By Lillian Mongeau
When a group of college freshmen give a group of high school seniors a campus tour, they cover the important things first: co-ed restrooms.
“So you can shower and a girl’s doing her hair, or if you’re a girl you can go in, and a guy’s shaving…” Adam Villa-Lobos earns laughs with this.
It’s a cool evening in October at U.C. Santa Cruz. Both the students getting the tour and the students giving it hail from Pomona near Los Angeles. They are all part of a program called Bright Prospect, that focuses on getting low-income kids into college. Villa-Lobos is one of the guide. He says college was pretty far from his mind when he was 14.
“I always thought, ‘How can I care about school when I go back to a home full of about 15 people and my cousins who are gang-related and they always smoke weed and drink,’” he says. “I saw my cousins doing stuff like that and all I know in the back of my head was, I don’t want to do like that, that’s something I just don’t want to do. ”
A change in what’s possible
But Villa-Lobos says he didn’t know how to do anything else, so he had a hard time feeling invested in school. One day, a teacher plunked down a stack of college pamphlets in front of him.
“I saw U.C. Santa Cruz on top of the pamphlets and I’m like, that’s not a school,” he says. “You’re telling me there’s schools, there’s classrooms inside the forest? She’s like, yeah.”
Villa-Lobos says the notion that he could go to school in the woods changed what he understood as possible. He had a goal to shoot for now: U.C. Santa Cruz. When he heard of a non-profit called Bright Prospect that would help him reach his goal, he signed right up.
The program provides college advising and financial help. But Director Timothy Sandoval says the most important thing they provide is a community committed to getting each Bright Prospect student to college.
“We can’t approach college as an individual family,” Sandoval says. “That hasn’t worked for our community.”
Turning around college retention
The Bright Prospect program is working. Nearly all of the high school students they support matriculate into college. And 95 percent of those who start college graduate within 6 years. Nationally, only 11 percent of low-income college students graduate in that time.
But Sandoval says many of their graduates still weren’t able to find work. It’s not just that the economy is tough.
“They just, again, don’t have the advantage of having an uncle or an aunt or a cousin or an older brother or sister who’s very well-connected to opportunities, so we have to help them build those opportunities,” he says.
Villa-Lobos seems to be a perfect example of this need.
“I can’t call my parents and I can’t call my brothers or sisters and say like, ‘how do you talk to your professor?’” he says, “because I’m the first sibling in my family to go to college. And the way I can do that is basically with people in my Crew.”
So, in 2009, Bright Prospect began actively teaching networking skills. Now, kids from different high schools who attend the same college are put into groups the summer before they start. These groups are called Crews and they are meant to lean on each other and provide the seed for building a bigger network by graduation.
It seems to be working for Villa-Lobos. Recently he found one of his classes difficult and brought it up with a classmate who is also a fellow crew member: “He’s like let’s go talk to the professor. And I was like, it’s kind of awkward. But he’s like, let’s just go, we need help. So, we go talk to the professor and it was just easy – a simple conversation. And I think the fact that I had someone to rely during college, it makes everything easier.”
Easy enough, the hope is, that Villa-Lobos will make it through graduation and all the way to his next goal: to work at Pixar.