Photo by Emmanuel Bravo
Posters list the names of students at Mendez Learning Center who have applied to college./ Photo by Emmanuel Bravo

With the deadlines for college applications and financial aid finally behind them, stressed-out Boyle Heights seniors can enjoy spending their last few months in high school hanging out with friends, attending prom and grad night, and –for more and more of them– opening college acceptance letters.

College is becoming increasingly common for all U.S. high school graduates, with 70 percent enrolling in 2009, compared with 63 percent a decade before, according to the Census Bureau. That’s true in Boyle Heights, too, where many young people are poised to become the first in their families to go to college.

More California students graduate from high school today than 10 years ago. According to the California Department of Education, California’s high school graduation rate was 74.3 percent for the 2009-2010 school year, up from 69 percent a decade before. But in Boyle Heights, only 16 percent of residents over 25 have completed high school, according to a Los Angeles Almanac analysis of U.S. Census data. Only three percent of residents over 25 have a bachelor’s degree.

Angie Valenzuela, 17, a senior at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center, is one of the new wave of college bound Boyle Heights seniors. Already accepted to Cal State Fullerton, she awaits other acceptance letters. “Nobody in my family has ever gone to college,” she says, “but I’m glad to say I have received my first acceptance letter from a university.”

At Theodore Roosevelt High School, a counselor says the number of applications to college has tripled compared with last year. At Mendez Learning Center, which opened in 2009, 90 percent of seniors applied either to community or four-year colleges.

In Boyle Heights, nearly three-quarters of Roosevelt’s 500 seniors met the minimum requirements to apply to four-year institutions, including campuses of the California State University and University of California systems and private universities. Three-quarters of seniors from Mendez also qualified for four-year institutions.

Over the years, Teresa Carreto, Roosevelt’s college/career counselor, has witnessed many students overcome financial difficulties to pursue an education.

Mendez Learning Center Academic Coordinator Martha Ramirez, who works with 101 seniors, sees students putting a lot of time and effort into anything college-related. “Students are coming into the college center spending their nutrition, their lunch break, and after school hours here,” she says.

Help from Gear Up
Many students at Roosevelt and Mendez also receive help with the college application process from Gear Up, a federally funded program that assists low-income high school students prepare for college. The organization provides tutoring and workshops and teaches students to become leaders.

Gear Up Director Marcelo Vazquez worked for 15 years in the admissions departments of the University of California and California State University before joining Gear Up. He has been working with East Los Angeles seniors since they were in the seventh grade.

Participants in Gear Up, such as Mendez Senior David Gonzalez, say the program gives students hope about their college prospects.

Photo by Emmanuel Bravo

Gonzalez, who applied to Boston University and the University of Southern California, says, “My biggest motivation for going to college is the idea of being successful in the future. I always had the idea that if I go to college, I would get a good job.”

For some students, however, attending a four-year college is not financially feasible. Undocumented students, for instance, are excluded from federal financial help. A 17-year-old Roosevelt student said he did not apply to college because he is undocumented. Still, he doesn’t want to give up his goal of majoring in mechanical engineering, so he plans to start at a community college, which is less expensive, and later transfer to a university.

An 18-year-old Roosevelt senior who is also undocumented applied to state universities despite her inability to qualify for government help. She says she is “overwhelmed” because federal financial aid is unavailable, but she is applying for private scholarships.

While seniors await acceptance and financial aid letters, many hope their hard work and effort can lead to an education that many in their community never had the chance to receive.
“For a low-income community such as Boyle Heights, it’s understandable that many families struggle financially,” says Roosevelt’s counselor, Carreto, “yet education is the only solution to these problems.”
Read more on College Road here.

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