"She helped me a lot," Ruiz-Velasco says of her mentor. "I know when I have a problem or feel I can't continue, she will always have a smile for me and encourage me."
It's been a stressful senior year, says Ruiz-Velasco, between taking part in College Possible, maintaining her 3.9 grade point average, and working with her mother 11 hours every Saturday and Sunday for a cleaning company. She has been accepted to five colleges and is piecing together scholarships to pay for it, trying to avoid taking out loans. She is looking for a small, private college close to home so she can help out her family.
"What they can do, they will," says Ruiz-Velasco of her parents. "They have other problems to handle. I don't want to put more problems on them." Her biggest concern about college is performing well enough in English, since Spanish is her first language.
For David Cruz, a New York City public school student, the process of working with a nonprofit group to find a pathway to college began in the 6th grade through the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, which tries to help students like him in the Big Apple complete college. The program kept him busy in the summers with electives from which he learned how to run his own restaurant, design comics, and work with robotics. After school three days a week in middle school, two days a week in 9th and 10th grades, and once a week in 11th and 12th grades, the Harlem fund provided Cruz with extra help in the college-admissions process, from SAT preparation to scholarship searching. He also participated on its robotics team as a senior, which required him to take part in Saturday sessions from October through March.
"There was a time when I felt coming to HEAF was overwhelming," says Cruz, who had conflicts with sports and other activities. "I felt like I was not able to deal with it all. But I was able to sit down and figure out what I really wanted to do and I continued coming because I knew being here would open up different opportunities. ... I saw academics as more important."
Cruz was raised by his single mother, who is from Honduras. His father is Dominican. To accommodate the diverse backgrounds of its participants, the Harlem fund offers parent conferences in English and Spanish. Through the program, Cruz estimates he has visited nearly 30 campuses and after weighing numerous offers, he decided to study engineering at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pa.
Involving families as early as middle school is vital to increasing educational attainment for Latino students, says Anne-Marie Nunez, an assistant professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio. "If parents aren't familiar with college, they are apprehensive about their children going," she says.
Many are recent immigrants and don't realize the difference between community colleges and universities. Research shows that many Hispanics "undermatch," not choosing a four-year college even though they are eligible, says Nunez. That tendency may be linked to a desire to stay close to home or to concern over finances. Latino students often lack financial literacy, overestimate the cost of college, and tend to be loan-averse, says Nunez. While a pay-as-you-go approach has its merits, students are less likely to finish a degree if they attend part time or if they start at a community college.
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