportunity to be a normal student. She can't wait for the day when she can focus on her classes, extra-curricular activities and even friends, rather than working 20+ hours a week and wondering where she will sleep that night. Gracie's dad is incarcerated and her mom is unable to take care of her, leaving her to move from home to home.

Gracie had a brief moment of stability in middle school, when she lived with her older brother for three straight years. But early in 9th grade, her brother's family needed more room so she had to leave. That also meant transferring from Wilcox High School to Santa Clara High. Before 11th grade, Gracie transferred back to Wilcox because it was closer to her job. Unfortunately, although she was registered for AP classes at Santa Clara High School, she could not get in to any AP classes at Wilcox at that late date.

Although Gracie still does not know week-to-week where she will sleep, she is enjoying this year so much more because she is only working one job (rather than her usual two). She also was able to get a few AP classes, making school much more interesting. While Gracie's schedule and transitory life doesn't leave much room for extra-curricular activities, she tutors two young women from her community and participates in Best Buddies, where she spends time with a mentally-challenged student at her school.

Julie Ho, Pinole Valley High School
Pinole, CA

Julie Ho's passion is helping others, of both the two-and four-legged varieties. Her eyes beam when she discusses passing out food to the homeless through City Eats, or volunteering at animal rescue organizations through the animal rights club she founded at Pinole Valley High School.

That's why it is particularly sad that Julie hasn't been able to build a relationship with any of her teachers. She had a bond with her 9th grade English teacher who inspired her to challenge herself, but that teacher has now left the school. In fact, Julie is not close enough to any of her teachers to know which one she will ask to write her college recommendations, despite being a top student.

Julie's parents struggle financially. Her father works as a landscaper only when Julie can find a job for him through Craigslist, and her mom is a manicurist. Julie works more than 20 hours a week at two jobs -- tutoring and Starbucks -- to help with family finances. She knows that attending (and more importantly graduating from) college is her pathway to opportunities her parents did not have, and how she can ultimately help people in difficult circumstances. Her dream job is to help people in a low-income community or in a developing country.

Ashley Johnson, Oakland Technical High School
Oakland, CA

Ashley Johnson has never listened to people telling her, "You can't." When she applied to Oakland Technical High School's rigorous and selective humanities program, Paideia, classmates told her that she wouldn't get in. When she did and struggled at first, they told her to quit. But she didn't -- and she kept getting better and continuing to challenge herself.

Ashley is also in the selective Health Academy, which helps students explore and prepare for careers in the health professions through taking classes, including Physiology and Medical Chemistry. Most significantly, Ashley heard about her current internship, the Community Health and Adolescent Mentoring Program for Success (CHAMPS), through the Health Academy.

Because Ashley needs to work more than 20 hours a week, between school and her internship, she doesn't have time for much else. For her first three years of high school, she found time to be a cheerleader, which she loved. Even though she is shy, being in the limelight forced Ashley to get outside of her comfort zone. Although Ashley has many academic awards to her credit, she is most proud of her Athlete of the Month award because it was the least expected.

Edwin Reyes, Sonoma Valley High School
Sonoma, CA

Edwin Reyes is an all-American boy, 21st-century style. Along with being student body president of Sonoma Valley High School, Edwin is also a three (and sometimes four) sport athlete. He is on the varsity soccer, basketball and track teams, and has been varsity all four years for both soccer and track.

Edwin is also committed to community service. When he couldn't find a job last summer, he called the local Boys and Girls Club, where he previously helped organize a rock climbing camp, to see if they needed any help. He was put to work helping to build the new teen center: painting walls, building furniture, among other tasks. Now he has a picture hanging on the legacy wall and is one of the nominees for Youth of the Year for Sonoma County.

Edwin was even also on the school newspaper, but had to quit because of the demands of being student body president. He loved the opportunity to share crucial information with the public and is hoping to pursue a career in journalism.

Each of these students is busily researching colleges to determine the best fit for helping them pursue their dreams. Please come back next month to hear where they are applying!