By Lillian Mongeau
It’s 7 a.m. at Pigeon Point, a rocky beach 30 miles north of Santa Cruz. The chilly grey sky swirls overhead as 52 high school students grab clipboards and buckets and clamber into the frigid waters.
I get the attention of the kids’ marine biology instructor, Amanda Cohen. She’s handing out equipment and urging kids towards the water. Like the students, she’s clad in a thick neoprene wetsuit.
In the Field Wading
“It’s one thing for them to see it in the aquarium,” Cohen says. “It’s another thing to get out here and discover what’s on the rocks, what’s under the rocks and kind of get over that fear of being in the water.”
This tidepooling trip comes mid-way through a month-long residential program meant to give these kids a boost on their way to college. The program is called Math and Science Upward Bound. To qualify, kids must come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year or be part of the first generation in their families to attend college. Two thirds are both. They pay nothing to attend.
Suddenly squeals erupt nearer the water. Tens are shouting: “What is it!?” “I don’t know put it back!”
The subject of all this terror is a dark pink…creature. They’ve scared it, so it’s curled into a ball the size and shape of a brain. A few kids think it probably is a brain. They call Cohen over to straighten things out.
“So what I think you guys found is a gumboot chiton,” Cohen says. “He’s all curled up because he’s keeping his guts protected.”
Janine Wilson runs the summer program. She wants students to get a taste of the college life. She says the program is so intense the students have to want to be there if they’e going to succeed.
“They spend all day in school. They have two hours of recreation in the afternoon, and in evening, it’s back to study hall and guest speakers, and presentations.”
Julia Ramirez is a program graduate and current instructor. She says wanting to go to college and knowing how to get there are not the same thing.
“Ever since I was little, like my mom would always tell me…, ‘I came here and I have no other option but to be a housekeeper,’ because that’s the only job she could get,” Ramirez says. ” She would always tell me, ‘I want you to go to college, I want you to get an education,’ … but I didn’t know how to get there.”
A Little Help Can Go A Long Way
Ramirez is a junior in college now. She credits Upward Bound with showing her the way.
“I was really happy when I got in the program because it was just like wow, like this is how you get there? Oh my God, I would’ve never figured this out on my own,” she says.
Many don’t figure it out. Just over half of low-income high school graduates even enroll in college. Of kids who participate in the Santa Cruz Upward Bound summer program, 91 percent enroll. But even when low-income students get to college, many don’t make it through. A Pell Institute study on college completion shows that only one in 10 low-income college students graduate in six years. In contrast, eight in 10 graduates of the Santa Cruz summer program stay in college through senior year.
Back at the beach, student Kajdro Ned is standing on the shore, shivering in a short-sleeved wetsuit.
“I feel like a marine biologist,” Ned says. “Like I got promoted. From a high school student, to a marine biologist, yeah.”
Feeling like that, program leaders say, allows Ned and students like her to envision themselves as professional scientists. A vision that can turn into a concrete career goal. A goal that will pull students all the way through college.